Part 1 of 2: How Bad is MP3? [GUEST POST]

Inactive grenade mp3 player

In my very first blog post I briefly bashed MP3 as an inferior format for tone deaf plebes. I soon realized that was an extremely hypocritical thing to do, as the majority of my music collection resides on my laptop and iPod in either AAC or MP3. But whenever I listen to these formats, I’m usually doing something else at the same time: riding the bus or subway, walking to class, fidgeting in an uncomfortable airline seat, or hunched over my laptop surfing the internet. I reserve my “critical listening” sessions for vinyl, CD and SACD and so I had never sat down and really listened to MP3′s. As far as I know, MP3 sounds pretty damn good when piped into a hi-fi setup but I was just going off the standard snobbery and assuming that it sucks.

So, I decided to plug my laptop into my amplifier and give some tracks a good analysis. I had done this before in my previous apartment, but again I never had a chance to critically regard it since it was usually done during parties. To do this, I bought a cheap 3.5mm to L+R RCA adapter much like this one which Amazon is selling for an unbelievable penny, not including shipping. The red and white plugs go into the amp and the other end goes into the laptop or other MP3 device. Some newer amps have a port in the front that you can plug a player straight into using a cable like this.

Bit rate

It’s important to first briefly summarize bit rate: usually, higher bit rates translate to better sound quality. The most common bit rate seems to be 128 kbps – this is what you’ll likely find on file-sharing networks unless otherwise specified. By default, iTunes rips CDs to 256 kbps AAC format (which can be changed), and the same goes for stuff downloaded from the iTunes Store.

Now that i’m plugged in, I try a few selections…

The Chameleons – What Does Anything Mean? Basically

the chameleons what does anything mean really

(224 kbps MP3): This layered, atmospheric post-punk/goth really suffers from the MP3 encoding. It sounds as though the music is struggling to escape the speakers, and this tires out my ears because I have to force myself to focus and interpolate what i’m supposed to be hearing. Turning up the bass knob on my amp filled out the bottom end a bit, but I really don’t like to play with the tone controls if I can help it.

Catherine Wheel – Chrome

Catherine Wheel - Chrome

(160 kbps MP3): A slight improvement, but the music still lacks any sort of punch or edge. This might be blamed on the album’s production; shoegaze bands liked to go for the muddy, distant sound.

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Benjamin Britten: English Chamber Orchestra

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Benjamin Britten: English Chamber Orchestra

(256 kbps AAC): This is one of the better selections so far. The music actually has life and presence, although the violins lack attack/decay. Could this improvement be a property of the AAC encoding?

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Goes to College

Dave Brubeck - Jazz Goes to School

(141 kbps MP3): First off, this is a live concert recording, so the overall acoustics will differ from something taped in studio. Nevertheless, this actually sounds fairly musical and I would say is the best set of MP3s i’ve sampled so far. The sax and piano are smooth and feel as though they are in a concert hall like they should. However, like all the tracks i’ve tested, the bass is disappointing and there is still that lack of thrust and definition that I like to hear (Additionally, a minor gripe: the applause and whistles of the audience don’t feel “live” either).

Now there are some flaws in this experiment that I’ll readily admit…

  1. This is an entirely subjective test. I didn’t take any actual measurements of the sound output (such as level or frequencies), although I kept the volume the same.
  2. The output level of my MacBook is probably less powerful than other sources, thus giving the amplifier less to work with. An MP3 player might give different results.
  3. I didn’t do any sort of A/B comparison between the same recording on a different source like CD or vinyl. This is why in part 2 of this article I intend to listen to Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto, a recording that I have on both vinyl and CD, so I can compare the two to an MP3 rip I made.

In the meantime, I can say this about MP3s: They clearly have a lot of advantages, in that they’re , uh, “free” and they take up very little space on your hard drive. And despite that they aren’t a hi-fi medium, i’m willing to bet that most of my readers have a substantial amount of their music in this format. To take advantage of this, and to get the best sound possible, hook your MP3 player into an amplifier + speaker combo. By simple virtue of playing through actual speakers and not earbuds or a cheap docking station, you will reveal details that you wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, Kitchens of Distinction’s Love is Hell was an album that I had only listened to on my iPod, so when tried it through my system it revealed details like fuller chorus guitar effects.

If you want to get your feet wet with hi-fi, get yourself a setup like the one I recommend and plug in your computer or MP3 player. You’ll get a taste of good sound while keeping your current collection, and I have no doubt that it will inspire you to do more with your system.

For further reading, Stereophile has a good article about the difference between various audio compression formats.


Part 2 of this article will surface later in the week for more thoughts on the MP3!

  • http://www.yohami.com Yohami

    pointless bro

    you do need to compare the same sound file at different formats / compression rates

    that said, mp3 sucks, but you never know how much unless you do this test right.

  • http://tightmixblog.com Chris B.

    Mike, the writer of this article, makes note that his tests are subjective, and therefore not valid experiments. They are simple comparisons to help people without the means or motivation to do a double blind test to get a rough idea of how different formats sound to a normal human ear in a normal listening setting. Really for fun more than anything else.

  • http://colortheory.com Brian Hazard

    Mp3 may suck, or it may not! It depends on how you encode it. Your first mistake is using iTunes. LAME is better. Hydrogenaudio has best practices advice, updated periodically. I’ve got everything set up according to their latest recommendations, and routinely encode mp3s for my clients.

    Chris, feel free to send me some .wav or AIFF files using http://ge.tt and I’ll encode them for you! I use V0, which is the highest variable bitrate setting.

  • http://colortheory.com Brian Hazard

    Oh, one other thing. You should really be A/B’ing the compressed files against the uncompressed files. Switch back and forth, preferably blindly (there is software to facilitate this, but I’m not remembering the name offhand), and see what differences you can detect.

  • http://tightmixblog.com Chris B.

    Hehe, this is more of a subjective post, but those are some excellent tips if you want to conduct a real test between audio formats.

  • http://colortheory.com Brian Hazard

    Either way it’s going to be subjective, but if you want to draw any useful conclusions, you need to put some thought into how you design your listening tests. Why blame the deficiencies you’re hearing on on lossy compression? For example, how would mp3 encoding affect the attack/decay of the violins? Why not blame the preamp, your headphones, or the extra cup of coffee you had this morning? The only way to tell is to compare it to the uncompressed version, back to back.

    If you want to really know if you can hear the difference, send me three .wav or AIFF files. I’ll encode them and then convert them back to their original format. Then I’ll send you back six files – an A and B version of each of the three tracks. If you can correctly identify which is the mp3 and which is the .wav, using only your ears, I’ll buy you a Coke. :)

  • http://tightmixblog.com Chris B.

    I’m so glad I posted this, solely for the comments you’ve shared. Thanks, Brian!

    Oh, and you’re ON, baby. I’ll send you some songs later in the week 8) I want that coke!

  • http://colortheory.com Brian Hazard

    Looking forward to it! I should extend the offer to Mike as well. I just realized that this is a guest post.

  • http://tightmixblog.com Chris B.

    i’ll forward him your email :)

  • http://mikeborgia.com Mikeborgia

    dude! you just recommended one of my favorite bands “The Catherine Wheel” which means you actually have good taste in music and a diverse one. I’m not going to forgive you for liking Arcade Fire, but this surely makes up for it. btw most people don’t know the difference between an mp3 and a wave file. If it sounds clear and can get loud, then that is all that matters to the general music consumer. :)