Want Better Sound? Consider The Source!
Today I’m not talking about exhaust systems or anything that will lower your lap time. What we are discussing in this chapter is getting the most out of your vehicles audio system. In particular we are going to look at the High Resolution Digital Audio Player or the hi-res DAP. The hi-res DAP is a simple, elegant solution to all your hi-fi listening needs. It allows you to store music from every source that you have, in a lossless format, while simultaneously being able to connect to every audio system or device you own. It can connect by Bluetooth, Wifi, 2.5mm 4 conductor, 3.5mm 3 conductor common ground, and by micro USB.
Video vs Audio
Over the past 30 years it’s been quite easy to see the difference in the quality of video image with the advancement of television. You can basically divide tv resolution into three categories; standard definition, high definition, and ultra high definition. Standard definition for years was available through the cathode ray tube television by means of the ntsc signal which was 30 frames per second with 480 interlaced scan lines. Current HD tv signals are available as 1080i, 720p, 1080p formats in order of higher resolution. The latest and greatest is Ultra High definition represented, and currently marketed, as 4K, with the potential for 8K in the not to distant future.
So why are TVs relevant to the discussion about car and home audio? While there has been a steady and obvious progression towards a better tv picture, what we have seen relating to audio sources for the most part has been, the exact opposite. Consumers are happily trading quality for convenience when it comes to the source and storage of their music. Primarily it was the maximum storage capacity of early digital devices that required file compression in order to accommodate a reasonable amount of music. Basically early solid state digital storage devices had limited memory capacity and music needed to have smaller file sizes in order for it to fit.
For illustrative purposes we can use television resolution to compare audio formats. We can think of CDs and records as being the equivalent of HD TV, mp3s, satellite radio and ITunes as being the equivalent of standard definition, and high resolution audio as being the equivalent of 4K & 8K tv. Have you ever seen what a nice new HD tv looks like when a standard old 480i analogue signal is fed into it? It usually looks terrible. This is why TV stores will often demo their best TVs with the highest definition source signal available, often this will be a 4K blue ray video.
When you look at the various digital audio formats the differences are obvious in amount of memory space that they occupy. I have had the opportunity to compare the same album as an ITunes file, a lossless wav file from a CD (44.1kHz 16 bit) and as a high resolution audio file (196kHz 24 bit). The highest quality MP3 has a bitrate of 320kbps, whereas a 24bit/192kHz file has a data rate of 9216kbps. Music CDs are 1411kbps. This in turn meant that the album mentioned had an approximate iTunes file size of 125 megabytes, a lossless CD wav file size of around 700 megabytes, and the hi-res audio file required 2.6 gigabytes of memory for storage.
The above comparison clearly illustrates why early smartphones and iPods/mp3 players required smaller music files in order to store a reasonable amount of music. A first generation iPhone would not even be able to store a single hi-res album with its standard built in memory.
Modern Hi-res DAPs have solved the storage problem thanks to the ever increasing capacity of the micro sd storage cards. Current DAPs can accommodate two 256 gigabyte micro sd cards as well as having up to 64 gigabytes of internal storage space. This will easily accommodate 300 hi-res complete albums or 1,200 wav cd quality albums. If you need more memory you can always store more music on additional sd cards. Imaging a stack of records or CDs as high as your ceiling stored on something the size of your thumbnail. An added bonus is if your DAP were to become damaged you could simply remove the sd cards and install them in a replacement DAP.
The question most often asked is, “can you really hear the difference”. The short answer is definitely yes. The reality is that, just as some people have better eyesight than others, others have better hearing. So what it really comes down to is how good is the audio system you are playing your source audio through. With a decent quality hi-fi system the average listener can tell the difference when the resolution increases by 4 or 5 times. It is easy to hear the difference between an ITune file and a lossless CD wav file, and it is also true between the lossless wav and the hi-res 192kHZ 24 bit. It becomes more difficult to tell the difference when the resolution is already high and the difference is narrower for example 96kHz 24 bit and 192kHZ 24 bit. Of course the quality of the original studio recording and the skill of the sound engineers also factor into this equation.
Hi-res Audio is made from the original studio master tapes for the most part, well at least the good music that you and I listen too is stored and originated this way. There are more and more great albums becoming available for download this way on various websites like HD Tracks. In some cases the original studio recording have been remastered and converted to digital files at the highest possible resolution.
Modern luxury and performance car manufacturers have some fairly high-end audio systems as factory options. These systems are designed and optimized for the interior design of the car they are in, and have many other vehicle functions already integrated. Many of these systems are engineered by boutique audio companies like Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Infinity, Kenwood, Alpine, Sony, Meridian, Kef, Burmester, Bang & Olufsen, Mark Levinson, Harmon Kardon, Lexicon and others. These systems are the audio equivalent of the new 4K and 8K ultra HD televisions. If you are listening to them with satellite radio or your iTunes, you aren’t even coming close to experiencing the potential of these systems. Recently Ford announced that they would be teaming up with Sony to offer Hi-Res DAP integrated systems in future high end audio system optioned vehicles. I would expect other brands looking to bolster their luxury image will soon follow suit.
Why the DAP?
A little while back I started to notice that many new vehicles that came with high end Audio systems were no longer offering a simple CD player. When I took delivery of my ZL1 this was the case and for the first couple months I was happy to listen to the free satellite radio through the 9 speaker Bose system. Occasionally I would listen to the very few songs I have stored on my phone. The music sounded okay but I felt that something was lacking and that maybe the Bose wasn’t what it was all cracked up to be. One night a song came on the radio that I had the original CD recording of at home. I dug out my old CD, my old CD Sony Walkman, a 3.5mm acg cord, and plugged the Walkman into the auxiliary input in my center console. I then proceeded to play the same song I had just previously heard on the radio. Wow! What a difference! I was really impressed by the factory Bose unit, the music was alive and sounded even better than I remembered it!
I then realized that I had a stack of CDs almost as high as my ceiling, and it wouldn’t be practical to try to stuff them, along with the Walkman, into the glove box. It made me look into digital audio players, and I quickly discovered the hi-res variety. These are available from Onkyo/Pioneer, Fiio, Sony, Astell & Kern, Shanling, and others. I compared features and availability, as well as product reviews and tests, and decided to order a Pioneer unit. Pioneer and Onkyo are basically the same company and have similar models and features. I then began the task of using my home computer to convert my CD collection into lossless wav files and store on my new DAP. Shortly after purchasing the unit I decided to buy and download my first hi-res audio file from HD Tracks.
The DAP that I purchased has twin digital to analog converters and a two channel headphone amplifier built in. It also has programmable equalizer built into the unit. This allows me to have one equalizer optimized for my car, another equalizer optimized for my headphones, and yet another optimized for my home system. Coupled with the near limitless storage and multiple connectivity options this truly was the solution I was looking for. I also saved money by electing not to renew my satellite radio, which sounded bad anyways.
If you have read this far through this story, then chances are you appreciate good music, and great audio. This is the first step towards becoming an audiophile. While few of us truly are audiophiles, we probably are old enough to remember when new music arrived in the form of a vinyl disc. There was always that one friend that had that Hi-Fi stereo system and top of the line turn table. I vividly remember what it was like when you would get your friends together to listen to a new album, start to finish, A side and B side. Those albums, on the Hi-Fi, always seemed to sound better the more you turned up the volume. Maybe this was due to the analog technology of the day, maybe we just enjoyed simple pleasures more in a world less complicated.
I am happy to say, at least from my own experience, that the hi-res DAP did more than just present itself as an elegant solution for my musical source and storage problems. It has also served as a time machine transporting me back to a time when the subtleties and intricacies of music were a joy to discover.
Do your own research, it’s a joy to crank the volume again. Maybe a Hi-Res DAP belongs under your tree this Christmas!
Happy Holidays & Best Wishes!
Bill Drossos, Crew Chief