The price of sound

Ten years ago, Steve Guttenberg was reviewing CDs for a living. He didn’t have a portable CD player to listen to on his way to the office. He didn’t even have iTunes. So Guttenberg taped his CDs onto cassettes and played them in his Walkman while he was running errands and cooking dinner.

Only he began noticing he liked music from his Walkman less than CDs he played at home.
An audiophile by nature and profession (he writes a blog called The Audiophiliac for CNET News and is a long-time record producer for Chesky Records), Guttenberg was more intrigued by his affinity for CDs than the average listener.

But as technology advanced – from MP3s to iPods to online streaming – Guttenberg realized his revelation would resonate with the casual listener, even if they didn’t realize it.

“The hard part about this is if you don’t know what you’re missing, you don’t know what you’re missing,” says Guttenberg. “[MP3s are] a copy of a copy of a copy. There’s less to it, less detail, less a sense of hearing someone singing, someone banging on a drum, someone playing a guitar.”

It all comes down to file compression. While MP3s are more space efficient, the compression of the file actually decreases the quality. A CD plays 1411 kilobites/second, whereas an MP3 is a meagre 128 kb/s – that’s eight times less space but also means the file has been compressed to eight times its original size.

“To make the file smaller, they throw out the quieter stuff,” says Guttenberg. “The bang bang bang stuff, that’s still there. But it’s the breath of the singer that gets thrown away.”

For Guttenberg, missing those little inconsistencies in the music is like losing an entire verse in the song. But scientifically, the average music listener might not even notice.


Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, conducted psychoacoustic surveys on his students for ten years to determine what young music listeners are looking for. The results surprised him – as it turns out, the younger generation is actually growing to prefer the sound of MP3 files over CD recordings, despite the lower audio quality.

“…In rock music, MP3s with not terribly high bit rates, like 128 for example, seemed to be doing very well,” Berger said in an interview with Norah Young from Spark on CBC Radio. “Over the years, I repeated this experiment and curiously saw a rise of preference of MP3 at 128k in particular types of rock music. This was an anomaly that was totally unexpected: a degraded quality of reconstruction that somehow seems to enhance the music.”

Berger explains that compression artefacts, which are sounds that appear on compressions that are not made in the original recording, actually enhance sounds with high frequencies, like cymbal hits. He describes this subtle MP3 sound as “sizzle”.

But as Guttenberg points out, music listening isn’t usually this attentive.

“When I was a teenager and the new Beatles record came out, I would just put it on repeat and play that one side for hours at a time, just soaking it in,” says Guttenberg.

“The thing that was interesting was that before the CD existed, most people – normal people, your mother, my mother – they actually sat and listened to music. Once people don’t really listen – they have it on in the background, while they’re talking, reading, cooking, washing the floor – the sound quality isn’t terribly important.”

Even though MP3s are technically much lower quality than CDs, the missing details are minute. The sound quality of an iPod is acceptable for the average ear, and at a reasonable price for the whole package, it’s all most people really need.


That doesn’t mean quality doesn’t count. Audiophiles demanding fuller sounds with greater attention to detail will shell out upwards of $700 for a portable music player alone (like the Hifiman HM801), and accessorize it with headphones and amplifiers for more than $500.

The music industry has made a few steps in the direction of higher quality. Spotify, a European music streaming website, announced it is updating its database to CD-quality files online, although a spokesperson could not be reached to comment on the exact bitrate.

Brooklyn duo MGMT’s latest release leaked online last week, so to counteract listeners from being exposed to lower quality sound files, the band offered a full stream online until the release on April 6. The difference won’t be much but because the files being streamed via were compressed from the digital master recordings of the album, the quality will be higher than an MP3.

It’s not a difference the average listener will pick up on, but it could be. And according to Guttenberg, it should be.

“The music you buy today you may actually want to listen to in 20 years,” says Guttenberg. “If this music really moves you and is a part of your life, wouldn’t you want it in the best possible condition?”