Lossy

March 17, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

An MP3 is a lossy file. What that means is quite a lot of the music’s content has been removed in an effort to make the file smaller.

Smaller file sizes mattered at a time when the information industry was moving faster than our ability to store and deliver content. We were willing to suffer the sonic losses for the opportunity to have music available when we were away from our stereo systems.

I remember with great fondness the original Apple iPod. The notion of a portable music system that could store and playback one’s personal library while hiking or traveling was beyond imagining. Who cares if the only price paid was a bit of quality lost?

Now that technology has caught up with storage and delivery systems there’s no need whatsoever for lossy music files.

Yet, the past is difficult to erase.

Spotify recently announced high-resolution streaming—though what I suspect they mean is not lossy.

It takes time to change, but at this point in our history there’s no need to accept lossy music files.

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20 comments on “Lossy”

  1. I fully appreciate today’s post. As bandwidth increases the use of lossy files should decrease. The only caveat when listening on the go, especially if using a cell phone, is the amount of data and how it is counted for any given plan. Very seldom does one get something for nothing.

    I have an hd player for the road with headphones. Of course it’s more to carry. In a noisy environment lossy files aren’t all that bad when listening to most rock and blues.

    Lossy on a high res home system for critical listening is probably not the best use of those types of files. In the air, or in the car, or other loud background level situations maybe there is a place.

  2. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s storage was expensive. One (but important !) reason to use tape.
    The company where I worked used a lot of tape in the form of cassettes.
    A lot of you probably remember the tape (storage) robots.
    Nowadays the cost is not a real issue anymore, hence more and more disc storage.
    As for today’s topic, I agree with Mike that “In a noisy environment lossy files aren’t all that bad”.
    But in the evening on the couch…no lossy for me. And my iPod touch only for app control (e.g. mconnect).
    I noticed that with some apps you can turn off your mobile device and the music plays on (saves batteries).
    Not with mconnect. Turn off the mobile device and the music stops immediately.

  3. Paul, Do not have much to say about lossy except that it sounds terrible and I do not use it.

    I also do not care much for the new format, seems like too much wasted space to the right and your post and the comments are squeezed to the left.

    Also you have real problems over on the download page for current downloads. The download for the latest PST firmware is listed as 2.1.6 instead of 2.2.0, HOWEVER, what it actually links to is a P12 firmware update. Not good.

      1. In the opinion of one of Scott Adams’ alter egos, Dilbert’s pointy hair boss: “Change is good. You go first.” Or words to that effect.

  4. The mp3 lossy format was, I seem to remember, more to do with the ability to send music files over the internet in the days before high speed services. I remember trying and failing to get Napster to work and then for a few years used the iTunes store, which still took an age to download. It was a lot to do with the fact that people were starting to use their computer’s sound card to play music rather than a static hifi system. It took a while to take off. I remember going to the second iTunes concert in 2007. iTunes had been around for several years and was slow to take off, so Apple decided to arrange concerts in London, which were free and you were given a $20 iTunes voucher at the door. My wife heard about it from the wife of the lead singer, who told her to call the local newspaper and get put on a door list. We went as much for the $40 iTunes vouchers as the band (Travis), although it was a good acoustic gig (Apple did it on a low budget), it wasn’t even full (about 250 turned up) and I think they gave us extra vouchers.

    We use mp3 Spotify here on the main system. I don’t think my kids are interested in the lossless version. I may be they are offering it simply as a defensive move against Amazon HD. It may make them some money as well.

    Jack Dorsey’s Square, Inc recently bought Tidal. I don’t think he’s suddenly seen the lossless light, seems to me more about acquiring celebrity endorsement for his payments system, as the deal required J-Z and his famous pals to remain involved in Tidal. So it cost him $300million to get J-Z on the Board of Square and he got a music service as well.

    My 20-year-old only ever had a $50 portable CD boombox when he was about 6 years old, so he doesn’t know what lossy and lossless are. I don’t see a mass conversion of people listening to lossless files.

  5. Hi Paul. I see you are busy, but didn’t want to let this pass notice: Congratulations for the honor at WhatHifi.com for making the top ten list of books about HiFi and Audio by Becky Roberts, for 99% True, posted on 03-15-2021. As I said in my Amazon review your writing style reminded me of Bill Bryson and I loved the book. Hope it reaches a wider audience now.

  6. I didn’t look at Paul’s Posts posts for a few days and the whole design of the website is changed! I’m all thrown off.

    Anyway, as to the mp3, it has been shown over and over again in test after test that only a small minutia of people can hear the difference between a well-encoded 320kb mp3 file and anything higher resolution (PCM, DSD or other bitrate – take your pick). Most who claim otherwise suddenly want to attack a person’s system as being not resolving enough or their hearing to be deficient as an attempt to “prove” that there is a difference.

    To me this is especially true of anything recorded in the era of tape (straight digital recordings can of course contain info across a much wider spectrum but we are back to the fact no one can hear it anyway), as the mp3 specs already exceed the dynamic range of the tape medium anyway, so, no music is lost in my opinion as there was none in the areas the mp3 (or any other lossy format) removed anyway.

    However, Paul has spoken about overhead in the past as it relates to the processing of music files. Even though there is nothing there to be heard, the fact that the info is contained in a smaller piece of the file and as such the playback device has plenty of room “to work” (my analogy is probably not correct) could make a difference. I could perhaps buy into that one.

    Let’s start a clock now as to how long it will be before someone posts that my system must be deficient, or my hearing is bad, or I don’t have the proper expensive cables and so on, as I alluded to 🙂 Happy listening everyone!

    1. I hate to disagree with you, but I very much doubt your system is deficient. I have occasional streaming battles with one of my kids – the pleasures of streaming – he sends something from Spotify, I send something from Roon. Back and forth. On occasion I’ve sent the same track and both my kids appreciate the difference in sound quality between mp3 and 16/44. They still happily listen to mp3 all the time.
      I can’t hear any improvement above 16/44 (whether PCM or DSD) that I can attribute to the format as opposed to the mastering of the track.
      So either I’m deaf or we do both have deficient systems. If my system is deficient, for what it cost I hate to think of the cost of a non-deficient one. In any event, according to Stereophile my electronics are about 5-bits more resolving than the PS Audio DSD DAC, with a much lower noise floor, all of which is irrelevant if you can’t hear the difference.

      1. Steven, it is extremely unlikely that you can hear anything as superior, or for that matter that you can distinguish any difference above 16/44. No matter how expensive your cables are or how sophisticated your training in “listening”. There is always “belief systems” but no objective evidence to this.
        It takes time and modesty to reach that understanding like you did. It takes self awareness to understand the impact of psychological bias.

      2. +1 on this comment! I feel fortunate that I was able to at least install in my children that free level streaming is junk ha ha, so while they are Spotify for the most part it is at full strength for that service, or Amazon Music. Of course now that they have children of their own the battle begins. And, then there will be the argument that what passes for music nowadays (Cardi B anyone?) sounds good at any format or bitrate.

        1. “what passes for music nowadays sounds good at any format or bitrate.”

          Of course, what passes for some music nowadays can also sound bad at any format or bitrate! 😉

    2. Larry, it’s just a matter or time before they will be back with their lessons about 360-degree vector sound fields, Fourier series transformations, the uselessness of 2-channel audio, the ignorance and complacency of the audio industry, and the requirement to listen to classical music for at least one hour a day every day since birth in order hear music correctly. LOL

  7. When I was in graduate school, Akio Morita came to talk to us about innovation and his experience at Sony. For those who don’t know, Morita founded Sony. He was a very entertaining and charming host and mesmerized the know-it-all graduate students at the Ivy league university. He spoke perfect English, slowly and deliberately, with not much Japanese accent in his pronunciation. The story of why he called the company Sony is for another time. He told the story of the Walkman and how he put that name to the device. It was all his idea. He said he wanted a “machine” that could play music while wondering around town. He told his business development group to go about doing this. They came back after six months and told him that market research did not support this device. He told them again to develop it. Six months later, same story, market research said customers didn’t “need” this. Morita told them to do it anyway and that many times customers don’t know what they need until they had it. He named it Walkman because it was exactly what it was. Nowadays, we can’t seem to find anyone on the streets that doesn’t wear earbuds with music in them. Marathoners in races with earbuds. Cyclists with earbuds. The iPod wasn’t anything more than an evolution of the Walkman. And lossy files were developed to fit more music in these early devices. Now, storage space is rather inexpensive and you don’t really need lossy files, even if your internet is very slow. But you also don’t need enormous files with data beyond the level of audibility. DSD is possible because of storage capacity, not because of sound quality.
    We should really remember Morita before Jobs regarding music while going “walkabaout”. Many of Jobs creations came with the same thought process, sometimes customers don’t know what they need. Interestingly, Scully, who headed Apple for a while and got rid of Jobs before he came back, also came to talk to us, just one week before he was announced as the new CEO of Apple. From Pepsi to Apple didn’t end up well. Seems all fizz and no substance.

  8. I vaguely recall reading an interview with a person connected with MP3 (the original developer possibly) that he thought the format actually sounded better because it eliminated ‘superfluous’ information. Maybe for the simple speaking voice, but for music? No. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of music’s (and the dramatic arts) nuanced subtleties and glories. Written text and clear graphs and diagrams are better for conveying technical information, anyway.

  9. The last 40 years a lossy and inferior format (CD) was propagated and people didn’t care because it was good enough. For most now MP3 is good enough, so why change 😉 And we still don’t have the infrastructure for more yet in every place of application. Give it 10 more years until we get rid of MP3 and remember 90% of music listeners don’t have equipment to hear a difference between MP3 and Hires.

  10. Larry, Cardi B., not for me, but kids today, reminds me of Paul Simon’s lyric: [E]very generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Boy in the Bubble.

  11. The iPod never required lossy files for playback. From the beginning, the file formats supported were: MP3, AAC/M4A, Protected AAC, AIFF, WAV, Audible audiobook, and Apple Lossless. My first iPod was a 2nd-gen model in 2002. I promptly loaded it up with uncompressed AIFF files ripped from CDs.

  12. MP3 is an artifact of BAD SCIENCE. The Walkman and other cheap portable music players with cheap headphones, transistor radios, TVs, and computers with 2″ speakers, radio stations with 33 band compressors, and high background noise environments were how the test subjects learned to hear pseudo-music recordings. Therefore, their hearing was severely stunted developmentally to take in limited bandwidth, transient compressed, equalized, reverbed, multi-tracked, mixed, mastered signal with high levels of harmonic, inter-modulation, transient and phase distortion through D grade audio chains.

    Research has shown that inferior sound quality results in fewer neurons, with fewer connections, and less programming.

    The Fraunhofer institute also used “popular” music for the the trials, meaning lowest common denominator in sound quality and Euro-Vision trash compositions.

    Under those conditions, I can’t hear the difference between Redbook and MP3 – it is like trying to hear the difference between 21% and 22% distortion. BUT, with a recording that bears some semblance to real music the losses are so painfully obvious I get a headache after 30 minutes.

    I am convinced that the cognitive dissonance of MP3 is bad not only for your hearing, but also your physical health – assuming you know what real music sounds like. If you are not regularly exposed to live music in the room or at least realistic recordings on a high grade playback system, that in itself reduces your health prognosis. Whether it is shortened lifetime or inferior quality of life, lossy is evil.

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