In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

The last decade has brought an explosion in dazzling technological advances — including enhancements in surround sound, high definition television and 3-D — that have transformed the fan’s experience. There are improvements in the quality of media everywhere — except in music.

In many ways, the quality of what people hear — how well the playback reflects the original sound— has taken a step back. To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks are engineered to be much louder as well.

The above quote is from a recent New York Times article, written by Joseph Plambeck.  In it, he discuses how although technology has advanced quite a bit in the last fifty years, the quality of recorded music has actually deteriorated.  This is mostly due to the need for audio compression, i.e. so we can fit more songs on our iPods.  The article is extremely thorough, without getting too techie.   

I think I began working with digital music somewhere in 2002, and have actively studied it ever since.  I think it is very important for music lovers to have a good understanding on just what exactly compression really is.  The most important thing to pay attention to is the bit rate.  The higher the number, the higher the quality.  The best way to ensure a good quality file is to either rip the CD yourself, or download from legit online retailers, such as AmazonMP3 or iTunes. Thankfully, online music stores are now DRM free and at a higher bit rate (256 kbps).  Here are some tips I've learned from dealing with high quality digital music.


Tip #1:  BACKUP!

On at least two separate occasions I've had to rebuild my music library.  Not fun when it has grown to thousands of tracks.  I've also lost several tracks (probably hundreds) that I can't replace. Have a backup solution, in fact, have two.  


Tip #2:  Know thy bit rate

Check your iTunes (or whatever program you use) and see what bit rate you have been using over the years.  If it's been set to 128 kbps, it might be time to re-encode (rip) those CDs.  Especially if you listen to nuanced music like  classical and/or jazz.  The higher bit rate, the more information is there (and larger the file, something to keep in mind as well).  Personally, I use the iTunes Plus format of 256 kbps (VBR) AAC.


Tip #3:  Do NOT Transcode

Transcoding is going from one compressed format to another.  I made this mistake early on. Once I learned the AAC format was more advanced than MP3, I thought it was a good idea to make every MP3 in my library an AAC file.  I didn't realize I was doing absolutely nothing to improve the quality.  It's a garbage in, garbage out situation.  You can't make a 128 kbps MP3 sound any better by transcoding it to a 256 kbps AAC.  Going from a lossless format to a lossy format is fine (like going from Apple Lossless to AAC).


I'd like to conclude with my favorite quote from the article.  It makes the perfect argument for making sure your digital music collection is at a very high quality.

“Musicians work their whole life trying to capture a tone, and we’re trying to take advantage of it,” Mr. Chesky said. “If you want to listen to a $3 million Stradivarius violin, you need to hear it in a hall that allows the instrument to sound like $3 million.”  

You can read the entire article here.

Questions?  Leave them in the comments below.