Friday, 11 March 2011

Another post on "Sound Quality"

Those that have been following WAS for a long time may remember a post I did last year on Sound Quality. I thought I'd address the topic again; its been a year, I've learnt more and I still enjoy discussing it.

So what's changed? I've got more Vinyls, overpriced Monster headphones are popular (My little brother bought some! Gah) and now online retailers are talking about 24-bit downloads (which I will discuss in a later post). mp3 quality is getting better, but hard drive space is also moving to a point where we can have higher quality lossless formats on our iPods.

So where is this all going to go in the next few years?

Vinyl definitely seems to be making a comeback. All my favourite artists are doing vinyl releases which I'm snapping up with whatever cash I can find. Why do I love the vinyls so much? They're gorgeous with their huge artwork, they sound amazing and it feels like you actually own something substantial that the artist has put a lot of effort and time into. Hell, I need a better turntable for them now - mine is awesome and looks great but does spin at ever-so-slightly-faster than 33 1/3 RPM.

I also did an experiment with my CDs where I reimported a bunch of them into Apple Lossless format. For those that don't know - .wav is your raw, completely lossless format, but its also huge and takes up a lot of file space. Apple Lossless and FLAC are exactly the same, lossless compression to make the file sizes smaller and to keep the same lossless audio quality. Anyway, I decided to see if I could hear the difference. Is it huge?

Its not ridiculously massive. I can notice it, but I've spent years training my ears to hear these things. I compared two Porcupine Tree albums - Deadwing, which I bought from iTunes in AAC format, and In Absentia, which I have on CD. Production and sound quality wise, they both sounded fine. AAC has come a long way though, to the point where I have no qualms about buying from the iTunes store. Its a great format.

320kbps mp3s are sounding good now too. They've gotten a little bigger, but the codec is getting stronger. Can I still hear the lossy compression? Sure, but its not as much an annoyance. Its less noticeable on consumer grade speakers and headphones, so I guess this is where spending WAY too much money on my studio monitors and headphones comes into play!

Oh yeah, the Beats headphones. Children, they may cost £200 but they are overpriced consumer grade headphones. They have a hyped low end but they are not amazing. Let me explain why.

Due to Fletcher-Munsen curves and psychoacoustics, there is a simple phenomenon where "Louder = Better". The loudness wars not only aim to make songs stick out on the Radio, but they sound big and impressive on first listen simply because they're loud. Bass frequencies are high energy, and everyone's always impressed by a big low-end. Hell, when those kids go around in their souped-up hatchbacks, what have they filled the back of the car with? Midrange drivers and tweeters? Nah, its all about the Sub woofers.

So kids and uneducated folk think that 20Hz-200Hz is the most important part of music today. Hence smacking that up a notch and futzing the high frequencies to compensate seems to sound 'big' and 'impressive'. Enter "Beats" headphones. Marketing is a wonderful tool, I've heard a lot of people justify it by saying that Dr Dre is an experienced and well known producer, so he must only be endorsing a product he knows and believes in. Except Dr Dre isn't selling these headphones, Monster is, and they're charging way too much.

Let me put it this way - my Sennheiser HD600 Open backed headphones cost £200. They have an open frequency response, they're comfortable and they're popular in studios and with audiophiles the world over. They're actually good headphones! If you have that much money to spend, get something Sennheiser, a company who actually makes good headphones.

Anyway, that was a long tangent, I sort of forgot the main point of this post.

Ah yes, sound quality! My main observation is always a comparison with Video and Audio - the two artistic fields regularly go hand in hand, but perception on quality is very different. With Video, its quite easy to see the differences between quality and resolution - its right there in front of you, you can draw red circles around problem spots! Audio is a very finicky beast, since we can't see, feel, smell or touch it. We can only interpret the signals sent to our brain, and everyone does that differently; so we need these double blind tests and it always goes around in circles.

So who knows? Its often debated, sometimes the people arguing just don't know what they're talking about, sometimes they think they do but they've been misled or they misunderstood something. Look up Expectation Bias ;)

Regardless of its quality, bitrate or format, keep loving music ;)



  1. Perhaps it is time to expend some valuable funds on the investment of a record player.

    P.S. Congratulations you have a new follower.

  2. I buyed this AKG headphones for about 50 € a while ago. Man I love them so much. Its like listening to music in a new way. I like hearing my music with them more then hearing it with my hi-fi.

  3. I love music. will keep on reading. :)

  4. Yeah, I've noticed the size of mp3 files growing recently. It's great that I've upgraded to a 32GB iPhone from 16GB so I can fit more high quality songs.

  5. The difference in fidelity will only marginally increase past the current "loss less" ad 24 bit compression. The main reason is that the average person will not be able to pick up on the improvement in sound quality; Why? first they are listening to music on (usually) cheap mass produced consumer grade speakers and headphones. These Chinese made products will never be able to produce the sound quality or even flat response that is needed to really appreciate high quality sound. To get the best sound you would need pro / studio quality monitors, these are just too expensive for the average consumer.

    Also, most people have horrible audio perception. Untrained ears just can't pick up on the better quality.