Inside story: why that MP3 you just downloaded probably sounds like crap

Many of the the real, true audiophiles I know-those with home entertainment centers worth more than many of our mortgages- have a disdain for online music that I can only compare to what prize-winning vintners and world-class wine collectors think about $2.99 wine from Trader Joe's.

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Many of the the real, true audiophiles I know-those with home entertainment centers worth more than many of our mortgages- have a disdain for online music that I can only compare to what prize-winning vintners and world-class wine collectors think about $2.99 wine from Trader Joe's.

Humphh.

In the December 27-January 10 issue of Rolling Stone, there are several pieces that explain why MP3's, and many other online music formats, generally have such poor quality.

The problem, implies Stone's Robet Levine, is two-fold:

Music is mixed too loud, robbing the audio of definition. Levine places the blame on a practice known as "dynamic range compression." "This studio effect, he writes, "reduces the difference between the loud and soft parts of a piece of music-recently mastering engineers have used it to make sure every moment on a CD is as loud as possible."

MP3's squash out additional audio data from the track. "MP3 reduces a CD audio file's size by as much as ninety percent," Levine points out, "with an algorithm that eliminates sounds listeners are least likely to perceive- including extremes of high and low frequencies."

In his excellent piece (link not available) Levine goes into thorough detail on how these practices degrade both MP3's and the original CDs. Here's a core component of Levine's explanation:

Producers and engineers call this "the loudness war," and it has changed the way almost every new pop and rock album sounds.

But volume isn't the only issue.

Computer programs like Pro Tools, (shown above) which let audio engineers manipulate sound the way a word processor edits text, make musicians sound unnaturally perfect. And today's listeners consume an increasing amount of music on MP3s, which eliminates much of the data from the original CD file and can leave music sounding tinny or hollow.

"With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse," says Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. God is in the details. But there are no details anymore."

Do you agree with Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, or is MP3 audio quality getting a bad rap?

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