Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXL: Dispatches from the Lossless Wars
(August 2021)

Where am I in the summer of 2021 when it comes to the format wars? Am I still listening to LP's half of the time, as I once claimed many years ago? Have I found any new streaming services? What about the multiplying number of CD cabinets popping up randomly throughout my house--should I do something to stop them from taking over?

Do I really care about this whole new Apple Music Lossless Audio news?

The electronics industry, not to mention the entertainment industry, is buzzing with the news that Apple Music Lossless Audio will be available--at no extra cost--to all subscribers, probably by the time you read this. All 75 million tracks will now be offered via lossless files using proprietary new tech from Apple. That should instantly make the current leaders in streaming sound, Qobuz and Tidal, very nervous. Right?

I can look at this a couple of ways. First, I don't jump on sonic bandwagons unless there is a remarkable improvement in tech, like night-and-day kind of improvements. You know, like going from VHS to DVD. Or MP3 to FLAC. I was going to say LP to CD, but that was a weird lateral jump that still doesn't quite make sense. I adopted digital streaming services once the sound quality was on par with most modern CD players, and not when the convenience of the format was the only selling point.

That's been the point from the very beginning, sound quality over convenience.

That brings up the second point, which is closely related to the first. Initial buzz, surprisingly enough, is focused on whether the average music consumer will hear the difference between the current Apple Music service and the new Lossless Audio service. I'm sure the differences between a lossy format and a lossless format, where no data is compromised, will be obvious to most audiophiles--we've been making these comparisons for the better part of our lives. But to a greater public that largely believe that music belongs in the background of our daily lives and nothing more, this might be mildly interesting at best, a way to brag to your friends that you got the Apple on "lossless," whatever that is, but people say it's the only way to go.

I certainly don't want to get on Apple's bad side, especially since I do use an iPhone and I don't want them to send me subliminal suggestions while I sleep with my head right next to it. But the buzz is just that- buzz. I migrated to Qobuz almost exclusively for my streaming needs because it sounds so good--not just equal to CD, but better thanks to all the hi-resolution files. Sure, I always knew I wanted access to millions and million of recordings as opposed to buying physical media one unit at a time, but I need a good reason to abandon a format like the CD. It can't be a toss-up. It has to be a clear leap forward.

Until we're able to listen to Apple Music Lossless, we won't know. I'm not camping out, even virtually, in front of the Apple Store to find out.

But getting back to the Summer of 2021 and Where I Am in the Format Wars, it's fair to say I'm at a crossroads. I've just reviewed two pieces of digital gear for our magazine, Part-Time Audiophile, that have made that all-important leap. The first was the Merason Frerot digital-to-analog converter, a tiny DAC from Switzerland with a reasonable price tag and fantastic sound. Putting the Merason in my system allows me to streaming digital through my main system and the sound quality is slightly better than my fairly expensive CD player. Sometimes, it's a lot better.

The second product, the Innuos Zen Mini music server, is a product I didn't think I needed until I spent a couple of months with it. I've played with music servers before, but these devices have evolved considerable in the last few years thanks to streaming. My first music server experience, at least a dozen years ago, was an all-in-one unit with an ivory CRT and a touchscreen. It was fun, expensive and sounded okay. It needed an external hard drive, though.

Music servers faded from view once we realized you could run a software-based music server through your laptop (you still needed a hard drive, especially with gigantic FLAC and WAV files). This latest generation of music servers, however, is far more streamlined and simpler in operation. They can certainly be integrated into your current streaming services and whatever DAC you want to use (the Innuos Zen Mini has its own basic DAC, which makes it even more flexible). They bring everything together on a single user interface on either your smart phone or tablet.

And, in the case of the Innuos Zen Mini, you get a CD ripper. That's right. I can stick any CD into the little slot, push a couple of buttons on my phone app, and BAM! It's in there. Sounds exactly the same when I play it back. And that, my friends, is finally the death of the CD--at least for the Vinyl Anachronist. Look at all the space now! If you still have a huge CD collection, and you cling onto them because you still like to listen to them, it might be time to take another look at your hoarding musical priorities.

As for my LP collection? I've said it before and I'll say it again--it stays put right there, buddy. Don't even think about it. The Innuos music server doesn't have a 12" slot for ripping LPs, and I'm not about to buy a USB turntable that probably doesn't sound anywhere as good as my reference analog rig. I look forward to a life with a system still focused on playing vinyl, yet it can somehow conjure up digital sources out of thin air.

Getting back to Apple Music Lossless Audio, however, I think the answer is simple. It might be a game-changer, it might not. I don't see it as much more than another choice, another way to listen to great music, all the great music, with a touch of a button or two. Remember when I wrote about MQA a few years ago, and how it was poised to be the next big thing in digital? Yeah, people don't talk about it much these days, other than a few die-hard fans who are also devoted to SACD, laser discs and applying shaving cream with a badger tail brush.

Finally, I think there's much to be said about finding the perfect fit when it comes to digital streaming services, or even music formats in general. First, I've flirted with almost all of the services over the last few years, starting with Apple and then checking out Pandora and Spotify before finally settling on Tidal--that's when I became truly interested in streaming, when I became a somewhat occasional user. But I eventually settled on Qobuz because it has always focused on sound quality and resolution. It seems to be more tailored to my tastes. I use it more frequently for that very reason. I'm sure people will be thinking a lot about their preferences when they give Apple Lossless a trial run.

There's a second part to this, however, something more cosmic. As I blaze through my fifties, I find myself wondering about my music collection, all those LPs and CDs and other assorted media, and I wonder what I want to do for the rest of my life when it comes to playing the music that I love. I've gone on the record plenty of times stating that I want to play vinyl until the end of time, but it wasn't until recently that I've realized my CD collection is expendable.

Will Apple Music Lossless Audio be the tipping point, where I start ripping CD's into the Innuos and selling them on eBay? I'm not there quite yet, but I can see it just over yonder.

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