Are MP3s the beginning or the end of listening to music?

One of our gurus, Joel Rosenblatt, recently was asked a question by one of our readers. Find out what his thoughts are on this frequently debated issue:

Hey Joel,

What's all this talk of MP3s & digital music files? Why does it matter what format my music is in?

- Jon P.

Hi there Jon,

Look around: If you’re outdoors, in a mall, at the airport, or anyplace with lots of people around, there’s bound to be dozens of people with some sort of portable music player plugged into their ears. Even during the heyday of Sony’s famous Walkman, listening to music wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. So, with all these folks listening to all this music do many choose to pursue the passion for performance audio? Mostly, the answer is no. So why is that?  What exactly are you listening to and what can you do if you want to improve your music enjoyment?

The vast majority of downloads and “ripped” music uses some form of compression to reduce file size. As per Wikipedia, among the most common are:

  • MP3: MPEG-1 (Motion Picture Experts Group 1) Audio Layer 3 is the full name of the most common digital music format. MP3 audio files are the ones commonly traded (usually illegally) on the Internet, and they're the most common digital music codec used on PCs & digital music systems in a wireless network.
  • WMA: Windows Media Audio is the standard audio format used by Windows Media Player and compatible hardware. A lossless versionof WMA does exist, but most WMA files use a lossy compression system.
  • AAC: Advanced Audio Codec is the format used by Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store and is the default codec for music within iTunes. Like WMA, AAC files are lossy (though within Apple’s iTunes system there is a lossless codec as well, called Apple Lossless).

So, what’s lossy compression?

A computer “looks” at the music as it’s being ripped and based upon pre-determined criteria the computer eliminates the information it believes you won’t miss. That information is gone from the resulting file, no matter which of the above schemes is employed. For example, say you’re ripping a piece of music that has a relatively quiet bell ringing rhythmically within it. During quiet passages the bell might be kept in the ripped file by the encoding process. But if there’s a loud crescendo that comes along, the encoding system will assume that you’d never hear the bell during that part of the music and so it will not record the bell during the crescendo. By doing this throughout the ripping process the encoder will generally make the file up to 80 to 90% smaller than the original!

Tune in next time when I'll answer the frequently asked question: Can you hear the difference? 

- Joel R.