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Syncing high-def music with digital generation

Tech companies offer music fans high-quality alternatives to lower quality files found in most digital downloads.

Elvis Presley would judge the recording quality of his songs by whether the sound "moved him or not," says music producer Elliot Mazer.

After four decades producing some of the recording industry's biggest artists--everyone from Janis Joplin to Switchfoot--Mazer has developed his own test. He asks himself: "Can you enjoy the music when it's playing at a low level?"

In the digital age, too often the answer is no. Much is lost when cramming Joplin's booming vocals or the rich guitar play of Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix into tiny digital files, Mazer says.

The rise of digital music players has made it easier to cart hundreds of songs around but has done little to improve listening experience, say music aficionados. A popular misconception is that digital music has to produce sound quality inferior to compact discs.

Not so, say companies such as MusicGiants and Sonos, which offer audiophiles a chance to listen to digital music whose sound quality is every bit as good as that available on CDs.

MusicGiants, which launched last September, is the only download site that sells high-definition music from all the major labels. Incline Village, Nev.-based MusicGiants sells songs on the Windows Lossless format, which means that the company offers music at a bit rate of 470 to 1,100 kilobits per second. Most songs downloaded off the Web are at 128 Kbps, says Scott Bahneman, MusicGiants' founder and CEO.

A song recorded on a Lossless format can be as big as 15MB. Most music on MP3 is about 3MB.

"In files that small, most of the bits are missing," Bahneman said on Friday. "It's like taking octane out of gas. If you do, your car is going to ping."

Apparently, pinging cars wouldn't bother today's music fans and neither does compressed music. Yes, most digital music lacks the depth and subtle nuances produced by CDs. But most listeners don't seem to care. Sales of digital music players reached $3.7 billion last year, far outpacing the $1.2 billion in sales of home stereos, according to a report released this month by the Consumer Electronics Association.

"It turns out that portability and price trumps quality," said Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America.

This marks an attitude shift for music lovers. For most of the past century's second half, music fans went to great lengths to acquire equipment that could produce a more lifelike sound from a recording. A sound system with a high-end turntable, amplifier and speakers was once a status symbol.

The times they are a changin'
Are those days over?

Maybe not, but they certainly appear to be numbered. Consider that Apple Computer has sold 50.8 million iPod digital music players since launching the device in October 2001. In the most recent quarter, iPod sales topped 8 million, a 60 percent jump from a year earlier.

With so many people growing accustomed to digital music, those selling high-definition formats face several challenges. The first is that songs digitized in HD formats take up to five times more room on hard drives and flash memories than most popular formats, such as Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) or Windows Media Audio. When it comes to price, MusicGiants sells songs for $1.29, or for 30 percent more than the 99 cents that Apple's iTunes music store charges. Downloads from MusicGiants aren't compatible with iTunes songs, so they won't play on iPods (Bahneman recommends customers place the company's music on to CDs).

Another hurdle is that Lossless formats are already offered by Apple and Windows. When an iTunes user rips music on to their PC or Mac, they can choose a Lossless format instead of iTunes' default AAC. Mazer, a consultant to MusicGiants, says Lossless produces CD-quality sound.

Yet iPods and other digital music players can't provide the ultimate listening experience, says Mazer. Digital players are fine for travel or for working out, he says, but for serious listening at home he prefers big stereo sound systems.

John MacFarlane, Sonos' CEO, is betting that more Americans will prefer filling their homes with the clearest and cleanest sounding music possible. That's why the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company connects existing home stereos and entertainment centers to PCs via wireless networks.

Last month, Sonos released the ZonePlayer 80, a unit that wirelessly connects a stereo or boom box to a home's music network. A remote control then enables a user to choose songs for any room in the house. The start-up system features two ZP 80s for $1,000. Each additional unit costs $350.

In rooms without any music players, the company offers the $500 ZonePlayer 100, which comes with a built-in amplifier. All it needs to play music is to be hooked up to speakers. MacFarlane too suggests customers record their music in a high-quality digital format.

"Serious music fans want to hear details," MacFarlane said. "The home environment is different than sitting on the subway listening to music through ear buds. For those situations, compressed files are fine. What we're finding is that customers are keeping two libraries. One for Lossless files and one for compressed."

Mazer says he expects the public to begin demanding high quality again. Otherwise, what good does it do for artists to toil on producing the best sound?

"Napster's popularity really angered artists," Mazer said. "Yeah, they hated getting ripped off, but they also hated MP3s because they sounded so lousy."