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Thanks for the memories  July 26, 2012

About The Author

CNET Editor

Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.

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Does sound quality matter any more?

There was a brief golden moment in our recent history, when quality and quantity lived in harmony in the music world. That moment has, well and truly, left the building, and won't be back for a long while yet.

Naturally, I'm not talking about the artistic merits of music — that's just too subjective a question to answer right here, right now. No, what I'm talking about, is music formats.

For a brief period of time, starting around the mid-1990s, when CD sales overtook cassette tape sales, the dominant music format was also the best quality music format. Some would argue that LPs are still preferable. Yes, vinyl recordings generally have a warmth that CDs don't and yes, there's a heart-tugging charm about it that the humble CD just can't match — but a well mastered CD is (almost) flawless.

From the moment Napster marched onto the internet and blew open the gates to pirating nirvana, compressed music has stolen the compact discs' lunch and it ain't ever giving it back. Overnight, it seemed, Napster was flooded with music of all genres, from all periods, in MP3 format. And, the highly compressed MP3 format was perfect for the internet, which many of us accessed via the wonders of the dial-up modem.

At three to four megabytes per song, MP3 files didn't take too long to download. Combined with a price of zero dollars and zero cents (quite a discount to the AU$8 asking price for a CD single), the trade-off in sound quality was judged by many to be worth it. With the advent of the iPod and then the iTunes store, this trade-off became legal.

Thinking practically, this exchange of quality for convenience makes (almost) complete sense. In a palm-sized device (back then it was an iPod, nowadays it's a smartphone) we could carry around more music (plus podcasts and audiobooks) than what most of us could ever hope to fit onto our shelves. And, seriously, the days of cramming a few CDs into a backpack, awkwardly switching between them on the bus and suffering through track skips at every pothole, isn't quite as romantic as it sounds.

Now that our internet speeds have increased, several times over, and compression technology has resulted in a less noticeable compromise, we've reached the point where, for many of us, sound quality doesn't matter any more.

Given the choice of a larger lossless audio file or a smaller compressed file, of about iTunes quality, most would choose the latter. This isn't because it would take too long to download or that we'd run the risk of filling up our hard disk. No, we'd rather use some of that saved space on our smartphone for more music, more photos, more videos and more apps.

There will always be a small minority for whom LPs or FLAC files will be king, but, in this writer's humble opinion, for the great majority, the thought of upgrading to high-quality audio won't occur until our mobile devices come shipped with between 384GB and 512GB internal storage as standard.

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grumpi posted a comment   

A 512GB phone - that would be cool.
With SD cards now up to 128GB that time is not as far off as I thought.
I wonder if I could stick a 128GB SD card in a Galaxy SIII.

I expect there are young people out there who have never listened to lossless music and don't know what they are missing.
I refuse to listen to lossy music. It just sounds so awful. I only have a few lossless format albums on my phone.
Of course there will always be people to whom music means nothing other than keeping up appearances.


gregory.opera posted a comment   

Well I'm happy to purchase digital music music at higher bitrates, in fact I'd prefer it (even if it meant waiting 30-60 minutes for an album to download), but the problem is, few online stores (if any) offer digital music at bitrates higher than 320kbs...

It's also have to bit a universal format - FLAC (as I've pointed out above) is not natively supported by too many consumer electronics products (though between Media Go and VLC Media Player, software doesn't seem to be an issue), AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) varies slightly between devices and software; whilst Apple's propriety version of AAC is not supported by many non-Apple devices (though there are a few).

MP3 would be the obvious choice, but once again, there's few parties (if any) offering digital music in higher bitrates than 320kbs...


JonathanC posted a comment   

Another factor is the quality of the audio equipment and the environment in which it's being listened to. FLAC files seem all well and good in theory, but when played through a phone/iPod through some $30 earphones on a bus, I challenge anyone to notice any real difference between something like a FLAC file and a 320 kbps MP3. 99% of us won't (I know I don't), which is why 320 kbps MP3's are "good enough" for mass consumption.


gregory.opera posted a reply   

Only the other day I was actually contemplating re-ripping our CDs into the lossless "FLAC" (Free Lossless Audio Codec) - primarily because Sony Creative Software recently added native support for the FLAC format to Media Go - however after a bit of research online, I decided against it... There's just not enough support for the format.

Surprisingly, I discovered that Android natively supports the FLAC format (even if it's not always documented) and I already have the software (Media Go) to take care of playback on my desktop, but in terms of consumer electronics, very few devices support the FLAC format, which is an issue because we stream our music to different devices in our house via a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance)-enabled NAS (Network Attached Storage)...

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