OPINION

[Yang Sung-jin] High-end digital music market in the offing

By Yang Sung-jin
  • Published : Mar 8, 2017 - 17:38
  • Updated : Aug 23, 2017 - 16:34

In addition to photography, gaming and drawing, I have added another potentially (and financially) lethal field to my hobbies – audio. But the segment in question is not exactly traditional hi-fi though, as I’m interested more in the technological aspects of digital music than the music itself.

On Saturday, I made a trip to Coex where the Seoul International Audio Show was being held. I was planning to browse -- not buy, at least not initially -- a new portable music player known as DAP, which stands for “digital audio player,” a high-end portable device capable of storing and playing high-resolution music files, usually formatted in FLAC, or free lossless audio code.

If you are already familiar with FLAC, you might correctly guess where I’m headed toward in this column with my earnest attempts to explain a host of audio-related acronyms.

To explain what FLAC means, I have to start with what MP3 means. MP3 is the dominant music file format that has fueled the growth of downloaded music. The problem in the ears of audiophiles, however, is that MP3 is a “lossy” format. As the MP3 format shaves off parts of the music to reduce the file size, the sound quality is bound to suffer, compared with that of CDs.

But the majority of mainstream listeners do not care much about the not-so-perfect quality of MP3 music. After all, it seems good enough for general purposes most digital devices.

Not so long ago, people used to rip their favorite music CDs into MP3 files and put them on their dedicated MP3 players such as Apple’s iPod. There was a period during which people scrambled to download MP3 music files over file-sharing platforms, often in violation of copyright laws.

The market has since settled into music-streaming platforms. People now enjoy listening to music that is streamed live on their smartphones via wireless networks, rather than going through the cumbersome process of ripping music CDs or downloading MP3s.

Two important factors are at work to support music-streaming platforms. Firstly, Korea and many other countries offer affordable wireless data plans, and a growing number of smartphone users go for unlimited data plans to enjoy multimedia content on the go.

Secondly, on-demand music-streaming services have gone mainstream. In Korea, Melon, Bugs Music, Olleh Music and Naver Music are fighting to carve out a bigger share of the fast-growing music-streaming market. In the US, Spotify and Apple Music are similarly trying to win more paying subscribers.

The digital music market, however, is about to embrace a wave of additional changes. In fact, there are two specific waves that deserve attention. The first has to do with wireless solutions. Apple, for instance, recently rolled out its much-anticipated AirPods, a pair of wireless earbuds. Many other headphone makers are also launching Bluetooth wireless earphones and headphones. The Bose QuietComfort 35, an expensive yet powerful noise-cancellation headphone, is a wireless model that I use on the subway while commuting to work.

The second wave is the gradual yet notable adoption of what is called “high resolution” music. This is the field that involves FLAC. High-resolution music comes in “lossless” formats such as FLAC. Unlike MP3s, which have some compromise in the sound quality, FLAC files offer bit-perfect copies of CDs. And the DAPs that I mentioned earlier are designed to play high-resolution music formatted in FLAC or other similar lossless formats.

Music-streaming companies are also slowly introducing FLAC files. Melon, for example, promoted its FLAC service at the audio trade show held at Coex and I noticed the quality is excellent, though it’s available only on Android-based smartphones and the selection remains limited.

At the same audio show, I toyed with the Plenue 2, the latest DAP made by Cowon, a Korean company known for its MP3 players. A sequel to the Plenue 1, which has a solid fan base among digital audio enthusiasts, the new DAP model comes with all the latest technological innovations, at a hefty price tag of 1,490,000 won ($1,300) and will be formally launched Tuesday. Interestingly, Cowon is one of the two Korean companies that are competing in the fledging DAP market. The other firm is Astell & Kern, a brand launched by iRiver, which similarly built its brand with MP3 players. Astell & Kern DAPs, despite their jaw-dropping prices, are widely embraced by high-resolution audio buffs.

Cowon’s Plenue and iRiver’s Astell & Kern DAPs are equipped with top-of-the-line digital-to-analog converters -- giving rise to yet another acronym: DAC. Digital music lovers think it necessary to purchase external DACs to enhance the quality of sound further.

DAC is no longer an exotic concept. Last year, LG Electronics armed its V20 phone with a quad-DAC for better sound. Its new flagship G6 phone also features a quad-DAC system, an upgraded version that can control the left and right earbuds independently to more accurately balance sound. Samsung is also expected to offer an upgraded audio feature for its newest smartphone models.

All in all, the high-resolution music market is expanding in step with the evolution of related audio, digital and wireless technologies.

But fully embracing high-end digital music is still prohibitively expensive. A potential audiophile may have to purchase music files in FLAC or other lossless formats, DAP (or desktop PC with an external DAC) and a professional-grade headphone such as Sennheiser HD 600.

If you want to save money, it is best to avoid listening to the FLAC files through DAP with decent headphones. This advice, as you might duly suspect, is based on the painful experience that I and my bank balance went through at the audio trade fair, where I ended up with two new pricey toys.


By Yang Sung-jin

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at insight@heraldcorp.com. -- Ed.