When the CD was introduced, it was widely poo-pooed by the audiophiles of the day for not being as rich or soothing as a well looked after 12 inch piece of vinyl. However it was more convenient, didn’t wear down when you played it and was much less susceptible to scratches (though not indestructible as we were first led to believe).
When MP3 first became widespread, broadband was virtually non-existent and the only portable player only came with a meagre 32MB of storage. Tracks encoded at 128kbps became the norm and another wave of audio snobbery began.
But is all compression noticeable and is there a point where adding additional bits becomes more of a psychological, rather than acoustic, advantage? After all – if you admit to not being able to tell the difference then you’re telling everyone that your hearing isn’t as good as theirs.
In a quest to finally answer the question, Maximum PC decided to do some blind listening tests comparing a full-fat WAV to two different bitrate compressed counterparts.
Now admittedly the sample size was a little on the small size – stretching to just four people – but the results were still interesting. Participants were asked to bring along a record they knew inside out and try and put the tracks in order of quality. In addition they also had to rate the other participants tracks as well.
The results were pretty bad with six out of twelve tracks successfully identified being the best score. However, they were using variable bitrate compression, which makes much better use of the bits available. A variable bitrate track can use a higher setting for complicated parts and a lower setting for more simple areas. A constant bitrate track wastes the bits on easy sections and has nothing left for the hard parts.
They were also using good quality equipment in a controlled environment – a world away from using the bundled earphones that come with an MP3 player while walking down the street.
Ultimately it’s your music collection, so encode it at a level that sounds good to you. Listening to music should be about enjoyment – if the best thing you can say about a track is the quality of the encoding, then you might want to re-evaluate your musical tastes.