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

(cont'd from Part I) As a reminder, one of our readers, Jon P. asked one of the most frequently asked questions we hear: What's all this talk of MP3s & digital music files? Why does it matter what format my music is in?

In the prior post I talked about lossy compression schemes used for many streamed and ripped music formats out there, and I ended with the question,“Can you hear the difference?” The simple answer is, yes, if you listen carefully there’s no doubt that there’s a difference between the original recording and one ripped or transmitted using a lossy compression scheme. But there are some caveats too.


First, the ripping software (e.g. iTunes) typically offers you a selection of “bit rates”.

What's a Bit Rate?
Bit rates determine how much information gets discarded during the ripping process. Lower bit rates mean lots of discarded information but smaller files; higher bit rates mean higher fidelity but bigger files.

If you’re using iTunes, this is how to select the bit rate for ripping music*:

  • Go to the “Preferences” menu
  • Select “General Preferences” 
  • Once in the General Preference menu, you should select “Import Settings” 
  • FYI: Other ripping programs offer similar menus and choices.**

Of course, you’ll have to decide if your hard drive has enough room to hold all of your music in the larger file sizes. If, though, you're more interested in getting a ton of music on your hard drive & you've decided that you'd rather sacrifice sound quality & large quantities of information, you can choose to rip music using a non-lossy format.  

*To see a full video tutorial click here.

**Since I have both Apple and non-Apple music players I use Apple’s MP3 encoder set to the highest quality custom rate which is 320 kbits. 



When you listen to high bit rate music, you will want to remember that the quality of the earbuds or headphones you’re using will make a difference in your experience. Just like loudspeakers, these vary dramatically in both sound quality and durability. In addition, some are noise cancelling and some aren’t. In particular, if you hear little or no difference between low and high bit rate copies, your earphones may not be capable of revealing the finer details of the music.

So, what differences will you hear between highly compressed and less compressed music files? The best way to tell is to rip two copies of a file, one at a high bit rate & one at a low bit rate and immediately compare them to each other (and the original, if possible). I'd recommend music that makes it easy to hear differences--jazz instrumentals with vocals & many Country recordings. If Classical’s more your thing, choose string quartets or other smaller groups to get the best samples for comparison. You can also rip one copy in a non-lossy format for comparison to the lossy versions.

You don’t need to be a Certified Audiophile like me (I say I’m Certified because several of my friends have told me I’m certifiable) to hear the differences. Some things to listen for when comparing low bit-rate audio & high bit-rate audio:

At lower bit-rates:

  • there’ll be less “air” around instruments 
  • less harmonic richness to the sound
  • sound will be more distorted & fuzzier (in the same way that non-HD video is fuzzy)
  • less sense of the recording space where the performance took place
  • instruments may actually start to sound different than what they sound like when played live (not recorded)

At higher bit-rates:

  • you'll be able to hear the instruments as though they exist in their own space on a "stage"
  • the sound will have more richness
  • sound will be less distorted & clearer (in the same way that HD video is clear & crisp)
  • there'll be a sense that you can visualize the performance, and
  • the instruments will sound clearly & exactly as they sound when played live (not recorded)

You can experiment to see at what bit rate the losses become noticeable or intrusive, and you can decide how much you care about the missing information, if at all.

Next Up – Choosing those headphones…

-Joel R.