What's the point?

May 29, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Lossy files sacrifice data for brevity. Lossy files can be very small relative to their original versions and they get smaller by throwing away musical data. The smaller they get, the more data is lost. Streaming services hope you won't notice what's missing, like the grocer who puts his thumb on the scale.

The most famous of the lossy files, MP3, allows data storage and transfer of music files with relatively low space and bandwidth. Without MP3 the entire iPod and portable music player phenomena would likely never have existed.

It's perhaps accurate to suggest 99% of all music enjoyed by billions of people around the world is heard through the lens of an MP3 (or similar) lossy container. Uncompressed files, even losslessly compressed files, are not the norm. Not even close.

What's the point of accepting loss of data in your files, and who cares?

The answer to the first question gets fuzzier nearly every day. Originally, the point was storage and bandwidth restrictions. There simply wasn't enough storage and streaming/download bandwidth to go around. Now that has changed, at least in first and second world countries, with third worlds catching up quickly. So, why are we still so concerned with compressing data? Cost is one answer. Regardless of what's available, it still costs money to store and send data around the world. That's likely to always be true.

And as to the second question, who cares. I can tell you without reservation billions of music lovers around the world don't care about loss of some fidelity, and likely they're unaware there was anything to lose in the first place. The small handful of folks like you and me that do care appear as anomalies to those in charge of data storage and transmission. It's likely we don't even make a blip on the radar.

Except... and that's what we'll cover tomorrow.

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14 comments on “What's the point?”

  1. Who cares? Those who have heard the original or a better reproduction system. The rest simply accept the limitations of their gear because they even don't know the sound quality possible or they can't afford a new or better system. Similar to the acceptance of the majority of modern flat tv screens that have a very poor resolution in time compared to the resolution possible with older CRT technology! However the room effects are far less complex for video only compared to audio with two or multiple speakers!

  2. Unfortunately most people do not even know what they are missing. The question is if they heard the difference would they want it especially if it might cost them a little more money ?

    1. I agree that most people do not know what they are missing. Some will care if they hear the difference and will try to do something about it, some won't. While I listen to vinyl about 90% of the time, every song on a separate 500GB hard drive is ripped bit for bit from a CD using AIFF. I have a few friends who have listened to familiar songs , heard the difference and asked why. A couple have said it would be worth having access to the higher quality, others are OK with their mp3 quality because they don't want to buy separate hard drives, don't want to go to the extra effort, etc. I think if Apple made a commitment to higher quality files for iTunes, more people would appreciate the difference.

      1. Absolutely agree with your comments, and my personal studies have found the same results. "Some will care if they hear a difference, and will try to do something about it, some won't". Even 40 years ago this was true for me, many of my friends had the all-in-one stereo systems with included speakers and those worked great for them, but then there were others that thought there might be a bit more and so started to accumulate separates of varying degrees of quality.

        Honestly, of the friends I still know who listen to music regularly, who were fine with the all-in-one approach, they are still there in that mode, listening with a tiny Bose Bluetooth speaker or other "insert heavily marketed name brand here" device. There were a few of us that knew there were more, some of us continued that quest through modern day and others stopped buying equipment in the 80s or 90s and still use that today. This will always be true I think.

        Many of the kids that I know today who recognize better quality music are still driven by convenience. They will pay for a premium subscription to Spotify for instance for the convenience of saving music and sharing playlists, but, I am not sure they do it for the higher sound quality offered. They also drive their equipment purchases not by high ratings for the most part, but by which athlete endorses a product or which is more heavily marketed. I had a kid the other day, quite proudly tell me there was no way he was going to buy Beats headphones, those were junk, "nothing but Bose for me"....... I did not try to dissuade him otherwise.

        Those that strive for the best equipment that fits their needs, to play whatever file types they desire (lossy or lossless, vinyl or otherwise) will remain in the minority ongoing as far as I am concerned.

  3. MP3 and AAC are the direct result of the largest selection bias in the history of science, which makes them junk science.

    Hearing is adaptive. This is not just adapting to recent history on time frames as short as a millisecond, the growth of your brain is determined by the quality of sensory inputs. We are constantly seeking patterns, and this drives neurogenesis (the creation of neurons) and synaptic connections (the wiring of your sensory processing circuitry), and at a much higher rate during childhood. Most conscious perception is triggered memory, or memories of memories, and this is the extreme example - your processing pathways are architected, built and programmed to your childhood memories.

    Just as the classification of the phonemes and meta-phonemes (expression) of your native language are established by puberty, the musical experiences of your youth determine how music is interpreted as an adult. Recording and audio chains drastically reduce the amount of information of sound present in a room; all audio processing generates spatial distortion; and speakers and headphones introduce nearly universal temporal, transient and spatial distortions.

    By 1932 (Fletcher-Munson and Blumlein experiments), populations within reach of broadcast stations heard more music through radio and phonograph than live. As peer-reviewed audiologists had adopted radio technology for experiments, they selected urban populations as subjects - so they were measuring ears that were conditioned to hear the sound of speakers and headphones, instead of the sound of music.

    The subjects who reported what humans could and could not hear were further conditioned by post-industrial noise pollution. Radio grew around industrialized population centers where motors and metal noises of machines had invaded the soundscape, now abetted by the near-instant ubiquity of radios after the 1925 speaker patent.

    Recent experiments of hearing adepts, including the blind and professional musicians, have revealed that humans can hear time and space at least ten times better than the standard model of hearing allows, and even ten times better than is "mathematically possible". They are not hearing geniuses, just properly developed. 99% of the population have developmentally stunted hearing from bad architectural acoustics, motors, speakers, bad recordings and bad audio.

    http://phys.org/news/2013-02-human-fourier-uncertainty-principle.html

    For many of these individuals, MP3 and AAC are UNLISTENABLE. Digitally compressed files instantly depress my mood and give me a headache and hangover if I listen for an hour or so, and I know many musicians who report the same experience. This gets worse with higher resolution playback systems.

    I repeat my unpopular assertion: if you enjoy listening to MP3 for extended periods of time, it is because of neuro-physiological hearing deficiency. Digitally compressed files should be avoided, especially for your children. This means no YouTube, Vimeo, streaming, compressed downloads, portable music players or cell phone music.

    Playing music daily increases your brain mass and intelligence in many areas, and I believe this is also true for listening - going to acoustic concerts (no PA) regularly or having someone practice music daily in your house is the the most likely to grow more brain power in young minds. My long term surveys also indicate that un-polluted sounds of Nature also stimulate proper development of hearing, so time beyond roads, flight paths and sea traffic is equally valuable

    http://www.jneurosci.org/content/23/27/9240.full.pdf+html

  4. Unfortunately or not, most people do not even care about what they are missing.
    Even if they hear the difference. It's all about covenience today, listening to music anytime, anyplace with Apple earbuds
    or dr Beats in or on your ears.
    As long as you can listen to the screams of joy and pleasure of the Rihanna's and Beyonce's of this world it's all fine.
    Who cares about SQ. The least important.
    And I think Paul is a very optimistic man. 99% probably must be 99,5%.
    Then we're talking about some 1.5 million US citizens listening to uncompressed music files/cd's. I don't think there will be more.

  5. Although reviled by audiophiles mostly, there are times when lossy files are better. I use an iPod in the car and for the bathroom and sometimes background listening where a lack of dynamic range is a good thing because of background noise. In addition soundstaging is not needed in these instances.

  6. So very,very true the last paragraph. Most and that means the vast majority of people either do not know the difference or do not care even if they did know the difference. It was as true in the days of the portable vinyl record players and the cassette tape as it is now. Cassettes could be quite good though. It is only to a handful that the difference is of enough significance to do something about it. For the rest either ignorance is bliss or else, so what ? As long as it is ear splitting ,screechy loud it is good.Yet the small handful can and do sustain a fairly large industry as audio goes. Imagine if all the people appreciated quality as the handful do. Hi-Fi equipment would be coming out the ears. But if one is fortunate enough to be able to appreciate high quality music reproduction then there are few pleasures that can equal it. Regards.

    1. I was one of those who realized a high quality blank cassette recorded from a record or even a CD on a high quality machine like a Nakamichi ZXE 700 sounded better than a store bought cassette of the same album. The ZXE 700 allowed you to align bias and azimuth each time you recorded. It made great sounding cassettes.

  7. Tomorrow morning under the shower I'm gonna compare MP3 to uncompressed files to find out whether MP3 is enough or should be banished from the bathroom once and for all.

    1. I am spending the day with Pandora on the stereo while watching the Indy 500. Since Pandora is streamed as MP3 and I have spent hours listening, per an earlier post, my brain may have shrunk by tomorrow to where I will no longer know to to even turn on the shower at all. LOL

      As for listening to nature I am getting a lot of that. The cicadas in Ohio are out in full force and drowning out everything else.

      I hope the aforementioned poster has a sense of humor!!!

  8. Maybe it turns out there's too much background noise from the shower so I just enjoy Beonce (i.e. her music).
    Or maybe Beonce is too much backgound noise and I just enjoy the shower. We'll see.

  9. I have ceiling speakers in the bedroom, bathroom and living room. The bedroom and bath has it's own system connected to an iPod in a dock with a receiver. My office/spare bedroom has bookshelf speakers on a desk in a closet connected to a computer running JRiver with a decent vintage sound system. I have thousands of CDs and never enough time to listen. So it's great to be able to put the iPod on random and listen while doing other things. I also have a surround system in the den and a high end stereo only system in the basement. I have much audio equipment.

    As an A/V installer you would be surprised where we install speakers. Most everyone wants them in every room.

  10. Lucky you rwwear.
    I don't have ceiling speakers in any room, I don't have an iPod, I don't have an office,
    I don't have a spare bedroom, I don't have bookshelf speakers, I don't have thousands of cd's,
    I don't have JRiver, I don't have a bath, I don't have a vintage sound system, I don't have much audio equipment.
    But luckily I do have enough time to listen.
    Your and mine audio-life combined could be perfect.

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