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A beginner's guide to lossless audio

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We've come a long way since the humble MPMan brought a portable, digital music system to a mass market. It flopped. But then came the Rio PMP300 and the idea of a digital future gained steam. In the time since we have seen iPods come and go, Walkmen rise from the ashes and a continuing debate on how it’s all irrelevant because nothing will ever be as good as vinyl. Well that argument just got a whole lot more interesting with the arrival of affordable lossless digital audio players like the FiiO X3ii; now you can listen to the true sound of uncompressed music the way it was meant to be heard! But what exactly do we mean by that? What is digital compression and how does it affect your audio experience? Why is lossless preferable to lossey? Why must this new digital age always come with impenetrable technical terms? I know from experience that this subject can be quite daunting but we here at AV Shop will do our best to explain to you why lossless audio will make your listening experience so much richer and how you can dip your toes in this exciting new world. [caption id="attachment_37" align="aligncenter" width="280"] A world of bumps.[/caption]

Digital audio; a very, very brief history.

I’ve heard of .mp3, you’ve heard of .mp3, we’ve all heard the term .mp3; a file type whose name has become the standard for digital audio players. Well, the .mp3 format was originally designed to reduce the file size of digital music due to the limitations of computer memory at the time. It did this by using mathematical algorithms to remove and reduce the recorded elements that the human ear couldn’t effectively perceive (such as the very high and the very low). The resulting .mp3 files were roughly 1/11th the size of their sources, a huge improvement and one that laid the groundwork for the internet based music industry we see today. The smaller size of these files meant that they were far easier to download, exchange and store across the pre-broadband internet. However, this rapid spread across the web was seen by some as being detrimental to the source audio (and therefore the music itself). By eliminating high and low frequencies, its detractors blamed .mp3 for making the listening experience bland and unfulfilling. What had once been vibrant music was now nothing but lifeless, texture-less sound. At the front of these complaints were the musicians themselves, Lou Reed being a particularly vocal critic as he actively called for higher digital audio standards. This, coupled with massive advancements in digital storage capability, gave an opening for the commercial viability of lossless audio.

So what is lossless audio?

Lossless files come in all manner of shapes and sizes; from FLAC to AAC via APE and ALAC to name a few. There are so many that whichever you choose pretty much boils down to personal preference; though most feel that as FLAC has the highest sample rate it therefore gives the most authentic reproduction. What binds them all together is that they aim to store digital audio at source quality, meaning that what you hear is what was meant to be heard. Of course, this also means that each file will be considerably larger than those of its .mp3 counterpart but this disadvantage is offset by advances in memory storage. We arguably no longer need .mp3 compression any more because the reasons for its initial creation (small storage capabilities, slow internet, expensive decoders) are no longer valid. To put this into context, when the iPod was first released it came in either 5 or 10 GB models whereas the recent FiiO X5ii has a full capability of 256 GB memory (with future updates promising more). That’s a lot of space, even for lossless files. [caption id="attachment_43" align="aligncenter" width="347"]The FiiO X3ii 6400 songs worth, to be precise (based on 2 x 1268gb cards).[/caption]

Why should I listen to lossless?

That's the big question, and a debate that still rages across the internet. Ask any audiophile and they will likely give you any number of reasons ranging from ‘hearing a pure representation of the music’ to ‘an enhanced soundstage’. This roughly means that they feel they can hear music more naturally in a lossless format than as .mp3 because a lossless file will present the sound in its full frequency range; much like the real world does. You could even say that if the goal of audio reproduction is to represent the source as authentically as possible then there is little competition, lossless wins. As a musician, this stuff interests me immensely; but there are also reasons beyond the aesthetic for upgrading your files. Storing your audio as lossless will future-proof it against any and all developments in audio technology. By effectively being a copy of the source, you can happily convert lossless files into lossey (including .mp3s) and any future formats as much as you like. However, it doesn’t work the other way as you can’t convert lossey files into lossless. Well, technically you can but it is a bit like folding a painting to fit through a letterbox and then opening it on the other side; the art is permanently creased, it remains an inferior copy. These are all equally valid (and in many cases, equally refuted) points for taking the plunge. Still, for me there is one reason to upgrade your listening quality that trumps all others; you can. Never before has it been so easy and inexpensive to buy a lossless player and experience clear, defined music wherever you want. Companies like FiiO are pushing the boundaries of cost efficient players and with the X1 have created a remarkable DAP (that will easily handle all your lossless needs) for under £100. Importing your old CD collection (should you still have one!) into your computer as a lossless will no longer consume your entire hard drive, merely requiring a little change in your iTunes settings. Even if you have sold that last Genesis CD, there are various sources our there for buying and downloading high definition music though HD Tracks would be a good start as they offer you some free samples to get your collection going. The only thing left to do is take the plunge! AV Shop sells a full range of FiiO audio devices to click here to check them out.

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