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I’ve talked about making different file sizes available for download before. We’ve acknowledged that there are differences of opinion on the topic. For some, OGG is everything. For others, 128k is sufficient and makes things better for people with slow connections.

For some (myself included), in most instances and for most practical purposes, a 320k mp3 file ticks all the boxes. Most of the time.

But the question I often get confronted with – and it’s one that raises some real passion – is whether people (that is to say, civilians) actually care about audio fidelity anymore.

McMusic Files
I spent the weekend in the company of someone for whom mp3s were the sonic equivalent of McDonalds (my friend is French, and so most analogies are gastronomic).

McDonalds is very popular. It will fill you up. It does the job of food. But if you just experienced the real thing, you would see that it is worth the time and the trouble. It warrants your attention, and does more than meet a passing need – it enriches you and satisfies you.

Now, I’m not “one of those guys” when it comes to listening to music. I love good sound on a great stereo – but like a meal in an expensive French restaurant, it’s not something I enjoy every day. I can be very happy with 320k mp3s.

Call for backup
I do wonder if my friend had a point in terms of having a reference copy.

A FLAC, Apple Lossless or WAV file is essentially exactly the disc, minus the plastic. Having it to go back to when you decide that you’d rather listen to something as it was recorded, or just as an archived original rather than a ‘day-to-day use’ version may well be a good idea.

After all, it’s just as safe – if not safer – to have a hard drive safety version of your “original copy” (if you’ll excuse the Baudrillardian non-sequitur) as it is to have a fragile plastic disc sitting on your flammable bookcase. And if you want to re-encode for a new portable listening preference, it’s not that big a deal to return and digitally manipulate.

Certainly quicker than a re-rip in most cases.

LP, CASS, CD, DAT, SACD, DVD-A, MP3, FLAC…
The music industry seems fairly happy to sell people their entire collections in yet another format every few years – so once we’re all on mp3, that might seem the next logical leap for music retail online.

It would certainly explain why, despite the capacity to make these files available now, by and large the online retailers are dragging their feet on this particular one.

But with the tension that has long existed between recorded music fidelity and recorded music convenience, is there a tipping point at which it becomes just as easy, quick and simple to use lossless files as it is to use mp3s – which are, after all, ‘good enough’ in most typical listening environments.

High-fidelity audio formats do not, traditionally, win over conveniece formats. CDs were popular not only because they sounded better, but because they were more convenient than what preceded them. Super Audio CDs failed, one presumes, because not only were the players pricey, but the only advantage over CD was that they sounded a bit better. They were no more convenient.

MP3s on the other hand, are the most portable, handy and convenient music package around. They take up no space whatsoever on my shelf, they can be moved from place to place without effort and they just work.

Audio fidelity is a cultural issue
Is it, perhaps even, genre-specific? You don’t get too many people blasting Rachmaninov or Ornette Coleman out of their mobile phone on the back of the bus, and nor are many hi-fi buffs serious collectors of Dubstep.

House music DJs require big speakers and muscular sound systems, for which high fidelity recordings are essential. Cafe-jazz compilations, which are so often relegated to background sound in public spaces may just as well be at 128kbps.

And let’s face it – the vast majority of listening these days – as far as I can tell – is done on reasonably cheap headphones, portable devices, badly placed home stereo speakers and computer desktop monitors.

Is audio fidelity actually that “important”?
Honestly? I don’t have an answer. All I have are preferences. I’m a former sound engineer and a reformed perfectionist when it comes to this stuff. I love a sonic treat – but I am no hi-fi snob.

I’m not in a position to go back and re-rip all of my discs in better quality. I don’t even own most of them anymore. I’m stuck with thousands of mp3s and I’m reasonably happy with that.

My motto is “records are for listening to, digital files for having on“. But I understand that I’m not typical in this respect.

I suspect that giving the audience a choice is a good start – and letting them know how to use the better quality files, which are often not entirely intuitive and do not work in every player (the equivalent, I suppose, of learning which fork to use for the entree) might be a good start.

And we haven’t even begun a conversation about 5.1…

What I do know is that there are some strong opinions out there. So let’s hear what you think. To what extent is audio fidelity part of the music consumption experience?