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Requiem for the CD

Hardware and a file format that could make the audio CD obsolete

Published: Aug 1, 2009 09:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Aug 1, 2009 09:04:59 AM IST

Manufacturers and buyers of hi-fi audio equipment are anal. After the LP, they have stubbornly resisted the advancement of almost every new technology, be it cassettes, CDs, minidisks or Super Audio CDs. Naturally, software-based audio formats like MP3, WMA and AAC are treated the way sports car aficionados would see the Tata Nano: A pesky nuisance that is best ignored.

But with Linn Products , the Scotland-based maker of high-end audio equipment, throwing in its lot with the software-based FLAC audio format, these nuisances may soon be on the same race track as the Ferraris and McLarens.

Linn was established in 1972 by Ivor Tiefenbrun, an engineer who decided to build a hi-fi turntable himself because none of the ones in the market were good enough. (If you’ll forgive one more auto metaphor, audiophiles often refer to the brand as the “Rolls Royce of audio” for its precise engineering and prohibitive pricing.) After coming up with the Sondek LP12 turntable in 1972 (still being produced today, yours for Rs. 8 lakh), it took Linn more than 20 years to adopt CDs, because it wasn’t convinced CD music beat LP music. Heck, it even released ads mocking CDs!

To “golden-eared” hi-fi fans compressed audio files (see sidebar, ‘Win Loss’) lose many subtle details.
Enter “lossless” audio formats, which give you files less than half the size of the CD Audio file, but with the exact same information. One such, FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec, is an open-source and free format that reduces the size of an audio file roughly by half without letting go of a single bit of original information.

But in spite of its “lossless” moniker, FLAC has not managed much success with hi-fi fans because of the unwillingness of equipment manufacturers to support it. Not any longer.

In 2007 Linn opened its new DS (“digital stream”) product line with the Klimax DS (only Rs. 9.5 lakh). Since then it has added three new purely digital music players — the Akurate DS (Rs. 3.5 lakh), Majik DS (Rs. 1.8 lakh) and Sneaky DS (Rs. 1.1 lakh). None of them contain an inbuilt hard disk though; you have to buy that.

Linn Records, a subsidiary company, even offers 24-bit FLAC songs for sale that they claim contain 50 percent more audio detail compared to 16-bit CDs.

Linn isn’t just defecting. With a convert’s zeal, it claims its new players make FLAC sound even better than CDs. Prithviraj Vedpathak, sole dealer for Linn in India, explains: Unlike CD players which need to “extrapolate”, or guess, missing music bits on scratched or damaged discs, its software can read FLAC songs from hard disks with 100 percent accuracy. Also, moving parts inside CD players introduce “acoustic, electrical and magnetic noise”, which is absent from DS players, which have no moving parts. 

And finally, Linn claims to have put in expensive electronic circuitry into the DS players that not only convert digital music into audio signals in a better way but also “upsamples” (measuring the digital audio signals at more frequent intervals) the audio in the process.

Musicians and rock bands are also waking up to the advantages of FLAC. The Eagles released their last album Long Road Out Of Eden including the deluxe edition in FLAC format. Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s side project The Fireman released its December 2008 album Electric Arguments as a digital download, and was available in FLAC.

But perhaps the biggest boost for FLAC in recent times has come from the superstar Irish rockers, U2, who recently put their entire album catalogue up on sale on their Web site, U2.com. You can purchase every U2 album in high quality MP3 format or as FLAC. The Web site claims that it is the only place where their songs are available in FLAC format. And if Bono has taken to FLAC, then you can assume that the rest of the rock world will soon follow.

Arun Kumar, a Kochi-based exporter of high-end carpets and the only owner of the Klimax DS in India, was convinced after hearing a CD and FLAC song played side-by-side at a Linn demo in London. He has converted his entire collection of 1,500 CDs into FLAC files. The resulting music that flows out from his matching Klimax floor-standing speakers (Rs.30 lakh, thankyouverymuch) is “definitely better than CDs,” he says. To which we say, it had better be.

Win Loss
High fidelity recordings in digital formats like the CD make for very large files: A second of CD quality sound requires 1.4 million bits of data. Audio CDs, thus, can only store a score or so of average length songs; and if you were to copy these onto a computer, you’d quickly run out of space. Compressed formats, like the MP3 (which stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3) and its designated successor, AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) pack that sound info into less than one-tenth the space by using algorithms that drop some of the sound information based on the frequency ranges that most human ears cannot hear. So, when you rip a CD to your iPod, some information from the original music is lost permanently,
which is why these formats are called “lossy.”
Despite this, CDs are rapidly losing the fight for mass audiences to these formats. Sheer convenience wins for most of us. A few thousand tracks in a device that fits into your pocket? No contest.

(This story appears in the 14 August, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Brian Pereira

    If FLAC is a lossless compression format with a compression rate of 50% then why isn't it as popular as MP3? The next time I rip it will surely be to FLAC. --Brian Pereira

    on Sep 9, 2009