mon 15/07/2024

Opinion: RIP Sound Quality? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: RIP Sound Quality?

Opinion: RIP Sound Quality?

Digital killed the stereo star: how the MP3 file spells the death of good sound

Listen through hearing protection to simulate the MP3 experience

We all know people who listen to their music from iTunes, aren’t fussed with CDs and use their computer as the sole source for their listening. They’re listening to MP3s, the file format developed for portable players. But MP3s are compressed files with less data than those on a CD. Why listen to this fast-food version of music at home? Do so and it’s a nail in the coffin of sound quality.

This isn’t about the pros and cons of downloading or any of the surrounding issues. It’s not about streaming via Spotify – that’s just an advanced form of radio. This is about the creep which is leading to an acceptance that second, third or fourth-best is OK as long as it’s technologically whizz-bang and convenient. It might be, but it can still sound like rubbish. This technology was never meant for home listening. It’s fine for kids playing songs on mobile phones while upstairs on a bus. It's fine for headphones while on the move. It’s probably OK for listening while washing the dishes. But why chose medium wave or AM when something that’s more than VHF or FM is just as easily available? Back catalogue and current CDs are hardly bank breakers.

Now is a good time to ponder this. The slow death of high-street music retailer HMV is playing out in headlines – they aren’t selling enough CDs. It’s also 10 years since the iPod hit the shops. Even George W Bush has been asked what's on his iPod. Of course, there are other MP3 players, but the journalist Leander Kahney nailed it by titling his book The Cult of iPod.

Why would anyone want to hear an MP3 in a home situation? Keeping up with the technology Joneses might be one reason. Laziness another.

Even though it’s painful, a few technical things need bearing in mind. Digital files are a series of ones and zeroes. An MP3 is a different type of file to the one on a CD, a compressed reconfiguration of that file. Elements of the CD file are retained during the conversion to an MP3, creating a new one with less data – fewer ones and zeroes. The conversion process is irreversible. If an MP3 is re-saved as the CD-type file, the result will still have that lesser amount of data. Of course, there are different densities of MP3 file, and choices can be made during the conversion about how much data is lost – but data is always lost. However it’s done, an MP3 is always a diminished version of the original. An MP3 file can have 11-times less data that that heard on a CD.

sony_ipod_speaker_dock_webWhy would anyone want to hear an MP3 in a home situation? Keeping up with the technology Joneses might be one reason. Laziness another. Even more sadly, perhaps people just aren’t listening – it’s just another background hum. MP3 players can be stuck into the uselessly dubbed “docking stations” – is putting a plug in a socket “docking”? - and the music is heard. These things can cost as much as or more than a CD player. MP3 playlists and libraries exist on the computers which spurt the files into the player. Easier then to play music back from the computer. Why pick up a CD? However snazzy the computer or sleek and shiny the equipment, it’s still not playing what the artist intended to be heard. The full spectrum of sound is not there, dynamics are lost.

Radiohead recognised the sound-quality issue with their recent sneak album King of Limbs when it arrived in the world via download. It was available in MP3 format and (for a bit more money) in the uncompressed WAV format too. But you’ll never get eight million WAV files onto an MP3 player as they’re too large. If the compressed format is how a growing mass of listeners hear their music, why should bands, singers, whoever, bother to make high-quality recordings in high-spec studios? Is Edison-era wire recording going to return?

home_taping_is_killing_music_webThis plea isn’t anti-technology. It’s a lament. The compressed digital file was meant for use in the same spirit as the transistor radio – to be used portably. Back in the Eighties the music industry said home taping was killing music, meaning that home taping was cutting into profits. At least making a tape wasn’t passive. You had to physically find what you were going to record, press buttons, put things in and out of the cassette player, write tracklists.

Right now though, it's laziness that’s probably going to kill the music.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Why would anyone want to hear an MP3 in a home situation? It’s not what the artist intended to be heard

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agree with the sentiment, but i'm pretty sure the Joneses have been using lossless formats and networked streamers built using decent digital audio convertors for some time now.

surely you can't write this article without mentioning FLAC and other lossless compression formats? as championed by a few online music stores that care and (as usual) pirates.

It depends what's important to you. All recorded music is in some way a compromise and fidelity can be as much a question of sound engineering as subsequent compression. For price, storage and portability reasons, most music I listen to is compressed at between 200-320kbps (most download sites are now using 320kbps as standard). I know it's not CD quality, but to be honest, I'll never be able to afford the kind of equipment (or environment in which to listen) that would make the difference more than barely perceivable. And I'd rather spend the money seeing a live concert.

Too true. I think a similar thing is happening in photography: the difference between actual colors in a silver print versus the limited Red, Blue and Green of screen colors or the common Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black 4-color process of printing. I think most photographers are switching to digital, and we are made to accept an inferior quality format.

They said something similar when the CD started to replace the LP and tape, but somehow we survived. When I think about where and when I get to listen to music, the quality seems to be sufficient. Besides after years of doing live sound at various venues my frequency range of my ears are definitely not what it used to be. I will sacrifice some quality to be able to listen to various types of music in more places, but I still keep my turntable in working order and I will spin a disk or two when I can.

My CD player and Amp are blu-tacked onto marble slabs, isolated by spikes on a metal hi-fi rack. My interconnects are gold, and cables cost close to £100 each. My speaker stands are sand filled and spiked into the floor, and speakers bi-wired. Both my daughters love their iPods but if they want to 'listen' to music it's my hi-fi they turn on to really "feel the music". All you need is to let people hear the difference to educate them? Think wine-tasting and play both sources and they soon get it...

You might also have mentioned the fact that a lot of music these days is being written from the outset (whether consciously or not) to accommodate such lossy (MP3) formats as well as poor playback devices (laptop speakers/ earbuds etc). That's not to say that can't produce some amazing music in itself (limitations can often be a fantastic source of creativity) but such limitations should NOT be being universally applied forever more by the format itself! For example musical depth / layers/ textures do not come across well these days in lossy formats and modern playback devices - no where near as well as they did with vinyl or even tapes/ CD's played on old fashioned home HiFi systems (before they went all plastic-y). So music has had to become more simplified in a way - and this means that in a sense its vocabulary has been reduced which also means the meanings it is able to express are also more simplistic. The other way the industry has made music more exiting on such dull and lifeless lossy formats and rubbish playback devices is to make the music more about the visual than the aural. There has been a staggering increase in the sophistication, depth and production of music videos themselves. I would describe popular (ie corporate/ mainstream) music today as about 70% image orientated, 25% celeb gossip/ fashion orientated and 5% music orientated. There was a time when being a 'music artist' (even in the pop world) meant being a music artist .... although they could write fantastic music, some of them were actually quite strange looking or even ugly! (in other words they looked like most normal people). But today every new (mainstream) music artist is smokin' hot but half of them can't sing without digital assistance and use a team of writers and producers to create the music which their 'personality' and sexy looks are used to promote. The other thing running parallel to lossy formats which is destroying music is the so called 'loudness wars' where the dynamic range is being reduced at the mixing/ mastering stage to make the record sound 'louder' and (supposedly) more 'exciting'. But all this really does is make tracks which are the AUDIO EQUIVALENT OF CAPS LOCK AND WHICH SOON CREATE EAR FATIGUE IN THE LISTENER WHICH IS ANOTHER REASON WHY MUSIC SALES ARE DECLINING BECAUSE ACTUALLY LISTENING TO MUSIC TODAY IS FAST BECOMING A RATHER UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCE, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU COMBINE THIS OVER COMPRESSED PRODUCTION TREND WITH LOSSY FORMATS LIKE MP3 AND POOR PLAYBACK DEVICES AND THE FACT THAT THE MUSIC IS NOW SO BORING AND FORMULAIC AND FULL OF ARTISTS WHO AREN'T REALLY ARTISTS AT ALL BUT INSTEAD JUST HAVE YOUNG FIT BODIES, EXTROVERT SHALLOW PERSONALITIES AND WHO PORTRAY THEMSELVES IN A PORNOGRAPHIC WAY BUT WHO THE MEDIA NEVERTHELESS ARE ABLE TO PASS OFF AS SOMEHOW WORTHY OF OUR ATTENTION AND ADORATION BY KEEPING US FOCUSED ON THEIR ENDLESSLY REPEATABLE 'OUTRAGEOUS' ANTICS, SOUND BITES AND WARDROBE. In this sense perhaps 'home taping' - which in this age means illegal file sharing - is perhaps more of a symptom of an already dying music culture rather than the cause of it. A music culture being starved to death by corporations eager to use new technology to cut corners and make a fast buck by providing us with cheap and trashy (but very glossy and professionally produced) 'entertainment' - even if it is destructive to *music* (which is an art form) and culture itself. But ultimately it is the public who are killing music for falling for such cheap tricks in the first place and for accepting such expertly promoted trash instead of demanding quality with their wallets/ buying habits. As the cost of digital storage keeps dropping and the capacity of media devices increases (and with increasing internet download speeds) there is no reason to keep mp3 or any other lossy formats. After all, lossy formats were invented for practical reasons - to allow for the download speeds and storage capacities of the 90's. Today MP3 should really be considered no more than a 'thumbnail' format only. Surely the future lies in multiple formats AND multiple mixes bundled together - a format for your ipod, a format for home listening .... a mix for headphones, for speakers, for listening in the car, walking down a noisy street etc. Then the general public might be able to appreciate how awful most music today sounds. Which can only be a good thing! :)

Sound quality is relative and all consumer formats involve compromise. Even vinyl has varying quality between the outer and inner parts of the track due to different linear speed. CD was designed to be 'good enough' at the time (early 80s) within the limitations of what could be manufactured. We've had DVD-A and SACD since then, but they have not taken off. Early MP3 players had capacities measured in MB, so you had to compress your music a lot to fit more than one album on. Now we have GB and 200k+ is viable. I find that good enough on quality headphones. The argument about 'MP3 file can have 11-times less data that that heard on a CD' is bogus. A 128k MP3 file is 1/11 the size of what is on the CD, but probably contains 90%+ of the information. At 320k you are probably approaching 99% at about 1/4 the size. FLAC will give you 100% of the information at maybe 50% size. I can live with a 1% information loss on my less than perfect hardware. Meanwhile some artists are offering 24 bit/96kHz audio downloads. I don't have the hardware to handle that, but I'm expecting the perceivable difference from CD is minimal, even on very good equipment. Ultimately, I listen to the music, not the equipment or the format.

Rubbish article. Most important fact: Nobody could ever distinguish between a 192 kbit/s MP3 and the CD version in any test I've ever read or did myself. If you cannot distinguish between two there's no point in advocating for one or the other.

RIP Original journalism: Please explain why The Arts Desk feels the need to add to the pile of a million existing "sound quality" articles containing stereotypes, unsubstantiated opinions, plain bullshit and the "bleedin' obvious" to fill space...? The sound quality of my own snoring is wonderful by the way. Wake me up when you have a decent idea, ok?

Blame the music industry. Today's iPhone can old 64GB of music, while the original iPod had only 5 GB. This capacity is more than sufficient to contain the same amount of music in Apple Loseless or FLAC. I'd love to buy able to bu ymy song in a bette rformat. Oh and wav / cd is shit. Try a good SACD or some Flac at 24 bits / 96 Khz to really get close to "what the artist intended".

This article makes too many assumptions about almost all of it's points. I'm a musician and a music fan. I release music on vinyl and on MP3 and through a lot of DMSs these days you can get it in high quality (FLAC, WAV etc.) I probably care more about the on the move listening experience as that's what I do more of, thank the home experience - where I'll almost always be doing something else. So I do download wav to listen to on my iPod (perfectly possible). But equally, while I do enjoy highest fidelity playback on occasion, I honestly feel that in 80% of listening situations it is never of greater value than the song itself. For a lot of people the difference between a wav and an MP3 will be nigh on unnoticable. I've asked, and I've talked about it with people. As an artist this doesn't stop me from producing high quality recordings. Equally, format quality and "The end product" have never influenced the decisions I make in the studio or when writing music. Maybe they should? But I think the "as the artist intended" statement is a big assumption. Most simply want their music listened to. I think quibbles about the fidelity of the playback devices are at the bottom of the pile.

One of the biggest travesties today is digital radio. To cram more stations onto a multiplex, many stations are in mono. It's very disappointing.

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