I recently received an e-mail asking me to weigh in on the controversy over whether lossless data-compression systems such as FLAC, Meridian's MLP (the basis for Dolby TrueHD), and Windows Media Audio (WMA) Lossless degrade fidelity.
It's an easy matter to prove that the datastream coming out of these systems contains the same bits as what went in. That is, all lossless schemes deliver perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source data. But we all know that identical data can sound different - jitter (timing errors) in the clock that controls the digital-to-analog conversion process can introduce analog-like variations in sound quality.
But how do these lossless systems sound in critical listening tests through a reference-quality playback system?
I recently had the opportunity to evaluate FLAC and WMA Lossless in my special report on music servers that will appear in The Absolute Sound Issue 177 (December). As part of that 24-page report, I review the Sooloos (above,left)and Qsonix (above, right) servers. Sooloos uses FLAC, and Qsonix employs WMA Lossless.
Auditioning these servers also gave me the opportunity to explore the question of whether music files streamed from a hard-disk drive sound better than the same music read from the CD that was originally used to rip the file. It's counter-intuitive to think that a copy could be better than the original, but many listeners contend that a CD-R copy of a CD sounds better than the CD from which it was made.
My conclusion was that not only are FLAC and WMA Lossless sonically transparent, but the music files read from the servers sounded better than the CDs from which those files were made.
On the next page are the first few paragraphs of an article that accompanies the music server feature addressing this question. The rest of the article details the reasons why.
You can read the entire music-server coverage in The Absolute Sound Issue 177, which hits newsstands onOctober 30.
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From The Absolute Sound Issue 177 December 2007
"Do Hard-Disk Drives Sound Better than CD?"
There's been much discussion about the sound quality of CD vs. files made from that CD played back from a hard-disk drive. Many contend that hard-disk drives sound better, much as CD-Rs sound better than the source CD from which the CD-R was made.
I compared the sound of Sooloos (above, left) and Qsonix (above, right) against a state-of-the-art CD transport (the Esoteric P-03) by alternately feeding the music server under evaluation and the CD transport to an Esoteric D-03 digital-to-analog converter through the same digital interconnect.
Listening to music from Sooloos and from the same CD that I had just imported, I heard a subtle, but noticeable improvement in sound quality from Sooloos. I heard more space, air, bloom, and soundstage depth when the audio data were read from a hard drive rather than from a CD. The hard-drive-sourced sound had better resolution of low-level detail, particularly reverb decay, which is why the presentation sounded more airy and spacious.
The presentation was gentler, a little more laid-back, relaxed, and had a greater sense of ease. The upper midrange and treble were smoother and more "organic" sounding when the data feeding the DAC was sourced from Sooloos' hard-disk drive.
I repeated this comparison with the Qsonix system and heard a similar increase in resolution, greater sense of space and depth, smoother textures, and a more relaxed presentation. In fact, the two music servers sounded very much alike.