The battle for gapless playback

It’s amazing to think that I’ve owned an iPod in some form or other for over ten years now. I was one of the first to jump for the Windows version when it launched in late 2002. (Remember when iPods came in Mac and Windows versions?). I also recall bundling a Belkin firewire card into the bargain. My PC’s motherboard didn’t have a firewire socket and this was a time long before Apple decided USB was the way to go. That first iPod ran me nearly $1000 and held 20Gbs worth of music. Ideal for a British fellow then emigrating to Australia. My ten thousand strong CD collection would arrive much later, after four months at sea on a container ship. The iPod kept me in tunes during the intervening months.

original-ipod

The early noughties were a heady time for MP3 downloads: Napster faded from view only to be replaced by Audiogalaxy. Then came Chris Myden and his “these are not your Father’s MP3s” mandate. All of this fed into the burgeoning iPod hardware market. Back then MP3s ruled the world.

But, but…BUT! (There’s always a but, right?) The iPod of yesteryear wasn’t perfect. It wouldn’t play MP3s gaplessly. In making the jump from one track to the next it would splice in the tiniest of glitches. “Speak To Me” would click into “Breathe” and then clunk into “On The Run”….and, well you get the idea. I know it’s a cliché to name-check Dark Side Of The Moon when discussing gapless playback but it’s a listening experience to which many audiophiles can relate.

TalkingheadsNameoftheband

Not often mentioned is the impact on DJ-mixed compilations. I’d loaded my first iPod with a whole raft of early Fabric releases and ultimately found them all to be unlistenable. Central to a DJ mix’s other-worldliness is its flow. The track-jump glitch ruined track transitions. Live albums suffered a similar fate. A rip of one of my all-time favourites – The Name Of This Band is Talking Heads – was knocked off balance each time a tiny gap reared its tiny ugly head between songs. The segue between “New Feeling” and “A Clean Break (Let’s Work)” loses its time and…stumbles.

Unlike Ogg Vorbis and Musepack, MP3 is not a natively gapless format. Apple didn’t develop a firmware fix* for gapless MP3 playback until iTunes v7.0 and the second generation Nano. That was 2006 – at which point I’d already loaded my first generation Nano with Rockbox firmware. Rockbox played pretty much everything gaplessly. Even MP3s. It was a terrific alternative for those early iPods, iPod Minis and iPod Nanos. That is, until Apple locked Rockbox out of its own devices by encrypting the iPod’s firmware.

rockbox3540

An absence of gapless playback wasn’t unique to the iPod’s MP3 handling. Slim Devices’ Squeezebox suffered similar issues (also until late 2006). Their firmware fix for gapless MP3 came just in the nick of time; I was about to re-rip thousands of CDs to Ogg Vorbis. Back then; storing a HUGE collection of FLAC rips would have cost thousands of hard-drive dollars.

When hard-drive prices eventually plummeted, I re-ripped every CD I owned to FLAC. To this day, this forms the core of my digital music collection. FLAC is a natively gapless format and you would think that in 2013 its gapless playback would be a de facto standard of all music streamers, portable devices and desktop software players. But it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

On the desktop.  Windows’ JIE Player sounds far better than Foobar but pauses momentarily between tracks. OS X’s Amarra sounds better than stock iTunes but won’t do gapless anything as an iTunes proxy. One must load songs into the Amarra playlist to rid albums of the inter-song slices of silence. Bitperfect sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.  Audirvana+ 1.4.x is also a significant step up from the vanilla iTunes sound. Thankfully, it plays flawlessly – no gaps!

audirvana+

On the phone.  iOS seems to have its gapless ass comprehensively covered whilst Android music apps are a hit and miss affair.  It seems Power Amp is the way to go.

On the hardware bench. PS Audio’s Network Bridge sounds incredible but didn’t play gaplessly when I reviewed it for 6Moons in 2011.  At the budget end of network streamers, Western Digital’s WD TV Live serves up significant gaps when streaming music. The listening experience is beyond painful.

psaudioNB

On the bus. Reading Srajan Ebaen’s recent 6Moons review of the Astell&Kern AK100 portable music player, it would appear that it too doesn’t play music gaplessly. And this is a device aimed squarely at audiophiles. I can’t be the only audiophile for whom an absence of gapless playback with lossless formats (ALAC, FLAC) is a stone cold deal breaker, can I?!

I’m sure it’s not a trivial matter to code gapless playback into firmware but if Slim Devices could manage it from the get go, then surely it’s not beyond the reach of iRiver’s coding team. More importantly, is gapless playback on the AK100’s software development roadmap? I don’t doubt that the AK100 sounds stunning but the absence of gapless is (again) a deal-breaker for this fella.

The core of my complaint is not so much that gapless isn’t universal, it’s that many manufacturers don’t declare its absence – leading some customers more swiftly toward buyers remorse – or dismiss it as a non-issue. (Imagine buying a car to find that there’s no speedometer – non issue?). Some pretend it’s a nice thing to have rather than being critical to their enjoyment of music. Are they not Pink Floyd fans? Do they not listen to live albums? Have they not spent time with the original CD release of L.S.G.’s Black Album.

lsgblackalbum

Sometimes the defence is as simple as the manufacturer having received only a handful of complaints about the absence of gapless playback and so they conclude consumers don’t care one way or the other. I find that reasoning hard to swallow. Audiophiles are hardly a passive bunch. One only has to spend a short time on any given hi-fi forum to see casual whingeing quickly mutate into flame war. Opinions on the matter are firmly held and candidly expressed. A little like mine here.

 

 

*For LAME-encoded MP3s that support the Mp3 info tag

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in Berlin, Germany. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also a very occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
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26 Comments

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  1. Excellent subject !
    Flac and gapless playback was available way back in 2003
    wirh the Rio Karma. Right from the start S3 get it right: Flac,MP3,Ogg and WMA support, excellent EQ, Nice VU Meter. Docking station with Ethernet connection.
    I’m still using my Rio Karma and upgrade the storage to a 32G Compact Flash card (the original player was delivered with a 20g Hard Drive), so far, so good, no need to upgrade to an another player.
    But some parts are flimsy and easy to break, like the rotary encoder ad the joy stick.
    But used main boards are still available on ebay.

  2. Thanks Michel. My frustration isn’t just with portable players. It’s with desktop software and network streamers too.

    • Totally agree with you gapless should be available for every application and hardware supporting audio file playback.

      For SB users and Vortexbox users a new software called Squeezelite has been released lately.
      Squeezelite got gapless playback and support up to 24/192 and even higher.
      A must to have since I plugged a subwoofer to my DAC and suffer HUGE pop in the sub between each tracks…

    • Hi
      I read your article about gapless playback and I agree with you that it is essential!

      I currently use Cambridge Stream Magic 6 and on the move I use a Sansa Clip Zip with a micro SD for a total of 40 gb memory! This little unit supports gapless Flac. Recommended.

      I have a question that maybe somebody can answer: I use dbpoweramp to rip my music to Flac. It has a dsp add-on you can use to remove gaps, but it requires the cd to be used.

      The question: How do you creat gapless Flac files from, as an example, a hi-res download which is becoming popular?

      regards

      Ralf

      • Hey Ralf. FLAC is a natively gapless format so if you’re hearing gaps it’ll like be because of a hardware limitation.

  3. Traktor Pro does. Set it to “CD Mode” and “Cruise”, adjust the crossfade time and you’re set. It may be a non-audiophile software, but it works great and when you are sick of fiddeling around with itunes and your favourite software player like Amarra et. al. it means a lot of fun, especially if you use an external controller like “Kontrol X1”.

  4. I’m with you John, I find the lack of gapless playback unacceptable. I admit to not understanding the technical details, but still don’t understand why this problem keeps turning up over and over again—it seems like something that should have been solved years ago.

    I listen to lots of music using Rdio, and the gaps between the tracks drive me nuts. I don’t understand why there aren’t more complaints.

    Thanks for tackling this subject.

  5. I’ve had a PWD for over two years without reliable, useful gapless. Anything less than the seamless squeezebox operation is unacceptable, including having to mark albums or having to start at the beginning of an album and see info for the first track for all tracks, because gapless was attained by combining all tacks on the album. About half of my collection, especially operas, has been unplayable for 2 years. Still waiting.

  6. lack of gapless playback is a deal-breaker for me. It’s not just an issue with DSOM; it applies to any Floyd album … or Sgt. Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road … or Ziggy Stardust … or Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus … or virtually anything from Uncle Frank … (that’s a good start)

  7. I was only thinking about this this other day. After quite a few years of using various Squeezeboxen at home, I forgot about issues with gaplees playback – there just weren’t any. I recently updated my listening habits at work, and due to IT strictures, the only music playing software I can use is VLC. The gaps introduced into albums are driving me nuts, particularly on any type of ambient music which forms a large part of my work listening. I agree, gapless playback should be essential – I’m surprised more people don’t complain about it.

  8. Thanks John for the info, I just ripped all my Stéphane Pompougnac albums and cringed at the inter-song glitches. Blamed it on the DJ but seems poor Stéphane is innocent after all…

    BTW, I’m hesitating between Audirvana and Fidelia, preferring the first for “full-system” listening and the second for headphones. Did not try to see which offers gapless playback but I would be glad if you could write a shootout between both.

  9. I Got into Apple ipods only when apple lossless and wav were available, never used mp3 (didn’t like) as I only used iriver/ogg vorbis before. …Was not even aware of this gap issue….. might not have noticed it.
    Strange world we live in, I never checked out flac either….

  10. I find the lack of gapless playback unacceptable. I still don’t understand why some applications are gapless playback (iTunes,MIND) and some are not (Audio Station/DS Audio) ???

    I listen to lots of progresive rock music (Yes,Marillion,Mars Volta, Steven Wilson), and the gaps between the tracks drive me more than nuts. I don’t understand why this problem have not been solved yet.

  11. I find the lack of progress shocking & disturbing with regards to portable digital audio players & PC software. I can’t find a product on either front that has everything I want in one package. Their is always some shortcoming or trade-off that must be made.

    Gapless playback is an absolute deal breaker for me. Like you I am also an owner of a number of fabric cds (Levon Vincent has been getting the rounds at the moment).

    I don’t know what the technical challenges are, but it seems like a trivial feature to implement. Wake up engineers and stop making products just for old men.

  12. definately essential for me. I decided against the ps audio pwd because if this. Anyone knows of a transport as good as Squeezebox but without the jitter?

  13. Take a look at the Atoll Streamer st-100 and st-200:
    http://www.atoll-electronique.com/uk/atoll-streamers.php

    -Gapless
    -USB input for HD and USB stick
    -Excellent DAC
    -Excellent analog pre-amplifier
    -Control via Ipad (soon available on Android )
    -Remote control for navigation and volume
    -Software is not as complete compare to SB

    You mention jitter on SB, I measure the SB3 in optical and it was quite low.
    http://forums.slimdevices.com/showthread.php?38948-About-Jitter-Measurements&highlight=mykerinos

    • I don’t think I specifically mentioned jitter on the SB; more that (for whatever reason) it’s not a great-sounding digital transports when compared to a) many good CD players and b) many USB-S/PDIF convertors.

      Thanks for the heads up on the Atoll though. Appreciated.

  14. I’ve been looking for a car head unit that will play gaplessly from a USB drive, whether it be MP3 Ogg Flac or whatever.
    I did find one which would play Ogg files but even that was not gapless.
    By the way as an old(ish) man its not me they are making the products for!

    • Thanks for the suggestion Michel but I don’t have an iPod. I am trying out various Android apps for streaming over Bluetooth, but its not the ideal solution.

  15. Always an interesting read on this site. 😉

    It seems that the Cambridge Audio Stream Magic products do now this…
    “Stream Magic 6 and NP30 network music players now support Apple Lossless (ALAC)!
    As well as FLAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF, WMA, AAC, HE ACC, AAC+ and OGG Vorbis.
    Both support gapless playback!”

    The Pioneer N30 or N50 do also play gapless now.

    You will have to update the players Firmware.[!]

    (I still play my digitized CD’s and bought Flac/Alac-files on my Mac Mini & iTunes/Audirvana Free)

    Wilco. (Greetings from the Netherlands)

  16. Oh, one more thing. 😉
    I have a lot of compilations CD’s with AmbientTechno-music (Rough Trade, Virgin) and JazzFunk-remixes (BlueNote, Jazzanova) that do need gapless playback and they all do well with iTunes I must say.

  17. I absolutely agree! Gapless is important enough to be a deal-breaker if any hardware doesn’t support it.