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Nothing To Lose? Are Downloaded Lossy Music Files Viable For Loudspeaker & System Evaluation?

Regarding the debate over the sonic quality of the various lossless and lossy file formats, the author contends that as with a lot of 21st century mass-market music, there might be something else in play.
Music Downloads

Presuming you’re in the audio business on some level and are an “active” listener, you’ve probably started a collection of reference recordings you think are exceptional. You’ve also probably found it helpful, if not necessary, to make this collection highly portable so it’s available, on a moment’s notice, where and when needed.

As a pro, or an aspiring one, you just never know when you may be presented an opportunity to evaluate a new or existing loudspeaker or system. Think trade shows, rep demos, client system evaluation and troubleshooting, factory tour demos, and shoot-outs. Having a highly portable, widely compatible file storage system makes it easy to say, “Yes, I have a few tracks I’d like to listen to.”


When I first started thinking carefully about this topic, CDs were at their peak as the ubiquitous digital audio storage and distribution format. While they’re still a viable option, cell phones, tablets, and computers are now the storage devices of choice. Each of these is just as convenient, if not more so, than carrying around one or more discs in a wallet, and obviously the storage capacity is much greater. Further, when we store our music as files on a small device there’s no need to carry or ask for a CD deck.

This brings us to the subject of file formats that are widely available and compatible with your favorite device. MP3, FLAC, WMA, WAV, ACC, OGG and AIFF, come immediately to mind. Some of these are lossless formats, others are lossy. But, when you only want to buy one track at a time, not the whole album, a lossy download is often your only option. When that’s the situation I think there’s one clear choice: MP3. Why? Because of availability and compatibility.

According to the website, “Nearly every digital device in the world with audio playback can read and play MP3 files, whether we’re talking about PCs, Macs, Androids, iPhones, Smart TVs, or whatever else. When you need universal, MP3 will never let you down.” (See Sidebar 1)

So, is promoting MP3 and other lossy formats to the pro audio community blasphemy? I think not!

The Neverending Search

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for really good examples of music, production and recording technique. If you’ve seen my article “The Mental Side Of Mixing” you know I’ve searched through tens of thousands of recordings (via Rhapsody, Zune, Spotify, etc.) to find my collection, which currently numbers about 45 tracks of varying musical styles. It only takes me a few seconds to tell if a track has something sonically special to consider.

Why so many favorites, you might ask? That’s an excellent question. I strongly believe the music you use must have something in common with a client’s requirements for sound reinforcement. If your reference tracks are tools, it’s about having the right tools for the job.

There’s an important psychological/emotional bridge that needs to be crossed when selecting songs to use for showcasing a new system to a client. They must be something the client can easily relate to. Can you imagine using an AC/DC or Metallica track to tune and showcase a new system at a Presbyterian church? No, I don’t think so. How insensitive. I wouldn’t use an Ed Sheeran ballad to showcase a new dance club system either.

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