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

lego mp3 players

Last time I wrote up a post about my opinions on the MP3 format which included a few listening reviews of various MP3′s in my collection. I admitted the weakness of this experiment, in that I wasn’t comparing these recordings to any other format, so I concluded that I needed to do a review the same recording in both MP3, CD and vinyl forms.

I chose to review Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1961 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor.” Specifically, the third and final movement. I own this recording both on vinyl as part of the Great Men of Music boxset I reviewed a while back and as an RCA Living Stereo SACD.

Let’s experiment, shall we?

I ripped an MP3 copy at 160 kbps using iTunes, which was sourced from the CD layer of the SACD disc. Before each test, I calibrated the sound level for each source to -25 dB using the trial version of Electroacoustics Toolbox 2.0, a versatile sound analysis program. To do this, I placed my laptop in my listening position and then played a 1 KHZ test tone from the Stereophile Test CD, test MP3 file in iTunes, and the Cardas Test record. The laptop microphone picks up the test tone and displays the current SPL (sound pressure level), and I would adjust the volume knob on my amp until it reached -25 dB. Performing this adjustment for each source reviewed ensured that the music was being pumped out the amplifier at a consistent level so that differences in the sound pressure wouldn’t color my judgment.

So, here’s my analysis…

MP3 Version

A marked flatness is apparent right off the bat, the dynamics are severely reduced. Just as I had remarked about some tracks in the previous week’s part of this review, the music just can’t seem to escape or transcend the speakers. The orchestra is trapped in a wood and kevlar prison. In contrast to the CD recording, the piano seems a bit more defined and runs together less. But despite the improved clarity, the piano still suffers from a loss of energy. The sound stage has shifted to the left somewhat…somehow. Overall, the MP3 was not unlistenable but still not ideal.

CD Version

I made sure to play the CD layer of the disc for this test, as it wouldn’t be fair to compare the MP3 it was sourced from to a hi-res version of the same recording. Bass frequencies are very present (if not fairly boomy) and Cliburn’s piano is fresh and lively but demonstrates some “smearing.” The strings are dense without sounding excessively stodgy and the soundstaging is good. Everything is in its proper place, and since I have actually attended a concert in that hall before, I could really reimagine it.

Vinyl Version

Well, to start off, hissing, rumble and clicks are apparent in quiet portions (no shit) but it’s not bad enough to be distracting. This recording shows excellent soundstaging and the bass is subdued when compared to the CD and MP3 edition. The piano isn’t as shiny as the other two tests, it lacks in high treble which can be a limitation of vinyl records. This was craploads better than the MP3 and rivaled the CD for clarity, warmth and overall enjoyability.

Conclusions…?

So to wrap up, MP3′s still kinda suck. But as I wrote last time, they have their definite advantages if you’re concerned about space, price, and portability. I understand that this wasn’t a double-blind ABX test, the gold standard for hi-fi experimentation, but the point of these reviews wasn’t to determine if one could tell a difference between the formats (which ABX does), but instead to assess the subjective qualities of each format. Sound is still always a matter of taste and preference, so you might not mind or even care about the sound of an MP3 if it seems okay to you. But for me, I’ll stick to MP3′s cranked out of a portable device for when I’m on my way to work, and I’ll use CD and vinyl for when I really want to sit down and enjoy the music.

  • http://colortheory.com Brian Hazard

    Yes, mp3s encoded at 160 kbps in iTunes suck, but that says nothing about mp3 as a format. If you’d like to send me that CD rip, I’ll make a much higher quality mp3 for you. I highly doubt you’ll hear the difference between my mp3 and the CD.

    As for your methodology, double-blind testing is still necessary to accurately assess the “subjective qualities” (it’s all subjective!) of each format. When you play back the mp3, you expect it to sound like ass, and your mind looks for clues that this is indeed the case, even if it’s not.

  • Roymond

    “MP3 copy at 160 kbps using iTunes”?   Why would you do this? Use LAME at 256 variable bit rate and you’ll have a wonderful sound that saves a lot of space.