Okay, so I’ve got a beef with the whole iTunes download thing – the sound quality sucks. I get the feeling I’m a bit behind the curve in noticing this, but that’s neither here nor there. In the midst of enjoying the convenience of downloading almost anything I want to hear, exactly when I want to hear it, the middling sound quality of iTunes’ MP3 and AAC files (.m4a) has become immediately audible. This is not news to a lot of you out there, but those who are receptive to the problem are vastly outnumbered by new generations busy dumping millions of dollars into their iTunes libraries. In fact, many listeners are replacing their CD collections, not realizing that their digital files’ sound quality will not stand the test of time.
What do I hear? A fleeting flutter in the highend, especially noticeable with cymbals and strings, and a loose sounding, extreme lowend. Playing compressed music at high volumes can sound garbled and distorted. It’s not as apparent on my speaker systems from a distance, but I can certainly hear it clearly in my standard-issue iPod earbuds.
What is bit rate?
Bit Rate is a measurement in bits per second, or 1000 bits per second (kbps), of compression in an audio file. Higher bit rates yield higher quality sounding music as opposed to lower bit rates, but the higher the bitrate the larger the filesize. Remember that audio quality can never be recovered, so converting a 128kbps file to 320kbps will result in a file with the same quality as 128kbps.
I noticed it recently while listening to the classic, dynamic Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. I had previously loaded this double CD set into my iTunes library at the standard AAC 128kbps bit rate. I’ve since gone back and dumped it, reloading the album at the highest 256kbps setting (you can change the setting in Preferences in your iTunes application). It now sounds closer to the CD’s AIFF noncompressed, higher resolution quality. So why do MP3/AAC files sound inferior? By the design of the MP3 and AAC compression format, certain parts of the sound that are outside the hearing range of most people are removed. By removing these outer parts of the audio spectrum, there is less data to compress to create the audio file. It can take an AIFF audio file of 31.1MB size and reduce it to 2.9MB. The AAC format does allow for a slightly better sound quality than MP3s at the same 128kbps setting, so it is quickly becoming the new digital standard. But it reared its ugly head once again when I listened to Rufus Wainwright’s latest, Release The Stars, a stunner of an album and chock full of musical beauty that has been sonically devoured by iTunes. Therefore, I’ll run to the music store – before it closes its doors for good – and purchase a CD copy, all the while feeling ripped off for the $10 spent at the iTunes Music Store.
I’ve even heard that some album producers are mastering their albums with extremely heavy compression, specifically tailored to those little earbuds that come with your iPod/digital audio player. When you play these albums on a regular system – or through those tiny earbuds, for that matter – it hits you like a fatiguing, unrelenting wall of digital brashness that makes you want to find some animal to strangle. Simply put, the MP3/AAC formats can’t faithfully reproduce that amount of program.
So please don’t push the compact disc into a premature obsolescence by buying your new music solely from download sites. Give technology time to improve the compression formats to at least AIFF quality, as used on compact discs. In the meantime, we need to allow new releases to still be available on CD. And the way we do this, obviously, is by continuing to buy CDs. It was a sad sign of the changing times in music when Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard closed.
The compact disc AIFF file format is capable of retaining the quality of an album master, but it is also a step down, in certain respects, to the natural warmth and sonic blanket of that ancient invention: analog. Do you really want an ear opener? Go back and listen to a vinyl album on one of those archaic turntables, then listen to the same album on your iPod.
Analog vinyl disc to the digital CD to MP3s – it appears we’ve come full circle in sound quality, all for the sake of convenience. Don’t get me wrong; I love having thousands of songs on my iPod, shuffling them, playing DJ on the band bus and at parties, and everything else the iPod generation has afforded us. But the last thing we should do is settle for an inferior audio format, keeping future generations from realizing just how good music can really sound.
is co-founder of 65amps