No audio format is perfect. Whether you’re recording to tape, vinyl or CD, there’s going to have to be some rounding off somewhere, and a little bit of detail is going to get lost. In almost every case, increase to sound quality comes at the expense of playing time.

The 12″ 45rpm record sounds better than the 12″ 33rpm record, but it doesn’t hold as much music.

If you want tape to record at higher fidelity, you simply run it through the machine at twice the speed.

If CDs held the 16-channel, 24-bit, 96khz session files with which many recordings begin, they’d hold less than three minutes of music. Mix that down to two tracks, and they’d still only last for 23 minutes.

In the case of digital formats, the reduced file size (and longer playing time) is normally achieved by simply throwing away data – no attempt is made to compress the files in a way that conserves the audio quality in a smaller size. That’s because the very high fidelity formats are only used during the production process, where speed of access is valued above ease of storage.

It’s only at the very end of the process, when the files are made smaller again for download, that we do anything differently: the compression used to create MP3 and AAC files conserves much of the original sound quality in a smaller package, at the expense of processing power. There is some loss of quality, but it’s nowhere near as bad as if we just scaled down the files again.

When people tell you that you should only listen to music in “lossless” formats, remember that they’ve drawn an arbitrary line in the sand, and by the time you get to where they’re standing, most of the loss has already happened.

If you want to hear what a performance really sounds like, go to a concert. Anything else is going to involve some sort of compromise. I won’t try to stop you obsessing about your speaker cables, but let’s not pretend that this is about the music.



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  1. April 12, 2010

    “If you want to hear what a performance really sounds like, go to a concert. Anything else is going to involve some sort of compromise.” Amen and amen.

    • properdiscord #
      April 12, 2010

      If you want to hear what a performance sounds like, go to a concert. But don’t sit at the back, or you won’t appreciate it properly. Sit near the front but not too close, or the balance will be wrong. Maybe seat E15. Or E16. Hmm. You really need to be in the middle, or the stereo image will be bad. Better buy two tickets and squat on the armrest.

  2. April 12, 2010

    I agree with your main thesis (ie “it’s not a big deal, get over it”). However, it’s worth pointing out that your argument is highly disingenuous. The extra data in those first two formats is not there to be perceived, it’s there to be manipulated. The separate channels and higher bit depth are to allow greater control during the mixing and mastering process. It gives flexibility, not fidelity.

    • properdiscord #
      April 12, 2010

      The following argument has been made many times in the comments on this site and others:

      “The equipment I own allows me to hear the difference between format A and format B. I believe format A to be superior, therefore all recordings should be sold in format A.”

      That argument is no more valid for CD, hi-res 2-track or the multi-channel session files. That’s really my point here. There are sites (the Linn store, for example) that sell high resolution 2-track mixes precisely because a small number of customers claim to notice the difference. It’s not often that people sell the multitracks, but it isn’t completely without precedent.

  3. April 12, 2010

    Ya. We’re in rabid agreement. There’s a whole fetish mindset behind getting the optimum listening experience that I don’t understand one bit.

    I’m just saying that your chart is a bit red herring, and if I were the type to fetishize on audio rates, I would claim that the giant difference in data rates that you’re highlighting are justifiably disregarded, since no one is claiming that those data rates make a perceivable difference. At least I don’t think anyone is. And if they are, they’re kinda stupid.

    If you throw away the multi channel bar on the graph and zoom in on the difference between the the 2ch master and the CD, you’re closer to what the real argument is, but it’s a less compelling visual.

    Again, I’m totally with you. Listen to music, not bit depth.

  4. John #
    April 14, 2010

    Agreed. For three decades I’ve been listening to recorded music on equipment in the $200-600 range out of economic necessity (well, the big bucks went to buying a piano). And I don’t feel like my delight, disgust, ability to be moved by, and appreciation of the music has suffered one, er, bit.

    I’ve had plenty of listening on other peoples’ high end systems, and of course, yes, I wish I had one, because it does sound better. Yet the emotional and analytical experience of the music is pretty much the same.

    At least I think that that’s the case. If Proper Discord is willing to give me a $30K grant for some kick-ass equipment, I’ll be happy to investigate my recorded music experience with greater scientific rigor.

    • properdiscord #
      April 14, 2010

      Funnily enough, the former President of Nigeria just left me some money. Just send me your bank details, SSN and a $3,000 refundable processing fee, and we’ll have that grant set up for you in no time.

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