Written by 6:00 am Audiophile Music • 14 Comments

Is One Audio Format Better Than Another?

Mark Smotroff wonders if format preference is a lifestyle choice…

AR-MarkZappaLumpy225.jpgAudiophiles frequently argue that some audio formats have significant advantages over others. But when you step back and look at it from an eight mile high perspective, your choice ultimately comes down to personal preference and lifestyle needs. 

If you have the trained (or simply sensitive) ear which likes that certain special something you get from a pure analog listen — that sense of sonic warmth eveloping your music — then you’re going to lean towards formats such as vinyl LPs, (analog) magnetic tape and genuinely high resolution, lossless digital audio formats which better approximate that experience. And, you’ll do this without concern for convenience, portability and other lifestyle features.

AR-AntiqueGrammophone225.jpgIf you value convenience, design and portability over all other aspects of the listening process, then some sort of digital format will probably be appealing to you regardless of any inherent… lets call them “sonic differences.” 

What do I do, you ask?  Well, I am obviously not the average consumer. I have so much music in my life and collection so large that a purely digital, computer-driven album collection doesn’t make a lot of sense for me. I don’t live on my computer 24 / 7 — although some of my friends might argue otherwise. And despite the growth of online digital music as a bonafide form factor — I recognize its a thing, as they say — I find the process of managing music files a big drag and, frankly, a hassle. Don’t get me wrong:  I have ton of digital music across genres!  But I don’t listen to them very much as they take up so much hard drive space and thus they are relegated to back up drives which I connect to my computer on an as-needed basis (long story, but I have my reasons for doing so, mostly due to technical failings from the power companies).   

AR-BluRayLogo225.jpgI am fortunate enough to still have a CD player in my car and more times than not I will burn a CD copy of a download to listen to while driving around town (especially for new releases)… Sometimes I will make sure to pick up a CD copy of the album in addition to the LP version if a download is not included. For long travels I will load up a bunch of music on my beefy iPad and play music from that through my car’s stereo. My cell phone is very old so I don’t use it much for music these days, alas. Maybe when I upgrade once this one eventually gives out I’ll use it more for music… we’ll see…

I have multiple turntables (and even a couple 78 players!) so a lot of vinyl and shellac discs from different eras get played here. Still, I am also a pretty deep home theater and surround music enthusiast so there is plenty of multi-channel media in my life including Blu-ray, DVD, DVD Audio, SACD and DTS discs. 

AR-TidalLogo225.jpgWhat about streaming, you ask? Well, I currently have a subscription to Tidal which I use and generally like, though my experiences there are mixed. The service itself is fine for the most part but the quality of the music varies dramatically depending on what the studios provide and also how it gets delivered to me via my ISP. The MQA streams on Tidal can sound pretty great, but not always.

For home use in my office, Tidal is just ducky. When I’m connected to Wi-Fi, it’s super convenient and especially useful for research and comparative listening (through a Mytek Brooklyn DAC, in case you are wondering). However, I don’t see this as a good option my for mobile use.  

AR-MQALogo225.jpgAnd, apart from a handful of titles streaming in MQA format which sounded superior, I still think I would rather have a high-quality download or high-resolution physical disc format such as Blu-ray for critical listening. To that, in the weeks ahead I’ll be sharing some thoughts around physical media at a time when much of the industry is moving toward the virtual. Again there is no right or wrong answer here. Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preferences and lifestyle choices. 

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