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A Case For Lossy Music Formats

Are downloaded lossy files viable for loudspeaker and system evaluation?

By Michael Fay January 8, 2019

Reference Tracks

See Sidebar 2 for a short list of my favorite tracks for system testing, tuning and voicing. There are several different musical styles, but all have something very nice to offer. My full collection has about a 60/40 mixture of high bitrate MP3 (60 percent) and WAV files that I use without reservation.

There are one or more specific things I’m keyed into on every track. Examples are often kick, snare, bass and acoustic guitar. Sometimes I’ll use a specific track just to listen to the hi-hat or another for the harmonics of an orchestral triangle.

If I only get one track to use to evaluate the voicing of a single loudspeaker or system, and I’m not looking for brute-force power handling, it’s a track called “Night Winds” on Taylor Guitars’ Sounds of Wood & Steel III sampler. It’s an amazing recording and a must-have track for any reference collection.

Exceptional vocal recordings are hard to find. The LeAnn Rimes vocal is exceptional. Want to stress test your system? Use the 30 Seconds to Mars or Infected Mushroom tracks. Need to focus on the subwoofer section? Bring up the Thomas Dolby track. The Bill Payne recording has the best jazz acoustic piano recording I’ve been able to find, plus a lot of percussive ear candy. The Kim Richey track will rip your head off if your system is not right in the upper mid-range. And last but not least, the Mark Knopfler track is my favorite overall track for mainstream rock and blues.

Too Often MP3 Gets Blamed For Poor Sound?

As for the debate over the sonic quality of the various lossless and lossy file formats, I contend that with most 21st century mass-market music, it’s the original production that often sounds bad, regardless of the final file format or compression scheme used. In other words, don’t automatically blame the lossy format if a track or whole album sounds like it was recorded and mixed in a metal shed full of Styrofoam and gravel, and has about as much warmth, depth, space, clarity and punch as cold, leftover turnips.

If poor sonic quality is what the artist demands, fine, but don’t automatically blame the compression algorithm if you don’t like the sound of the recording.

Acceptable Bit Rates

A few years ago, while working at Sound Image, I performed some blind listening tests with a few very talented and experienced professional mix engineers, and one very well known loudspeaker designer. The conclusion reached was that no one could consistently pick out a 256 kbps bit rate MP3 track versus a ripped WAV track (or even the original disk).

Experimental data shows that for average listeners, 128 kbps is the point where MP3 becomes consistently worse-sounding than higher bitrates and uncompressed audio. But when higher bitrates (196 kbps and above) are compared to uncompressed files, the differences are less and less audible.

The distinctions between those are so small that they become statistically insignificant, and in many double blind studies (here’s just one), uncompressed original files rank somewhere below high bit rate compressed formats.

My takeaway: if you want or need to use lossy files, do so without any embarrassment.


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About Michael

Michael Fay
Michael Fay

 
Michael Fay is owner/principal at GraceNote Design Studio, an audio, video and acoustic design consultancy; a sustaining member and graduate of multiple SynAudCon workshops; a member of AVIXA and the Acoustical Society of America; an SDVoE Design Partner; former Integration Division general manager and senior design consultant with Sound Image; and former editor of Recording Engineer/Producer magazine.
https://www.gracenoteds.com/

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