I have complained frequently in the past (though not on this blog, apparently) that the iPod is ruining music. Well, not the iPod itself so much as a all the things that helped make the iPod popular: limited internet bandwidth, small hard drives, and crappy headphones.
In the days of dialup modems and hard drives best measured in megabytes, 128 kbps MP3s were fantastic because they let you could actually download an entire album in a couple hours and keep them on your computer.
Headphones got crappy when Sony invented portable audio electronics (that is, the Walkman). Portability and aggressive pricing are the enemy of sound quality.
With 120 GB iPods, 1.5 terabyte hard drives, and multi megabit cable/DSL commonplace, there is simply no reason for low bitrate MP3 files.
How many albums do you own? 50? 100? 1000? 2000?
One typical album stored as uncompressed PCM files takes up about half a gigabyte of disk space. If you had 2000 albums stored this way, they would easily fit on a 1.5 terabyte hard drive that would cost you $130.
Now, most people don’t have 2000 albums, and there is no reason to store them uncompressed. Using FLAC to compress the files, plus a medium quality 192 kbps MP3 for portability, the same 2000 albums would easily fit on a 1 terabyte drive that costs less than $100.
Those with a more reasonably-sized collection of albums needn’t bother buying anything – the hard drive that came with their computer (assuming it was purchased within the last few years) probably has enough spare storage to handle it without a problem.
And yet, we use MP3, and its slightly smarter cousin, AAC. Why? Mostly because the world is full of iPods, other MP3 players, MP3-capable CD and DVD players, etc., that play them. I encode my CDs to 192 kbps MP3 files, which can fit about 10 to a CD-R, which will play back in my car. It’s convenient on long trips, and the sound quality is fine for the car, which is hardly a critical listening environment.
So, too, it is with portable devices, such as iPods – out and about in the world, using cheap, lightweight headphones, it’s difficult to tell the difference between these MP3 files and the CD from which they were made.
Audio engineers used to (and some still do) take their mixes to a car stereo to see how they’ll sound in a typical listening environment. The prevalence of iPods makes me suspect they have become the new “car test”.
While there is good reason to consider the end listening environment when mastering music, working towards a 128 kbps MP3 played back on an iPod over crappy headphones is going to sound lousy. The dreaded dynamic range compression tends to make music easier to hear on this configuration, so it only reinforces that practice.
It becomes a vicious circle – people listen to heavily compressed music, so music is made to be listened to heavily compressed, so people don’t realize that’s not what music is supposed to sound like.
It appears that young folks are coming to prefer the sound of audio compression. I don’t agree with the suggestion that vinyl fanatics fetishize the clicks and pops of that format, but I don’t doubt that there is a cultural shift taking place in what people expect from their music.
How do we reverse this trend?