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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

Take Your Own Blind Listening Test

To start, find a track that you really like and that you think has exceptional audio quality. Buy the original disk, then also download the same track as a WAV or other lossless file, and at a bitrate of 256 kbps or higher from an on-line music site. Nowadays I usually use Amazon for individual lossy tracks, or one of the HD download sites listed below, if they have the track(s) I want.

You might also find it interesting to download the same track at 192 kbps, 128 kbps or even lower, so you can find the point at which the sound becomes unacceptably degraded. Next, rip the original track as a WAV or other lossless file so you can burn everything back to a new CD. Scramble the sequence in some random fashion when building the new test disc.

Now you’re ready for playback. Use the best listening equipment you can get access to and ask a friend to play the tracks in random order. Ask yourself if you can hear any difference between the various downloaded bitrates, the ripped lossless file, and the original disk. Also, try asking some friends with good ears to pick out which is which. I think you’ll be surprised. I was.

For me, the magic number is 256k. Nothing more is mandatory, nothing less will do if I have a choice. Another quick way to test your ability to recognize different bitrates can be found here.

Lossless & Lossy Download Sites

Here are a few sites that offer both lossless and lossy music downloads:
HD Tracks – Offers multiple lossless formats for each artist
7 Digital – Offers lossless and 320 kbps lossy downloads
Bandcamp — Offers lossless and lossy downloads

And here are three of the most popular lossy music download sites:
Amazon — Offers 256 kbps MP3 for the most part
iTunes — Offers 256 kbps ACC for the most part
Spotify Premium — Offers, with a paid subscription, up to 320 kbps Ogg Vorbis


So, unless you’re downloading music to play through your audiophile stereo system, in your acoustically-refined listening room, and you’ve spent thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars on loudspeakers, tube preamps, cables, Class A monoblock amplifiers, etc., there’s no reason to avoid using a high bitrate, lossy files for system evaluation and tuning.

Go the next page to check out the two sidebars accompanying this article.

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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.

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