1. iPod + Bose for Hi-Fidelity Home Listening

    brian on 2006.08.24
    at 05:47 pm

    My Uncle, whose mountain house I just returned from, is a big fan of classical music and has a nice Bose Lifestyle 38 sound system with which to listen to it with. Bose Lifestyle 38 Audio SystemIt has a clever feature where you import CDs onto its internal hard disk, and it has creative ways of organizing your music. The user interface could use a little help, but the key to the system is that it keeps your music at pristine quality, instead of, say converting it to crummy MP3s. However, when it’s full, it’s full. Bose makes no expansion modules. For my uncle, it is full now, about a year after purchasing it. However, there is hope for him.

    I took the time to write up a basic backgrounder on how to use an iPod to expand his system. You might just say, “Duh, Brian. It’s so easy to just import your music and then play it through his system’s line in.” Apple iPod, Docked in a Universal Dock And you’d be right. However, if you keep with all the defaults, and simplest hook ups, it would work (and be great for most people) but an audiophile would be left dissatisfied. That’s why I wrote the following, which includes a quick background on digital compression techniques. Read on for more.

    How to connect more music to your full Bose system, at a comparable quality.

    - Buy the highest capacity iPod available (currently 60 GB) or, a Mac mini with the largest available hard drive. (With small LCD and Front Row 8-foot interface + IR remote control – ultimate music player! See {An aside, below} Rest of the suggestions herein will assume an iPod)

    - iPod Universal Dock

    - Optical audio cable (mini-TOSlink – to – TOSlink) [corresponds to your Bose system’s optical audio in option – far better sound quality that normal, analog RCA wire cabling] see update, bottom

    - Wall power adapter for iPod (use the iPod’s included USB cable to connect power adapter to the Dock)


    The biggest issue you will have using a computer or an iPod to store your music is compression. For most people, the compressed music file format of choice is MP3 (MPEG audio layer 3), but since your iPod accepts AAC (Advanced Audio Coding, developed by Dolby Labs, based on the MPEG4 media standard ) I will suggest in the strongest possible terms that if you’re using any compression at all, you use AAC. It packs in better sound than MP3 in 20% less space. 128kbs AAC has the same or better quality as a 160kbs MP3, but in a smaller file size. Hands-down winner. AAC is also the audio format used for DVD Audio Discs, and High Definition TV audio, and High Definition DVD/Blue Ray discs.

    Most people (95%) buy an iPod to put pop music on, or are otherwise not music/audiophiles. The iPod’s marketed capacity estimates (and also, related, battery estimates) are based on the bit rate (bits per second) that these people on average cannot judge from CD quality. For our purposes today, bit rate will be analogous to “audio quality,” but in reality it is the amount of compression: the lower the bit rate, the more compressed and thus most sound quality removed from the file in the interest of shrinking its storage size. The “standard” compression around the industry is 128 kilobits per second, MP3. Apple’s estimates use the superior AAC at 128kbs. We also use this as the file format and quality of the music you can buy on the iTunes Music Store.

    However, thanks to the much wider tonal and dynamic range of classical music, and your ear for audio reproduction quality, 128 kbs AAC would simply be insufficient for your purposes. Additionally, the vast majority of pop music is 3-4 minutes in length. Thus, estimates that, for example, your iPod nano 4GB will hold 1,000 songs would not be useful to you. Your songs need to be encoded at a high bit rate, and they are often of longer length.

    MP3 128kbs compressions usually averages file sizes of 1MB per minute of music.
    WAV (uncompressed, CD format) usually take 10MB per minute.

    I have two suggestions for encoding settings for your purposes. Great and Fairly Phenomenal.

    Great: 256kbs AAC

    Fairly Phenomenal: Apple Lossless.

    I’ll cover “Fairly Phenomenal” first. Apple Lossless is a relative of Advanced Audio Coding and MPEG4. It uses the same .m4a file extension as AAC.

    The term “lossy” when used in regards to audio encoding means a format of compression that loses any amount of audio fidelity. “Lossless” is compression without audio degradation. Apple Lossless is a scheme of compression encoding that has no loss of audio quality. It produces files in the ~1000-1220kbs range. WAV files, the uncompressed audio format that an Audio CD currently uses is at 1440kbs. So Apple Lossless creates files that are significantly smaller, so when it comes to hundreds of hours of music, you can gain album after album of space, with no discernible downside. For reference, there are two other major formats that offer lossless compression: “Shorten,” and “FLAC” (Free, Lossless Audio Codec). These are unfortunately unsupported in iTunes and the iPod. It is my guess that Bose uses either one of these last two lossless formats, or created their own proprietary one… or perhaps are just encoding at a very high (maybe 512kbs) bit rate of some lossy compression format. We may never know, it is a proprietary secret. Even my friend who works for Bose doesn’t know.

    Apple Lossless would be the best setting for compressing your music in iTunes at the highest possible audio quality, while saving storage space versus full, uncompressed files.

    However, chances are no matter how good your ears are, and how good your Bose system is, you probably couldn’t tell the difference between 1220kbs and 256kbs… but your hard drive will fit roughly five times as much music. Frankly, you could use any setting between 256 and 1220kbs and have incredible audio quality. You should encode one piece of music you know very well at each bit rate level (I would suggest 256, 320 and Apple Lossless) and listen to them over and over, and see if you hear a difference. If quality is the key (versus storage space, time to encode, and battery life if the iPod is used without being plugged in), then you should make your decision based on this listening test. I would do this test after having purchased the iPod and all the accessories, especially the dock and optical audio cable so that you can judge the quality with all other variables in listening environment controlled for.

    Optional: if you want to save a few more megabytes, you can select “Use VBR” (Variable bit rate) which will use your bit rate setting in most situations, but if it comes to a section of music that is less complex, it can automatically use less bits, where it has determine it can give the same quality as your selected bit rate, but with out wasting extra space. There may be a minute loss of quality by selecting this, since it is leaving it to the computer to make these decisions, not your ear, but I have never been able to hear a difference between two songs encoded at the same bit rate where the only difference was the use of VBR on one of the selections. You can leave all other encoding options at their defaults.

    For what its worth: I encode the majority of my music at 160kbs AAC, and classical at 190kbs AAC, which sounds great. If I had unlimited space, and no battery considerations for iPod playback, or if I were building a system like yours, and I had a big hard drive, I’d use Apple Lossless.


    Connection and Accessories:

    I’d say these are all necessities to maintain the same quality you’re currently experiencing:

    Universal Dock: this gives you a way of attaching your iPod to your audio system. It works with all iPods with a dock connector (all iPods since 2003). You could use an old fashion RCA – to – minijack Y cable to the analog headphone jack, but that’s not optimal. The Dock has a combination analog/optical-digital out. This, along with…

    Optical audio cable the optical audio cable will deliver a discernible quality improvement, even when using heavily compressed audio sources. You Bose system has the optical-in, so I would let it go to waste. Keep the signal digital for as long as possible! This is what I use at home for all home theater applications.The dock also holds up your iPod securely so it doesn’t get scratched or knocked around, and it makes it easier to use the menus. Speaking of accessing control of the iPod the dock also allows you to use the… see update, bottom

    Universal Remote – An IR remote control that allows you to control the iPod from across the room. This is included with all new consumer Macs, including the Mac mini, along with controlling the iPod (via Universal Dock) and the iPod HiFi.

    {An aisde: If you were to choose to go all out and get a Mac mini and a small LCD display (suggest VESA compatible ), you could use this to access FrontRow, an across-the-room interface for playing content from iTunes and other applications, which also displays album art, track info, ratings (if used) progress info and volume info. A Mac mini could also be used as a video player, both DVD and other formats, if attached to a large enough display. A Mac mini along with an AirPort Express wireless device would allow you to play audio to remote speaker locations around the house, to as many stations as you purchase AirPort Expresses for. The AirPort also uses the optical audio out.}


    Adding music –

    Using the iPod as your new storage medium is the best option when you consider the experience of importing the music and entering the metadata for each track. Since you’d be using your PC (or, hey, maybe its time for a Mac? ) the importation would go significantly faster, since the processor even in an old PC is faster than the processor within the Bose unit, plus you have the full advantage of a keyboard and the iTunes interface for entering data for CD the Bose would recognize. The best thing would be to import while connected to the internet (no matter how slow a connection) because iTunes would automatically update the metadata from the Gracenote DB over the internet, which has an incredible number of CD listings because if you import a CD that it doesn’t have, it will offer to upload the information you’ve transcribed for the benefit of others.


    Portability –

    Using an iPod would also not lock you into listening on one sounds system. You could listen to it in your car (like you do now with your iPod nano) but you could also get a listening dock for another location (or just plug it in to some existing stereo system there over a RCA connection, like mentioned at the top) or a small speaker system (Bose in fact offers one ) that is a dedicated speaker system that docks to your iPod. And of course, that means you can bring the ipod + Bose iPod speaker system (or alike) to Mexico, too. And you can listen to the iPod on the plane ride down, too.

    UPDATE: I don’t know how I managed this, but the Universal Dock does not have optical out. Sorry! How I managed to go 4 months with this on the blog, I don’t know, but a reader contacted me, bewildered, wondering how to get that cable into that dock! Sorry! I had confused the optical port the comes standard on all new Macs with the standard analog mini-jack port of the universal. So just use a patch cable.

    Posted in: Apple · Music · Technology


    Comments (1)

    1. bob roberts said on 2006.09.29 at 10:47 pm

      bose wave cd

      Does the bose wave cd system produce great sound or is it all hype

    Comments have been automatically disabled to curtail spam.

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