Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A way to unlock music's true sound

Media servers let owners store and transfer digital files with their full CD quality -- something typical downloads lack.

January 04, 2008|Kevin Hunt | Hartford Courant

Would you pay showroom prices for a new car whose maximum highway speed was 25 mph?

Would you buy a high-definition television that could display only low-definition pictures?

Would you pay crabmeat prices for imitation crabmeat?

No? Then why are so many people paying top dollar (or cents) to download music that's only a fraction of a CD's quality?

Because convenience and portability trumps quality in our Apple-centric world. And because the music sounds perfectly fine walking down Main Street with an iPod and earbuds or on a laptop's speakers at home. Play these digital files on even a modest home-theater system, however, and you'll hear the life sucked out of the music.

An agreement in October between Olive Media and Music- Giants envisions a vastly different consumption of digital music, whereby owners of media servers (like Olive's) download CD-quality music files (like MusicGiants') that are also freed from the restraints of Digital Rights Management.

In that rosy scenario, those iTunes-type downloads would be the consumer's property, no longer imprisoned by your computer and iPod. The owner could listen to the digital files -- with no loss of the original CD's fidelity -- through a sound system fed by the music server, transfer them at lower quality to an iPod for everyday use or burn the files to a disc, then bury it in the backyard.

Such freedom!

Of course, none of that is possible now at an iTunes outpost, where standard-issue 99-cent downloads discard about 90% of a song's data from the CD. The fine print shows the downloads at 128 kilobits per second. Last year, Apple (and Amazon.com) started selling DRM-free files at 256 kbps -- touting the versatility of these unencrypted files and, yes, their enhanced audio quality.

The CD, at 1,411 kbps, has more than five times the resolution of those "enhanced" files. It's like comparing an old-fashioned analog television and a new HDTV. See the difference?

Olive, a San Francisco company, started selling German-made music servers a couple years ago, but its partnership with MusicGiants arrives as a dramatic counterpoint to the iTunes formula. It's a niche now, maybe forever, because what's good for Apple is also good for the major music companies, who would rather sell low-quality, encrypted music files. It's called protecting their investment.

Unless, that is, people demand something better. For now, MusicGiants attracts fans of unencrypted hi-rez jazz (Concord Music Group), classical (Naxos), blues (Alligator) and indies (Razor & Tie). Pop, as in the most popular music in the United States, is a no-show, other than the Paul McCartney-led downloads from the EMI catalog.

Cost: $1.29 per tune, a 30-cent premium over the Amazon and Apple prices, and about $15 per album. All of the downloads use a compression called lossless, which means no information is lost. The downside: These files consume a lot more space on a hard drive than an anemic 128 kbps file.

Media servers are almost certainly the future in music (and video) storage. The Olive Musica I've been trying out, since renamed the Opus No. 3, looks like a cable TV box but is an all-purpose music control center. The No. 3, which starts at $1,099 with a 160-gigabyte hard drive that can store more than 450 albums at full CD resolution, can transfer songs to -- or from -- an iPod.

Slip a CD into the Opus No. 3, and it displays, from its stored database, the album, title and artist information. It can play the CD or rip its content to its hard drive. To add more music, just add an external hard drive.

It has four ethernet connections. It can also connect directly to some turntables and automatically turn that 33.3 rpm music into a digital file. From its USB connection, it can transfer playlists from your computer, stream music or summon your favorite Internet radio station.

This simple-to-use device could find a place next to a cable box in American homes.

Do-it-yourself types already have made servers from a Mac Mini, external hard drives and either a sound card or digital-to-analog converter that connects directly to a sound system.

Turns out there's more than one way to get real crabmeat.

--

Hunt is the Courant's consumer electronics columnist.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|