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Ask – Does audio quality matter, given today's crappy playback systems?

February 26, 2013
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SERIOUSLY . . . WHY SHOULD I BOTHER LEARNING ALL OF YOUR TIPS TO MAKE MUSIC SOUND AS GOOD AS POSSIBLE WHEN PEOPLE ARE JUST GONNA LISTEN TO SQUASHED MP3S ON PORTABLE DEVICES WITH CRAPPY ENCODERS, OVER EVEN CRAPPIER EARBUDS? IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR CONSUMER AUDIO?

SAMUEL JONES
BERKELEY, CA
VIA EMAIL


Not all data compression encoders are the same. Sonnox’s Fraunhofer Pro-Codec makes it easy to compress (and analyze) music accurately, with the minimum possible degradation.
We feel your pain, and there are three answers. The first is philosophical. I needed a backup Paul Reed Smith guitar for the road, and to meet my budget, Paul offered me a cosmetic reject that he was going to saw in two anyway. (It nonetheless played perfectly.) However, he wanted to make sure I understood that the wood used for the body had a really bad blemish. I commented that as the guitar had been painted, no one would even know it was there. He replied, “But I know it’s there.” If you’re an artist, you have to give all your work your best effort.

The second answer is that higher-quality source material survives subsequent data compression more gracefully, and therefore sounds better even when data-compressed. But the third answer is the most encouraging: Consumers are demanding higher quality. The “Internet standard” of 128kbps MP3 files is giving way to 256 and even 320kbps files, as well as lossless compression schemes like FLAC and HD-AAC. Also, the market for higher-quality earbuds is growing; consumers are now willing to drop $100 and more for something offering actual fidelity, and the converters used in consumer devices are improving. So make your music sound as good as possible—if not for now, then for the future, when the standards for consumer audio will indeed be higher.

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