The mp3 format is now a good ten years old, and it has been instrumental in the widespread acceptance of the internet as a platform for music distribution. Together with the increasing broadband speeds available, mp3s mean that music is now available in ever faster, more convenient packages. But there comes a point where the tradeoff between instantaneity of file transfer and the quality of the end product comes under question — and as broadband speeds cross the 10Mb/s threshold and large hard drive prices get progressively lower, do we really need our music to be that compressed?
The average 128kbps mp3 file — still apparently the most common compression ratio — contains about an eleventh of the data that was on the original CD. In other words, ten times as much audio information has been thrown away than has been kept. This is not an argument for audiophiles — even the most casual observer can tell the difference.
Even using a rudimentary 1Mb broadband connection, the difference between the download speed of an mp3 at 128kbps and an mp3 at 256kbps is a matter of seconds. The acoustic and aesthetic difference between the two is astonishing – comparable to the difference between AM and FM radio. Surely nobody’s that impatient.
But stretch that further. The difference between a 256kbps mp3 file and a lossless file, either encoded in FLAC (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) or as an uncompressed WAV or AIFF file is entirely comparable. You wait a little while longer, it takes up a little more hard drive space — and the difference is impressive.
The balance between convenience and quality is one that drives consumer issues — particularly in the area of music. iPods are convenient. SACD and DVD-Audio are very high quality music formats. How many people do you know with an SACD player?
Record labels are starting to notice that you can’t play a low bitrate music file at anything like a reasonable volume and get any enjoyment out of it. Some online labels — particularly in the dance genre — are selling 192kbps files for personal listening, and — for a little bit more — 320kbps files for DJs who want to use them in their live performances. Audiophile formats like jazz and classical tend toward the higher end of the spectrum too.
But others are starting to wonder if even the high-end mp3 might be coming to the end of its lifecycle. If storage space is not a problem and speed of internet transfer becomes less and less, then why would the consumer continue to want cassette quality, when real CD quality could be made available for almost no sacrifice in convenience?
So what about all the other mp3s in the collection? Will we be expected to replace all of our music all over again?
Not necessarily. Nifty little gadgets like the Creative X-MOD, which ‘upsamples’ music and claims to be able to get better-than-CD quality out of ordinary old mp3s might bridge the gap and give us the quality we deserve from the music collection we started building ever since our computers first started having soundcards.
The better-than-CD claim may be dubious, but I guess it depends on your definition of quality. Accuracy — the holy grail of music fidelity — does not automatically equate with ‘pleasing to the ear’. Anyone who has monitored a mix using a pair of Yamaha NS-10s will tell you that those suckers will show up every flaw and blemish in your music. They might be accurate (actually, they’re not – but they’re more so than most home hi-fi speakers), but I won’t have them in my house.
It may be a while before mp3s go the way of audio cassettes — but the reason that they were invented no longer applies. If you sell music, you might want to start to think about issues of bitrate and file format. And if you listen to music — you might want to think about checking out that X-MOD thing. Nobody believes they provide accurate and faithful representations of the original source material — but I am yet to see a bad review.
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