April 25, 2014

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Where Are the Legal Lossless Downloads?

I must have been very nice last year, because Santa brought me a Sonos Connect Wireless HiFi System and Network Attached Storage (NAS) with Wake-on-LAN for Christmas. This particular combination of hardware can mean only one thing: I will spend the waning days of 2012 and the beginning days of 2013 ripping my entire CD collection (which is not small) into lossless files. After poring over audiophile blogs and lurking on discussion forums, I chose FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) as the format for my ripping binge. FLAC has the great virtue of combining openness with losslessness, and it seems to be the coin of the realm for the digital audiophile set. I’ve been using dbPoweramp as my ripper, and it’s all been going very well. Albeit not perfectly. There is the occasional track that for whatever reason—some physical defect in the disc or some blip in the ripping or the encoding—I cannot get FLAC-ed. Last night’s file, as it happens, was Fine Young Cannibals’ “Couldn’t Care More.”  No matter how much I tweaked the ripping and encoding settings, I couldn’t get a proper lossless copy. So I decided to do what any law-abiding music consumer would do in my situation: I searched the Internet far and wide for a paid (i.e., legal) lossless download of the song. I would have bought FLAC or ALAC or anything else lossless. Reader, I searched in vain. I don’t know why this surprised me, knowing what I do about the supply-side causes of digital piracy. But it did. I found more than one adware-bloated torrent for the FLAC version, but I couldn’t find the authorized article in anything but lossy format from Amazon or iTunes. I could, I suppose, just buy a new CD and try my luck again, but that seems a little perverse, given that the whole beauty of the digital download model is track-by-track purchasing. And I already bought the whole CD once.

The rationale we get from the Big Four (music labels) for why we shouldn’t pirate music is that reasonably priced legal alternatives are widely available. That’s true if you’re talking about MP3 or some other lossy format. I’d like to know why legal lossless downloads aren’t more widely available, especially as networked storage gets cheaper, bandwidth gets wider, and devices like Sonos make their way into more people’s homes. There are a (very) few sites out there that provide paid lossless downloads. HDTracks is one, but, alas, “Couldn’t Care More” is not available there. If I can rip music from my CDs and encode it losslessly to stream through my high-quality home stereo speakers, why can’t I buy music from Amazon or iTunes in the form of lossless downloads?  I’m waiting to see if Neil Young’s Pono project will somehow alter the mass-market music download status quo. Something should. I don’t see myself going back to vinyl, but music lovers should collectively be able to look forward to something finer than MP3.

Comments

  1. Bill Bumgarner says:

    Quite a few bands or independent labels offer lossless encoding as an option when purchasing downloadable content.

    http://www.phish.com offers FLAC, ALAC, and 24-bit “higher quality than CD” FLAC downloads.

    Many of the bands on bandcamp.com (including WOOB, whose 1194 was one of the seminal albums in the ambient electronica scene in the early ’90s) offer FLAC and ALAC at no extra charge (in fact, a lot of their albums are “pay what you want”).

    Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records — http://womadshop.com — offers a ton of content in various lossless formats.

    The stuff is out there but, yeah, the big label stuff is pretty much non-existent.

  2. pete.d says:

    All good points. But there still remains the question about not being able to encode that specific song in FLAC.

    If you can’t read the song data off the CD at all, then that seems “reasonable”. But in that case, you’ve got a defective CD and wouldn’t be able to listen to it anyway. (Though, if it’s an issue of the read-side of the disc being scratched, some patient time spent with a gentle abrasive — toothpaste actually works well — can eventually polish the scratch out).

    But if you can read the data from the disc (e.g. just rip it as a plain WAV file), then it’s hard to understand why the song can’t be encoded as FLAC. What kind of codec can’t encode whatever arbitrary data is thrown at it? You might want to try other codecs, at least for that song.

    On a related, but not-entirely-pertinent note…

    Frankly, I’ve found “lossless” to be over-rated. Years ago, before ripping my CD library, I did a bunch of A/B tests (using high-quality headphones) on “interesting” songs, and learned that while I can tell the difference between WMA 128Kbps and 192Kbps, bit-rates above that showed no difference. In the same test, I found that AAC and WMA produce very similar results at the same bit-rate, but MP3 required a higher bit-rate before I couldn’t notice the losses (e.g. while 192Kbps was fine for WMA and AAC, I needed MP3 to be at 256Kbps before it sounded to me as good as the WMA and AAC at lower bit-rates). Not too surprising, considering WMA and AAC both refine the basic techniques used in MP3, and so ought to be more efficient.

    I suppose others may have a more discerning ear than I do, but for me, the lossless formats are just a waste of storage space.

  3. dr2chase says:

    You might try using iTunes to rip to AIFF with error correction turned on, then convert from AIFF.

    You might also want to do a little blind+randomized testing to see if you can tell the difference between high-quality MP3 and lossless — audiophiles are well-known for spending a lot of time and money on everything except checking the quality of their own ears. No sense wasting time on something that will have no actual use to you.

    • Annemarie Bridy says:

      That worked! (Or, with appropriate emphasis: “That totally worked!”) Thanks. I don’t flatter myself in the ear quality department, but most of my collection has never actually made its way onto a hard drive in any format, so I figure I might as well do it lossless, since space isn’t a factor. There is the added inconvenience (and space consumption) of having to batch convert to MP3 for portability to a smartphone. But, again, space isn’t a factor. And I live in northern Idaho now, so I don’t trouble myself too much anymore when things take a long time…

      • Kevin Marks says:

        If space isn’t an issue, rip to uncompressed. It is far more resilient and compatible than flac et al, and much more stable against bit errors.

      • dr2chase says:

        Ah, we [totally!] live for these moments.

        If you want to get the most out of your lossless recordings, you’ll need to be pretty aggressive about avoiding loud noises (guns, machine rooms, loud music, fast driving with the window down). Not much to be done for bad genes.

  4. Thomas Savary says:

    Hello!

    As Bill Bumgarner said, many labels sell their albums in lossless formats. But if you don’t have time to visit many websites, try Qobuz. It’s a French site and probably among the best ones in the world, if not just the best! Their whole catalogue (about 8 millions tracks) is available in CD quality, and many new albums in better quality (24 bit, 96 kHz, for instance, sometimes even better).

    http://www.qobuz.com/

    If you cannot speak French:
    http://www.findhdmusic.com/help/?t=qobuz
    http://www.gearslutz.com/board/so-much-gear-so-little-time/681335-goodbye-spotify-hello-qobuz.html

    I’ve just checked: Qobuz has Could’nt Care More:
    http://www.qobuz.com/album/fine-young-cannibals-fine-young-cannibals/0639842964166

    Forget Amazon and iTunes, anyway: they couldn’t care less about music!

    .

    • Annemarie Bridy says:

      Fantastic! Thanks for the link to Qobuz. Good thing I picked up that minor in French in college…

    • Annemarie Bridy says:

      I got the following pop-up from Qobuz when I tried to initiate a “telechargement”:

      This article is not available in your country yet (UNITED STATES)

      Cet article n’est pas encore disponible en téléchargement dans votre pays (UNITED STATES)
      Si vous êtes résident en France (ou DOM-TOM) et / ou disposez d’un mode de paiement émis en France (ou DOM-TOM), contactez le service clients.
      Si vous avez besoin d’aide, contactez-nous.

      How do you navigate your purchases on Qobuz from outside France?

      • Thomas Savary says:

        Hello Annemarie!

        Oh! I’m sorry that it doesn’t work from the United States, I did not know — what a shame! But maybe not Qobuz’s fault (perhaps some clause in an agreement between the Big Four and Qobuz).

        Maybe you could try through a French proxy: http://www.aliveproxy.com/fr-proxy-list/

        But I am afraid that this won’t work either, because they say you have to pay from France. Unless you use PayPal, perhaps: at least this should work. See this page:
        http://www.computeraudiophile.com/f13-audiophile-downloads/qobuz-12260/
        (comments 11 through 13).

        Good luck!

        • Thomas Savary says:

          Small correction on Qobuz: I did not know, but unfortunately the purchase of single tracks in lossless quality is not permitted, only in lossy quality. For lossless quality — not to speak of the studio masters —, you have to buy the whole album. I had not noticed it until now, because I always buy whole albums. But that’s a stupid restriction. I hope that Qobuz will remove it one day. Maybe if there are enough complaints about that…

        • Thomas Savary says:

          Recent announcement on Qobuz: “Beaucoup de nos travaux en 2012 vont livrer leurs résultats en ce début d’année 2013. Le téléchargement à la piste en “Vraie Qualité CD” (oui, ce n’est pas trop tôt…). ” Which means that it will soon be possible to buy single tracks in CD quality. Better late than never!

          http://www.qobuz.com/blogs/qobuzblog/2013/01/01/2013-vive-2013/

          Greetings!

  5. Bob says:

    I would like to comment on the use of the word “lossless”. The word is typically used to describe a format that does not have audio information removed according to psychoacoustic algorithms that try to predict what most human ears consider to “sound good”. Commonly, MP3 is considered a lossy format, while FLAC is considered to be a lossless format.

    The conundrum appears when one looks at a CD, with its 44.1/16 encoding. One could argue that the CD format is indeed “lossy” because of its limited capability to convey audio information (it is late 1970′s digital technology). So, while a CD is “uncompressed”, it may be “lossy” when compared to the master from which it was created.

    On the other hand, FLAC is compressed, but it is lossless. Much like the ZIP files we all use on our computers.

    Clearly, the terminology used to describe the quality of digital audio formats, with all the inherent contradictions, happened more by accident than by design.

    OK, having said all that, here is another artist that provides high-quality lossless downloads.
    http://dl.nin.com/theslip/signup
    From that page (once you sign up), you can download 96/24 digital audio, without charge. I must say, the sound quality is quite nice. :) But I also admit, NIN is an acquired taste.

    One other recommendation I would make for you, is to try ripping the CD on a different computer. The variability in the quality of CD drives in notebooks is amazing.

    (this is my first comment on this most august site, I hope it was helpful)

    • BertBert says:

      I was thinking along similar lines. The fact that most audio compression is ‘lossy’ is not bad on its own at all.

      The tapes that are used to record music are (supposedly) of much higher quality than a CD can contain, so a CD is lossy as well. Compromises had to be made when designing the CD (like fitting Beethoven’s 9th symphony on it) that might have to be rethought.

      Instead of a ~30MB FLAC song created from CD, it might be better to have a same size MP3/OGG/whatever created from those original tapes.

      So the question can even be: why aren’t there higher-than-CD-quality digital downloads?

  6. Eric Pruett says:

    The whole reason we’re in this mess of Audio CDs not being able to create bit perfect copies of our music has its roots in early engineering decisions of the CD Audio (CDA) format, when the biggest concern was cost and power consumption of portable CD players, since it had to compete in the market with the smaller audio tape based walkman. Basically, error correction is used in CD ROM format discs, while dumb interpolation is used in CDA format. This is why some audio CDs cannot rip properly, while your copy of Windows 98 will read just fine.

    “A CD-ROM sector contains 2,352 bytes, divided into 98 24-byte frames. Unlike a music CD, a CD-ROM cannot rely on error concealment by interpolation, and therefore requires a higher reliability of the retrieved data. In order to achieve improved error correction and detection, a CD-ROM has a third layer of Reed–Solomon error correction.[4]”
    - From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CD_ROM

    The end result is that a standard CDA CD has a capacity of 74 minutes (682MB), while a CD-ROM has a capacity of only 650MB. The ‘missing’ data is used for error correction in the CD-ROM format.

    The reason that ‘ripping from iTunes’ works is that CD rom drives have an ‘audio output’ which reads the disc as if it were a CDA format disc such that it rejects words which are unlikely (immediate jumps in the data which are not smooth), and uses interpolation to guess what these values should have been. Therefore, the interpolation causes this method to succeed at ripping discs while other ripping programs (EAC, for instance) fail as a result of seeing the error. I’m not sure what the ‘error correction’ flag in iTunes does, but my guess is that it detects these errors and attempts to read that sector again a few times to get the real word value instead of using the CD-ROM drive’s interpolation. I’m not certain of that though.

    I have actually had brand new discs that I have bought which are not readable by EAC, some of which have errors large enough to induce audible clicks in the audio even when using interpolation (ripping through iTunes).

    Many thanks to the Qobuz link, makes me wish I took French instead of German. Anyone know a VPN service in France that would work?

    • Thomas Savary says:

      Hello Eric!

      Vermiss doch nicht, die deutsche Sprache gewählt zu haben: meiner Meinung nach ist Deutsch viel schöner , und deutlicher als Französisch, meine Muttersprache. (Translation. — Do not regret having chosen German: German is in my opinion much nicer and clearer than French, my native language.)

      Thanks for the information about differences between CDA and CD-ROM. Regarding your question about working VPN services in France, I don’t know, sorry. Despite some restrictions (the availability of CD and Studio Master quality for entire albums only not being a small one), I still think it is an excellent online music store, especially for classical music. So I think it’s worth looking for a good VPN or proxy server. By the way, Qobuz seems to be fully available for Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, which slightly increases your chances of finding working VPN or proxies.

      Good luck!

  7. Joe McCauley says:

    I’m with the “lossless is overrated” crowd on this one. If a CD is ripped properly (no error correction, no burst mode) and the resulting .wav file is encoded using VBR 200 or better, the resulting .mp3 file is good enough that very few listeners can identify the difference in a blind side-by-side comparison, and those who can can only do so using high-end equipment. There are far worse things the producers and record companies do when mastering the releases before they even make it onto CD, not least of which is the clipping that results from pushing the loudness, as is all too common not only on new releases but on remasters of classic recordings.