One day in the late 1990s when I was surfing the Web, I came across a term I had never heard of before. MP3. An hour or so later I had downloaded some software (it was the 90s afterall…dial-up), grabbed a CD, ripped my first MP3, and amazed myself by playing a song from a file stored on my computer!
Well, I was hooked. Over the next few weeks I ripped my entire CD collection. It was great to be able to listen to all my music while surfing the Web without having to walk to the lounge room to find a CD. I also loved the fact that I could listen to my music at random instead of trying to decide what I felt like listening to.
A few months later I thought “wouldn’t it be nice if I could hook my computer up to my stereo in the lounge room instead of listening to my music on my crappy computer speakers”. So I ran some cables from my study to the lounge room and plugged my computer into my stereo. I kicked off a playlist in the study, and then started to listen to my music on my expensive stereo. It sounded awful! Nothing like what the songs sounded like on my CDs. What was going on?
So I hit the Web again and did some research. Turned out that there was something significant about MP3s that I hadn’t been aware of. MP3 compression works by reducing the quality of, or even removing, sounds that are less audible to human hearing. This means that you lose some of the information stored on the source material. This is how an MP3 can be around a tenth the size of the data stored on a CD. It’s a bit like printing a novel with all the fullstops removed. It takes up less space, but the reading experience is not as satisfactory as the full text novel.
All was not lost. Turns out that you could improve the sound quality of your MP3s by reducing the amount of compression used when encoding the MP3. I had been ripping my MP3s at a bit rate of 128kHz, but by reducing the amount of compression I used, I could actually rip my MP3s at a bit rate of 256kHz. This took up more room on my hard-disc, but the audio quality was much improved. Not quite CD quality, but close. So I started again, and ripped my entire CD collection a second time.
I was happy listening to MP3s for the most part, but when storage started to become larger and cheaper, I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be great if I could store all the data from my CDs on my hard-disc…then I could listen to my music in full CD quality”. So I hit the Web again and discovered that there were other music formats that could compress CD audio without losing data. These formats, such as FLAC and ALAC, stored the same data as a CD, but more efficiently. So once again I started from scratch and re-ripped my entire CD collection, but this time using Apple’s ALAC lossless format.
You can try this yourself by opening iTunes, going to the preferences view and clicking Import Settings. Select Apple Lossless Encoder and click OK. Now rip a CD. Instead of creating MP3s, iTunes will create Apple Lossless files with a suffix of “m4a”. These will be larger than an MP3 file, but will have the same audio quality of the original CD and should be compatible with most Apple iPods, iPhones and iPads. Have a listen. You may like what you hear!
But that’s not the whole story, because even CDs themselves are a compressed format of music. CDs are usually mastered at a frequency of 44,100 Hz (which roughly means the amount of samples per second) and at 16bit quantization (I wont even try to explain that). But the original music is usually recorded at 96,000 Hz (or higher) and with 24bit quantization. This means the music you listen to on a CD is of lesser quality than the original recordings.
But now even that is changing. Some artists are now making their music available in HD audio formats. For example, Paul McCartney is currently releasing remastered versions of his solo recordings. If you go to www.paulmccartney.com you can order these remasters on vinyl and CD, as well as download the albums as MP3s. But you can also download HD audio versions that are mastered at 96,000 Hz and with 24bit quantization.
Some online music stores are now specializing in selling HD audio. HDtracks (www.hdtracks.com) has a wide collection of HD audio titles. I’ve downloaded albums from Tom Waits, The Who, Kate Bush, and The Fleet Foxes. They sound absolutely amazing! Even compared to CD quality music, the HD audio sounds so much fuller and more organic. It just seems to fill up a room much more than listening to music on CD or Mp3.
So, the next time you hear a song on the radio you like, don’t go rushing off to iTunes. Go to the artist’s website itself and see if they sell their music directly, or try other online retailers like HDtracks. Not only might more of your money go directly to the artist, but you may have a greater choice of audio formats to choose from.
John James has written 203 posts.
JJ is a co-founder of KiKi & Tea. Although he has largely retired from blogging (to work on his yet-to-be-published book), he still posts the occasional article here on KiKi & Tea. He also blogs about music at the New Music Revue and posts random stuff on The Stuff That Comes Out Of My Head. You can listen to his music on his Bandcamp page.
Follow on twitter: @JohnJamesOZ