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Study Shows "Non-Audiophiles" Can't Hear Difference Between 64 and 256 kbps MP3 Files Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 December 2007
ImageAccording to a study released by Cognitive Daily, the average listener struggles to tell the difference in audio quality between the lowest-resolution MP3 files at 64 kbps and the so-called high-resolution 256 kbps files that are sold in limited quantities as “high definition” from the likes of Apple’s iTunes and Amazon’s new download site.

The study looked at three different resolutions of audio, ranging from Good (64 kbps) to Better (128 kbps) and Best (256 kbps), for two selections of music, including a Santana track and a classical piece by composer Aaron Copeland. The study also asked the group to self-define themselves on a scale of one to nine in terms of how much they consider themselves to be audiophiles (nine being the most critical of listeners and one being a listener who isn’t concerned with audio quality at all). The results show that self-proclaimed audiophiles could better hear the differences between the three grades of audio better than non-audiophile listeners. Fascinatingly, listeners with decades of musical training on various instruments showed no specific gift for hearing the difference between the levels of these low-resolution MP3 files.

Where one could find fault with the study is in its methodology. A compact disc, the most successful audio format in the history of the history of the world, packs 16-bit resolution and 1411 kbps data rate. This is many times higher than that of the tested MP3s that are currently being pushed on the market today. Much higher-resolution downloads from less mainstream music websites like Music Giants and iTrax start at 1100 kbps and increase to over 9000 kbps, thus getting to the resolutions that audiophiles heard on truly high-resolution formats like SACD and DVD-Audio. These vastly higher-resolution files have many times more data, allowing for a musical experience that is much closer to what is captured on the master tape simply because of the higher resolution, data rate and sampling rate. Complicated audio events like a cymbal crash require tremendous amounts of data for an audio system to reproduce it in the same way the human ear would hear the sound live. Lower data rate and resolution MP3 files often are criticized for sounding “bright” or “shrill” by audio professionals and mainstream listeners alike when compared to true HD music formats that extend far past the performance of low-resolution, “lossy” (meaning compressed) MP3 files. One noted record producer suggested the difference between the 256 kbps MP3 format in this study is like testing the 0-60 on a Prius vs. a Camry, when true HD resolutions are more like testing a Ferrari. The amount of data and resolution is many times higher and more able to bridge the gap between the physical limitations of audio playback and an actual musical event.

The sad commentary here is that the four major record labels are unwilling to market their content at any level of real high definition. Simply put, one-fourth the resolution of a 25-year-old compact disc (256 kbps) format is not “high-resolution” anything, despite what Apple says. The majors fought over the differences between SACD and DVD-Audio, leaving discerning consumers feeling ambivalent about investing in either format because of a lack of titles, complications in system set-up, a lack of video content and overall cost. Yet video games costing $60 to $90 per title sell in volumes that are five times higher than today’s best-selling CDs. High-definition movies on HD DVD and Blu-ray sell in increasingly strong volumes, while over 3,000,000 HDTV sets are sold per month in the United States. The ship has likely sailed for SACD and DVD-Audio, but both the new HD DVD and Blu-ray formats allow huge storage capacity for an audio and video experience that can expand the “album” concept far beyond one or two low-resolution files. But the major labels, as their sales spiral down the toilet bowl, simply fail to release their music in any compelling format that improves on the value proposition or audio quality, thus turning to very low-resolution downloads because they represent the lowest-hanging fruit for a business that simply cannot market its way out of a paper bag. The art of emotionally charged high-resolution music has been left to smaller players, but if you want to hear what the potential of a real download sounds like, listen to the Super HD downloads from Music Giants. There is no comparison between the power of what they are doing and a mere 256 kbps file.

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