Blog No. 42, Posted by Larry Seiler, 07/22/2013
Many audiophiles as well as many recording engineers have been decrying the downgrading of audio quality for a number of years—essentially ever since the MP3 format made its debut. Now don't get me wrong, I think the advent of MP3 and its ability to reduce the size of audio files has been a great boon to music. It ushered in the era of computer music, iPods, and the ability to take your music with you. The problem is that most people listen to their iPods (and now iPhones) using MP3s encoded at 128 kbps or less, quite often with cheap earbuds. During the compression process (the process of reducing the file size), algorthms are used to discard unneeded data to slim down the file size. Unfortunately, the process is not always good a deciding what is unneeded and at other times leaves undesired artifacts. The result is a degradation of sound quality.
There has been some effort to replace the MP3 with formats with improved sound quality, but so far the attempts have resulted in only a marginal improvement. However, at the other extreme is what is being called "high-resolution" recordings. Recently Apple introudced a program called Mastered for iTunes, which is their attempt to jump on the bandwagon. High resolution audio produces uncompressed audio files at a bit depth of 24 bits and a sampling rate of 96 kHz or more. By contast, the compact disc has a 16-bit bit depth and a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. Is this really something we want to do?
In a guest editorial in the February 2013 issue of Recording, Ethan Winer, author of The Audio Expert, suggests that it may be overkill.
There has been much anecdotal evidence that experts can hear the higher quality of high-resolution audio, but until recently few studies have been conducted to confirm this. However, in a recent series of tests conducted by E. Brad Meyer and David R. Moran, participants were no more likely to choose the high-resolution recordings than flipping a coin. The test results were printed in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society and can be found at http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=14195 and http://bostonaudiosociety.org/explanation.htm.
While I'm all for higher quality audio, I think we need to step back and not go overboard by making improvements that are not really improvements. If we were able to just replace MP3 players with something that had CD-quality sound, we will have come a long way.
Send comments to