Music’s future sounds terrible

Most of the criticisms levelled at digital download services have been about price and digital rights management technology, and while both issues are important – for example, the Legacy Edition of Jeff Buckley’s Grace is £15.99 on iTunes and comes with copy protection, whereas the CD is £12.99 in Amazon and my local supermarkets – I reckon there’s a bigger flaw: sound quality. To be blunt, the sound quality of legal downloads is terrible.

For many people it isn’t an issue – the popularity of MP3s at a frankly unlistenable 128Kbps never fails to amaze me – and the headphones supplied with most music players are awful anyway, but when you start listening to your digital music collection on decent speakers or through decent headphones the problem couldn’t be more obvious if your iPod displayed “this sounds crap!” in fifty foot letters of fire.

The problem is compression: whether you’re buying from iTunes or Napster, the music you get is compressed to make it a small file size, so downloads are typically 1/12th of the size of the original track. That’s great for portability, but file sizes aren’t really an issue now that even the cheapest MP3 players come with massive amounts of storage. And what you gain in portability, you lose in sound quality. To make the files smaller, some of the information has to be thrown away; the lower the bitrate the smaller the file, and the more that’s chucked out.

Different compression technologies work in slightly different ways, so for example there’s a noticeable difference between songs encoded with Windows Media technology and songs encoded with Apple’s AAC. But what they both have in common is that when you buy downloads, the songs you get are encoded at 128Kbps – which means that there’s a stark difference between the download and the CD version. There’s noticeable “swooshing” in the high frequencies, and if you like your music hard and heavy, you’ll discover that walls of distorted guitar sound positively weedy. It’s a problem with dance tracks, too: with downloads, the all-important low end thump is conspicuous by its absence.

I mentioned Jeff Buckley earlier. I did an experiment using his music: I downloaded Grace and Last Goodbye from the iTunes Music Store, and I compared them to the MP3s I’d already ripped from my CD (192Kbps, variable bit rate encoding). Compared to the MP3s, the iTunes downloads sounded positively anaemic: tinny, metallic and painful to listen to at high volumes. If you’re into making music, the best way I can describe it is that it sounds as if someone’s slapped on a compressor and turned it up to eleven.

The problem isn’t the format – it’s the quality. Both AAC (Apple) and Windows Media (Microsoft) formats are better file formats than MP3, so a 128Kbps iTunes or Napster download will sound better than a 128Kbps MP3. However, no matter which of the three file formats you go for, 128Kbps still sounds rotten. I’ve found that 160Kbps MP3s are better, but higher bitrate MP3s are better still.

There’s no reason why iTunes, Napster et al can’t offer higher bitrate music, and apparently Microsoft is promising to do just that with its MSN Music Store. I hope Apple does the same: now that high capacity MP3 players and broadband connections are commonplace, there’s no need to squish music files down to the point where sound quality suffers. Until then, I’ll keep buying CDs from Tesco and ripping them into iTunes, boycotting the discs whose copy protection won’t let me play them on my PowerBook.

7 thoughts on “Music’s future sounds terrible

  1. Professor Batty says:

    If you have access to a stand-alone CD burner (preferably a pro model) you can make a copy of any copy-protected CD by simply recoring it in analog. Granted, you will give up an infitesimal bit of sound quality, and you have to do it in real time, but it does work!

  2. Stephen says:

    Copy protection seems to be a non-issue on the Mac: my flatmate was unable to do anything with a CD on his Sony Vaio that my Powerbook dealt with as if it were a normal CD (and even displayed the track names in Hebrew in iTunes!).

    I’m really disappointed to hear about your experiences with the quality issues: I don’t have a good hifi to connect the P’Book/iPod to, and I just use the Apple buds, so haven’t noticed the diff, but will definitely be doing a test as you suggest, once I sell off a few organs to finance a pair of Etymotics…

    Regarding buying CDs and ripping them: you don’t need to do them as high-bitrate MP3s, iTunes can rip them with Apple Lossless, which should avoid any loss of quality, although the files don’t get very small…

  3. Gary says:

    if you want to improve your ipod’s sound but don’t want to spend a fortune, Sony do a £20 set of ear canal fontopias that I’d definitely recommend. Great phones and a vast improvement (IMO at least) over the standard earbuds. Although to be fair, I haven’t tried Apple’s ear canal efforts yet.

  4. Roger says:

    Dear BigMouth, I have to ask, where do you get your mp3s from?

    In my experience your criticisms apply more to illegally downloaded music, of unknown origin, than to music encoded by pay services. One of the reasons people will eventually buy music from these services (if they ever get their pricing right) rather than downloading for free, is because they know tracks will have been encoded using the necessary care and attention, and in this case mp3 can sound almost identical to the original 16bit CD track.

    The encoding technology is not the problem, and hasn’t been for years, it’s the care and attention taken to do the encoding properly that makes all the difference.

  5. Gary says:

    Hi Roger.

    > I have to ask, where do you get your mp3s from?

    These days? Home ripping of CDs. But I’ve tried the various music stores such as Napster and iTunes, and of course I’ve some experience of the file sharing networks.

    > One of the reasons people will eventually buy music from these services (if they ever get their pricing right) rather than downloading for free, is because they know tracks will have been encoded using the necessary care and attention

    I agree. That’s why the labels are putting so much effort into flooding P2P nets with fake files. It’s all about utility; as soon as it’s less hassle to pay for music than download it illegally, people will pay for music. Look at the -baffling- success of ringtones, where people pay £3 for thirty seconds of something that vaguely resembles the song in question.

    That said, to my ears – and I’ll cheerfully admit that I’m picky; I’ve spent a few years reviewing speaker systems and music players – and on my particular hardware, the two music formats (AAC and WMA) offered by legal download shops sound compressed and overly tinny compared to a decent bitrate, VBR MP3. And there are definite differences between compression formats: a low bitrate MP3 sounds “mushy” or “splashy” if the bitrate isn’t adequate for the music; a low bitrate WMA or AAC with the same problem sounds more metallic. So while I don’t particularly like 128Kbps MP3 files, the degradation of the audio is less unpleasant to my ears than it is on other formats. AAC and WMA are both *better* compression formats than MP3, but if the bitrate isn’t adequate for the audio (heavy rock is the classic example) then my ears don’t like ’em.

    Then again, I’m someone who finds some pop tracks unlistenable because the high-ends are too metallic. As I say, I’m picky; your mileage may vary :-)

  6. ray says:

    Hi, I agree with every point. While I don’t get my music from music stores, but instead get the cds I want, I have heard these things you are talking about. Sad, really. If people use the latest and greatest mp3 encoders with vbr at 160kbps I think their problems would be pretty much solved. Or better yet, use Vorbis at 160, it’s about as good as an mp3 at 224 or so. Vorbis might cut costs too, since Vorbis is free and open source meaning no payments by anyone, from devs to consumers, need to pay anything to use it.

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