Friday, April 20, 2012

Reconciling crap audio quality (MP3s) with perfectionist design

Something I've been wondering about: People are always going on about how Steve Jobs was obsessively devoted to quality and design, how Apple products are these beautiful examples of perfectionist design. The iPod is often held up as an exemplar. It was so successful, it contributed to widespread adoption of the MP3/AAC format over CDs. Many people started buying songs and albums in compressed format directly from iTunes, instead of buying CDs first and then ripping them to MP3. This may be the standard for Kids These Days, I don't know. Do KTD still buy CDs?

But here's the thing about MP3s/AACs. By definition they have poor audio quality compared to CDs. They're created by a process called, hilariously, "lossy compression" (the data is compressed because some of it is lost). According to one study, KTD actually prefer the sound of MP3s to CDs. This is probably analogous to the average person preferring vanillin (artificial vanilla extract) to real vanilla beans. Basically, most people take simplicity over complexity if they're used to it; familiarity is a kind of pleasure. But doesn't this kind of suck? Does anyone care? When people play iTunes on their computer or hook up an iPod to a speaker system, it sounds distinctly worse than a CD. How does this (cumulatively) enormous loss of sound quality jibe with the whole perfectionism thing? This is a serious question. Am I missing something?

17 comments:

  1. I think that it's more the speakers on a computer or the ipod's output that makes it sound crappy than the quality of the files. I usually convert stuff to mp3 at 256 or 320 (instead of the standard 192) and I really can't hear any difference. That said, I'm going to start transferring all the music on the CDs I care about from a sonic standpoint into FLAC (lossless) files for posterity.

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    1. Computer speakers may be partially responsible, but they make like Bose iPod docks which still seem compromised compared to CDs. I dunno. I haven't done a "blind taste test" but the drop-off in quality seems palpable to me.

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  2. Depressing to hear. Every once in a while I find myself listening to a CD on headphones and I think, am I imagining things, or does this sound better than mp3's...?

    Funny anecdote: when home computers started to be able to play CDs in them, in the mid-90s, 12-year-old me was actually surprised that the music didn't come out sounding like video game music, like it would somehow be converted into Mario-type music. I had no idea it would still sound like actual music on a radio.

    Then, when iPods were introduced, 20-something me was surprised that the music came out sounding (pretty much) like how it would sound on a discman! I was still expecting it to sound like...I don't know what, an Edison phonograph or something.

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    1. CD's for sure sound better. Richer. I'm going to listen to a CD this morning in protest!

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  3. This pops up a whole field of questions for me, things I've been thinking about for years.

    First, I should say I don't have an iPod or other MP3 player, and have never listened to anything on an iPod or other MP3 player. I've listened a very little bit to music streaming on the internet, and have listened some to CD's that I've played on my computer.

    So I can't say from my actual experience if I think the sound from an MP3 is worse than the sound from a CD. But it seems intuitively likely that MP3 sound would be worse, if it's compared with (for instance) a CD, and if they're played using the same speakers and so on. An MP3 might also sound worse than an LP record too, though I'm just speculating about that.

    The "lossy compression" you talk about here (the first time I've heard the term) makes me think of the difference between whole wheat bread and white flour bread. White flour bread is less filling because it contains less food; it's also less nourishing. Or fresh-squeezed orange juice vs. industrially processed concentrate. Etc.

    Another analogy that comes to mind is the difference between reading a poem on the internet and reading a poem in a print book.

    I spent much of my life listening to music on LP's and 45 singles -- and once in a while an old 78 recording -- and on cassette tapes, before anybody ever heard of CD's. I like the way CD's sound, though I liked the way LP's and 45's and cassettes sounded too, even the earlier ones that were mono (instead of stereo) sound.

    The ambient sound around the music is itself part of how the music sounds -- it's part of the music. The ambient white space on the page around the poem is itself a part of the poem.

    Another analogy might be, the difference between watching a movie on T.V., or streaming on a computer, or watching a DVD of the movie -- the difference between any of the above, and watching a movie on a large screen in a theater. (One of the reasons, I suspect, that movie studios have concentrated on high-octane action movies and slob comedies in recent years is that those kinds of movies work better on a small screen than movies made of visual subtlety, quiet meditative images, and literate nuanced story and dialogue.)

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    1. I love web journals, but I do find that it can be hard to read a poem online if it's not given enough space. I hate when the bio is too close to the poem, or there's just too much junk on the page all around it (other links, ads, etc.)

      Poetry needs space!

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  4. Audiophiles listen to analog music...LPs, reel-to-reel tape...to get the fullest, richest, most natural sounds. The rest of us go for convenience I think. CDs sound better than cassettes and are more portable than LPs, so we made the switch, and now mp3s are even more convenient than CDs. And it's not just audio, right? Film makes way better photographs than pixels do, but we don't buy film any longer, either. Analog is pretty much always better, quality-wise, but lossy tech. is soooo easy.

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    1. Yes, photography is another one, though amateur photography generally looks crappy whether digital or analog. I mean the photos in our family albums from the 80s look like crap ... Bill Cunningham at the NYT still uses a film camera!

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    2. I'm actually not sure I could tell the difference between a digital and a film picture, as long as we're talking about a DSLR camera--and a physical print, instead of an image on a screen.

      Here's a picture by Zoe Strauss from her book America, which was taken with a Nikon D300, a 12.3 megapixel DSLR. A pro might be able to tell the difference, but to me it looks the same as film. And I suppose I'm content to be fooled.

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  5. You ask what you're missing... exactly the question, and a debate that's been going on for some time. On the other hand, high fidelity sound for pop music is fairly recent... stereo recording, for example, was reserved for classical LPs, because serious music listeners, with serious audio equipment, weren't listening to Please Please Me by the Beatles. Thus mono, the inferior format that purists (such as myself) are spending mucho bucks to get so we can hear Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's in the inferior sound format those albums were mixed for. (Sgt. Pepper mono is radically different, by the way, than Sgt. Pepper stereo.)

    Sound quality does have to do with the machines we're using to listen to music. A kid in the early sixties had a record player with a single speaker (mono). As a boy, my tape deck had just one speaker (I didn't own a stereo boombox till I went to college).

    The criticism of analog has always been that the physical contact (needle to vinyl, tape heads to tape, etc.) created noise. A CD's "stylus" is a beam of light. The problem with CDs was the same as with Mp3s: compression. Listen to a CD made in the late 80s, and the sound quality is notably poorer than the sound quality of a CD made in the mid-90s. (For some, the mid-90s represents a pinnacle in terms of sound recordings.)

    Now, the big issue isn't compression, but range. Many albums are mixed to sound good as an Mp3, listened to on cheap earbuds, in a noisy environment: that is to say, they are mixed LOUD. Without dynamic range, there is no loud--it's all the same. Compare your CD copy of Siamese Dream or Nevermind gets quiet, then loud, so the loud sounds louder....

    Read reviews of the remastered Nevermind: the complaint I came across most often was that all the dynamic range was lost by the remaster. Everything is mixed "hot." Good speakers hate that.

    Lossless digital files are just that, and CDs are, of course, digital files. A CD made in the mid 90s is probably lossless. Analog is "lossless." This is why vinyl is back (that and the record industry's wise decision to frequently include a free download code to those who buy albums).

    There's been a lot written about this in the past decade. I may have some of my facts confused. For most people, it's a non-issue. For most people, music is a backdrop only--so who cares about high fidelity?

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    1. Thanks for all this! Good info. I have noticed, though, that some CD players introduce noise as well -- you can hear the sound of the CD spinning. (This annoys me.)

      I assumed that people somewhere were having this debate, of course; I've just never heard it mentioned. The only time I've heard people mention the "lossy" quality of MP3's, it was to marvel at how unnoticeable the lost stuff is (though I have the impression that I do notice it).

      True 'nuff that it's a non-issue for most people, but, there's the contradiction -- the "design" of one's computer (or MP3 player, or phone) should be a non-issue for most people too (they could get very similar functionality for less cost), but people make it into an issue in the service of personal branding.

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  6. Another issue that, for me, is related to all of these questions is: to what extent do we want be active in creative work, and to what extent do will we settle for being passive observers or "participants." Or, to put it more broadly, to what extent to we want to be alive and immersed in life, and to what extent will we settle for drifting along the fringe without great involvement?

    And what effect will these choices have on our individual and collective psyches? (What does the history of the world in the past couple of centuries suggest about this?)

    I agree that it's partly an issue of a loss of range, and I think it's also an issue of too much compression. What people twenty and forty years ago were calling (and maybe still are) "instant gratification." (And how might this relate to, for instance, the plethora of "reality" shows on T.V., or, say, the vapid psychosis of the current presidential campaign? The latter of which might possibly wind up affecting our lives in a whole lot of ways not too far in the future.)

    Another example that I relate to all of this: the short-lived attempt by some corporate ghouls, some years back, to computer-"colorize" movies that had been made in black-and-white (often with ludicrous and even idiotic results). James Cagney in a 1930's gangster movie, getting out of a car and walking up to a building, wearing a stark white suit. In the colorized version the suit became pastel green. (Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, anyone?)

    When somebody colorized one of Frank Sinatra's movies, Old Blue Eyes suddently had eyes that were brown. (An obsession with getting everything quick and easy often seems to bring with it a carelessness with detail and an ignorance of history.)

    As more than one filmmaker and movie critic pointed out, movie directors continued to make black-and-white pictures even after color movies had become common. They didn't make black-and-white movies because color wasn't available; it was an intentional aesthetic choice. (Is digital remastering music that was originally recorded in mono sound analogous to computer colorizing black-and-white movies?)

    I start to get kind of heated up when I start thinking and talking about these things. I'm appreciating and enjoying the discussion here.

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  7. my macbookpro crashes like a mofo all the time too.

    my two cents is, if you take away "branding" and other marketing-related, uhh, stuff, like 65% of the us economy vaporizes. which is probably bad for unemployment (?). so get on board with the program and think different! if anybody is an economist or whatever i would so be open to be educated here so fire away.

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    1. Yeah, at least -- I mean most people with buying power already have everything they need, so to get them to keep buying stuff you have to prey on their insecurities and convince them what they have isn't good/new/cool enough...

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  8. Every model of iPhone also has terrible wireless performance and call quality. (Apple's PR has had some success in blaming this on AT&T, but the problem is largely hardware.)

    I like Apple products, but it seems fair to say that their reputation for "quality" comes from making ruthless compromises as well as good design decisions. They somehow know what sorts of quality people won't give a damn about.

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    1. I do hear people complain about that, so it's not so much that people don't care, they just don't care enough to NOT have an iPhone. Their follower base is so freaking rabid.

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  9. Remind me to write something, by the way, about how some great music, such as Edith Piaf, is even better when heard coming from a tinny radio, wafting in from another room, or even another building.

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