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Why MP3's Won't Kill High Fidelity

by May 18, 2010
Rest in Peace?

Rest in Peace?

You might (or might not) be shocked at the number of times people forward me the latest diatribe about the death of high end audio. It seems every six months or so there is one coming out. We've even written a few here (see links below). The thought process is thus: kids these days are getting more and more into MP3s. Most programs default to around a 128kbps bitrate. As has been discussed in many places (with a great explanation along with audio examples on AV Rant), compression of that sort can be clearly audible (or in comparison can clearly degrade the overall quality of the audio fidelity). Kids are getting used to this decrease audio quality and have even been shown to prefer it. Therefore, high end audio is going the way of the dodo. Here's why they are wrong.

Let's go way back to the birth of recordings. Well, not to the birth, but to the infancy. A long time ago (before some of the posters on the Audioholics forum were born) I dated a girl. She had a father that was into jazz. Not just jazz, but collecting jazz recordings. The recordings he liked to collect were old - the older the better. I'm not sure how often he shared his passion with other people but he only shared it with me once. He spent about 45 minutes (or 5 - I was young and a founding member of the Short Attention Span Theater Troupe) giving me the history of the musician. He told me about the venue, the recording, and even the sociopolitical climate of the day. He knew everything there was to know about the recording. And then he played the record.

I'd like to say that I remember the system he played it on - but I don't. My recollection is fuzzy on the matter. Given what I remember about the room and its size, I don't think it was very high end. He probably thought I'd be interested because at the time I was a bassist in a jazz band. That being said, it sounded terrible. The worst podcast recorded with the worst mics in the largest echo chamber had nothing on this recording. But to him, it was history. It was a moment of time that would be forgotten once his (probably one of the few recordings left - at least in his mind) record was lost or destroyed. 

But let's face facts - the recording sucked. Can you imagine what someone who had been there would say if they heard the recording today (other than "Huhhhh... Braaaaaains...")? They'd probably (hopefully) say that it sounded nothing like the original. That it captured nothing of the spirit, of the impact, of the emotion of the real moment. They'd deride it not only was a poor recording, but probably as an affront to the original performance - something better left forgotten then trapped in a form that so clearly misrepresents the quality of the original.

Sound familiar?

The yardstick by which all recorded audio should be measured is live performance. It is only recently, I maintain, that we've gotten to the point where recorded audio can outperform live performance.

Put down your pitchforks and torches and let me explain.

Vinyl, the new audiophile format, has one glaring problem - it degrades with each playing. That's just a physical fact. But a studio recording, well mastered, on a lightly played record and reproduced through quality equipment in a properly treated room can sound great. But I believe that it was the advent of surround sound that really took us to the next level. Forgetting the gimmicky stuff that surround sound engineers do, a well mastered studio or live recording on SACD, DVD-A, or (most recently) Blu-ray can sound actually better than a live performance. Why? Well, you're not dealing with the level of ambient noise, you're not dealing with a huge room, you're not dealing with all the stuff that goes on during a live performance. You can get all the fidelity from the instruments coming from all the right places (without the "tricks" of phase you have to use for stereo recordings) and without all the garbage. If your room or speakers suck... well, that's a different story, but the theory is sound.

The fact of the matter is that we've been dealing with overly compressed sound for a long time. While you could only reproduce a particular dynamic range from a vinyl recording because of the physical limitations of the disc, CDs got rid of all of that. Soon after, however, industry marketing folk realized that you could crush the dynamics out of recordings and have the "loudest" record. Since it is practically an audiophile law that people equate loudness with quality, you can see why marketing execs (and even some bands) pressed for loud. But this really stemmed from the radio.

When you are driving in your car, you don't want to have to mess with the volume knob from song to song (or even within songs). With the background noise of the road, the wind, and the tantruming child you're desperately trying to ignore - there's a lot of competition for your ears. Radio stations use specific gear that compresses (different than MP3 compression by the way) the dynamics of the music so that is all the same volume. You still get the auditory cues that the song is getting louder or softer, but the actual volume doesn't change significantly. While this is great for the car, it isn't so great for music overall.

Unfortunately, musicians quickly latched on to this idea and started (I believe Oasis was of the first and most egregious users) compressing the dynamic ranges of their CDs. If artists pioneered the phenomenon, record producers and marketing folk turned it into the mainstream canon of the day. What was once a song that had shifts in volume for dramatic effect, now had indications of shifts in volume without actual volume shifts. You might recognize this in your own listening. I have found that when the "loudest" part of the song is suppose to start, I instinctively turn the volume up on a dynamically compressed song. It's like my brain is telling my hand (without filling me in), "This is not actually getting any louder - fix it." I also find that I can't listen to dynamically compressed music for too long before my ears get fatigued. I'll find myself listening to a station and suddenly I'm changing the channel. My wife gets mad because she was listening to that and I don't actually remember consciously deciding to turn the channel. My ears have just had enough.

This is not to say that dynamic compression and MP3 compression are the same thing (they aren't). But both reduce the overall quality of music. I don't know about you, but I've been listening to the radio (and still do I'm ashamed to say) all my life. That hasn't precluded me from enjoying and preferring high end audio. In fact, I have albums (most of the recent bands are like this) that only really sounds good in the car. Get them into a high end system and the dynamic compression is just too much. It's almost like it is a different album. I still buy high end albums and occasionally regular stuff. Some end up only in the car, others can travel between both.

File size compression (or MP3 compression) is a different animal. The basic idea is that the computer uses an algorithm to calculate what you can and can't hear (it's complex, but predicated on the principle that if a flea farts behind a loud cymbal crash, your ears aren't going to pick it up, so why encode it and add it to the soundtrack). The amount of compression you want (or how small you want the file to be) determines how much of this "inaudible" material is removed. Of course, there is some debate as to how much is actually inaudible. Most people can agree, however, that the standard default compression of 128kbps in most encoders does reduce quality. How much of a reduction is beyond the scope of this editorial. With the advent of iPods and portable MP3 players (not to mention digital downloads and streaming), file size has become very important. While recently storage has become more and more reasonably priced, the mindset is still on how many songs you can get on your iPod. In fact, most manufacturers quote the number of songs that fit on a MP3 device using a standard size based on 128kbps MP3 compression.

It is true that people love their iPods. If you're not one of them, you know a few people that can't live without their tunes. Many of them don't have the technical know-how, or more likely the desire, to change the compression codec to a higher bitrate - preferably a lossless one. But what are people using their iPods for? Working out, driving, distracting themselves during work (not me!), plugging into a boombox/dock for background music... basically all the times when the radio used to be playing. While there are many that plug their iPods (or stream their content in the homes) through their home theater or higher end equipment, I believe that the iPod is supplanting the radio, not high end discs. 

The problem is that recent research has suggested that kids (those darn kids - get off my lawn!) are starting to prefer compressed music over uncompressed. Well, duh! What do you expect? How many people prefer their HTiB speakers over higher end offerings simply because it's what they know? In my experience - just about all of them. That's not to say they can't be educated, but just because they prefer compression in one test doesn't mean they disapprove of high fidelity. They just haven't been exposed to it enough.

I remember when I first experienced surround sound in a home theater environment. I had just bought (and watched) Jurassic Park on widescreen VHS and bumped into a friend that had a system. He suggested I come watch it at his house. I tried to explain that I has just watched it (like 10 minutes ago) but he wouldn't be deterred. I looked around at all his speakers and didn't know what to think. When he fired up the system... well, the rest is history.

I was probably 22 at the time.

Just because we're old (I'm an ancient 38) and these kids don't seem to know or care about high end audio doesn't mean they never will. I had a friend when I was a lot younger who spent the better part of an afternoon trying to explain to me why reel-to-reel was better than vinyl (which is an example of the first esoteric law of audio: Current technology is ALWAYS inferior to past technology). I didn't listen then and probably wouldn't have listened to any discussion of quality audio. I was busy trying to control my hormones and figure out this whole shaving thing. But given time, and the right experiences, high end audio became not only my interest, but my passion. If it can happen to me, it can happen to my kids. 

Or else.


Let's put this all in perspective. Is high end audio in jeopardy? Sure. But it always has been. People have always been willing to pay for "good enough" and audio is an easy way to cut corners. Quick question - do you think anyone other than the hardcore would care if Avatar was released in 3D with only a Dolby Digital soundtrack? Heck no. It'd sell like hotcakes. The fact is that there will always be people and artists that are unwilling to sacrifice audio quality. When people hear these recordings, it'll click and they'll be hooked too. Just recently, a 19 year old babysitter was sitting in while I was listening to a Porcupine Tree DVD-A and was blown away. It was the best thing she'd ever heard. Of course, I had to spend a half an hour explaining why she couldn't burn it to her iPod (and not just the ethics of it), but at least she now knows there is quality out there. Some day she, and others like her, will buy a decent pair of speakers, play their highly compressed music through them and wonder what is wrong. When they come across this website, I have one thing to say.

Welcome home.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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