Monday, April 13, 2009

What’s the best way to listen to music?

by Scott

Even thought I finally fall into the camp of listening to music more on my computer or through the advent of an MP3 player (iPod being my ‘weapon of choice’), for some reason it still seems to me as though ‘CDs sound better’ than digital music files. My favorite way to listen to a new CD is still on my trusty old walkman. It just seems like I hear a lot more of the nuances that way, even though I use the same headphones when listening to my iPod (earbuds aren’t part of the equation as they never fit my ears comfortably).

I have heard many different schools of thought on this. One is that, since the files are taken directly from the CD, there should be no real difference in the sound quality (i.e. it’s all in my head). Another is that files are usually condensed when you put them on an MP3 player or play them through iTunes and this usually results in a loss of sound quality. Yet another is that the overall sound quality of CDs is being reduced as artist and producers are now catering to the fact that most people are now listening to music through their computer speakers or on inferior earbuds. I remember reading an article last year which stated this typically takes the form of everything being ‘louder’ and there being less variety in volume levels in the mix; the basic logic is that, on smaller/inferior speakers, ‘louder is better.’ This would explain why the new Killers album sounds much better coming through one speaker of my ‘factory issue’ car stereo than it does when I’m listening to it on headphones (where the production sounds like an overly busy mess). And then there are those who still insist that vinyl has the superior sound quality…

I recall reading an interview with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood where he said a lot of the bemoaning the decline in sound quality was simply the result of aging hipsters desperately wishing that they could get music to sound as good to them as it did when they were teenagers.

Any thoughts on this?

Follow up: Just for kicks, I bought the new U2 album on Vinyl and, honestly, I don’t hear any superiority in sound quality... granted, probably don’t have the best of turntable seeing as mine is over 20 years old… but, for the time, it was a really good turntable

[And my question is this: my headphones break all the time, and I have gotten the the habit of picking up cheap ones over and over -- is it worth it to spend the money on large, expensive headphones that cover the ear?]


ba said...

Well, the reason many people complain about digital copies is because in going from a full-sized .wav or .flac file to an .mp3 or .aac, the high and low ends are cut off. Arguably, both ends are not able to be heard by the human ear, but people still complain. Also, until recently, audio quality from cd to .mp3 was lowered from about 160 to 256 kpbs on cd to about 128 on .mp3, but this is no longer the case.

As for vinyl, I've only really noticed the difference when using an equalizer. Someone once gave a good analogy that adjusting vinyl levels is akin to dimming or brightening a series of lights, whereas digital music is like a series of lights with only on/off switches, and I find the description apt.

That said, I like to listen to music both in the car and with nice headphones - it's almost like listening to two different versions of the same song.

Christian said...

What an amazingly concrete topic on this blog for once. (I'm not complaining about either, I'm just amazed. ;))

But as a 21 year old, who only listened to vinyl in his childhood, I still think, when I listen to it now, that Vinyl has the better sound. Like mentioned about the compactmentalizing of MP3 and digital tends to cut off the highs and the lows. And I can't hear vinyl on cheap earbuds, so that probably helps.

I only buy cheap ones as well. Cheap and expensive both break too easily, so I just go with the ones that won't deplete my account completely.

I'd still take a live performance any day of the week though. If you can't feel the bass in your spinal column and tail bone, then you're standing too far away btw.

Todd C. Murry said...

The CD bit rate is 1,411.2 kbit/s. I can certainly tell the difference between 128 kbit/s (which has been the "standard") and 192 kbit/s, and maybe a little difference from 192 to 320 kbit/s, but not between these and higher bit rate mp3's. I haven't bought from Apple, ever, and I don't know what their sampling rate is, or how AAC files differ, but I can still feel greater depth from the CD and FLACs than from ultra high rate MP3s, but I don't think it's the bit rate. I think its the Tom's Diner/Karlheinz Brandenburg effect, where the compression was not optimized in a value neutral way, and the associated clipping of the extreme range.

The vinyl to digital difference is there, but not practically worth it at this pint (I own about 500 vinyl records, but currently have no turntable because it's too much damn work to clean the suckers every time you play). I do think the trend of optimizing song production for the media is undeniable, and has had a detrimental effect. Have you ever read that Lester Bangs interview where he goes on and on about how better sound production is ruining rock'n'roll because you are supposed to listen to rock through half blown out speakers, and when the stuff sounds cleaner, it makes the artists produce the records differently, and it all goes to hell? Good interview (here: - the question I'm referencing is "What do you think has been the effect of the increase of sophistication in recording techniques?").

I just don't know if there is a hard technology component to this or not. I'm assuming my car mp3 player just spits out what it's told, same as a CD, but maybe not.

ba said...

Geoff - I use Etymotic er6i in-ear headphones; much cheaper than audiophile-type headphones, have about the same noise cancellation as the earmuff style, but you can jog with them and stick em in your pocket and whatnot.

Fnord Serious said...

I find that different albums sound best on different formats and stereos. There is not one golden perfect format for me. I find that I don't listen to a lot of bass heavy music on my headphones, but that is my only real limit for music listening.

The audiophile argument for the purity of vinyl only really applies to older albums where the whole recording and mastering process was analog as well. Anything from the 80's onward is all digital up until the moment it gets pressed to vinyl, and transferring it back to the analog format doesn't restore the parts of the waveform that were stripped out by the digital recording. Digital recording has improved in leaps and bounds since the 80's though, and a lot of the arguments for analog being better than digital have been made moot by the improved quality of digital recording processes.

Commercial music has definitely been getting louder, When we went to get our album mastered, the engineer asked if we had to have it maxed out so it is the loudest thing in a mix or on the radio, or if we just wanted it to sound good. We chose the sounding good option.

Fnord Serious said...

BTW, I listen to some fairly pricey ($80 0r so) Shure headphones. The in-ear portion is actually a set of earplugs, and they work great for listening to podcasts and certain kinds of music in the noisy environment of the print shop that I work in or on the walk to and from work.

finsof72 said...

On my Avid, there is an option when editing audio for "CD Quality" and "High Definition Quality." I'm assuming this means that CD Quality is inferior to High Def quality, but I'm not sure what mp3s are generally recorded in. Nor can I really tell a difference between the two formats whatsoever.

Though, to put it in perspectice, the last CD I bought was from Rage Against the Machine in 2002...I was in middle school and wanted to be like Tony Hawk.

Nowadays I just use "legal" mp3 sites like mp3fiesta or and they all sound clear as day, and to compare, I downloaded my Rage album and can't tell a difference between the digital file and the CD whatsoever.

I don't usually mention it on first dates, but I'm a big movie score guy. Alan Silvestri is actually married to my adoptive cousin (in fact their youngest son is named after my adoptive grandpa)and I have the very dorky habit of listening to soundtracks and picturing my own movies to them as I lay in bed...

Anyway, the point is that I think that that there really isn't a discernible difference between the formats except for, really, convenience. I think that when people say vinyl is better than CD then that's more of a product of generational biases, kind of like when my dad swears that his original Atari games are far better and more advanced than, say, Grand Theft Auto IV.

Jake said...

I wouldn't spend $80 on a pair of headphones like some people do, but I wouldn't spend less than $20 either. Cheapo phones suck balls. They fall apart, but more importantly, they drop so much bass from the music.

finsof72 said...

My roommate has a $99 pair of ear buds. I have a $9 pair. I don't hear a difference.

scott91777 said...

From a lot of discussion and from what I've read elsewhere, it would appear that the difference is so minimal from format to format that it is almost impossible for non-audiophiles and those of use who DON'T have the most advanced sound systems to really hear the difference much more than some CDs being occasionally louder or softer than others.

On a related note, I was reading an article about the upcoming Beatles remasters (by the way, of all the CDs that I have that I feel are in need of remastering, the Beatles are not among them... I know a lot of hardcore, old-shcool fans complain but they sound FINE to me) and the guy was saying "The sound great! Much louder than previous mixes!" Nothing about the quality of the sound, just the volume and, as I have read elsewhere, quality does not equal volume. In fact, the recent remaster of The Joshua Tree sounds significantly quieter than most remasters that I have heard.

To expand the discussion a bit, abd to tie in to Todd's lester bangs comment, this reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my brother's friends who happens to be a film buff. He had just watched an older movie on Blu-Ray, I'm not sure what it was... The Godfather maybe... and he commented that, while newer films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E look AMAZING in Blu-Ray... he's just not sure if transfering older movies to Blu-Ray is the best idea. You notice flaws in lighting, sound and picture that were never meant to be noticed.

Mikey said...

Yeah, I've been reading about the switch over to digital (and HD) here and how TV producers are going to have to rethink even small things like make up application on the actors, as the detail becomes much more visible.

Sheesh, you know what time it is when the discussion is about the loss of quality from CD to mp3, when the CD is the benchmark of quality for a previous generation (of dudes, of tech). As Fins points out, time was CD was the faddish young pretender to vinyl, and Brothers In Arms was the only CD you could buy.

I'm very much a fan of degrading sound, music that destroys itself the more you listen to it. I recently became addicted to buying cassette walkmans (walkmen?) from jumble sales. If I see one, I have to buy it (no idea what I'm going to do with them). But there's nothing like the look you get on public transport when you take out your big chunk of plastic (from your belt clip, natch) at the end of a side and flip the cassette over. You kind of meet their confused eyes and go "That's right. Cassette."

But I had to give it up, and only in part because it was a hipster contrivance. The city's such a vastly different place since the strictly analogue days when I rode the bus to school that you get pretty much constant interference. With all these ambient radiowaves and frequencies swirling around, always sending and receiving, every time you walk by someone with a mobile phone your poor Walkman's cassette ribbon and cogs get all confused.

Scott - Like Jake, I went around with some cheap headphones for a while, eventually got some new ones and was amazed that there were whole guitar parts and basslines that I hadn't been hearing. Same when I got some new speakers at home. So long as you have some speakers with massive weight (a technical term) and halfway decent headphones (large over the ears for home use, ear plug style for out and about) I don't think format is too much of a problem.

finsof72 said...

Funny you should mention Blu Ray degrading quality. If you watch the new version of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' on Blu Ray you'll notice that it looks WORSE than it does on standard DVD because the effects look even more isolated from the rest of the movie, whereas with the less-sharp SD DVD they blended better. So it's not just older movies that are effected, newer movies have the issue of not being able to hide what they could've before.

Another good example is 'The Mist,' in the SD DVD the monsters look okay, but watch it in HD on BluRay and you'll notice they look horrible and it completely takes them out of the movie, almost making them borderline laughable.

Jake said...

The Beatles CDs DO need these remasters. Download the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper off some torrent site. A REVELATION. I'm hoping that the remasters are a lot closer in spirit to the original mono. I know that on the Love CD, Lucy in the Sky was reverted to its original, slower rate. I'm praying that it stays that way on these September releases.

scott91777 said...

Ok, so I did some experimenting; music seems to sound slightly better on my CD Walkman but that might but I think it just might be the bass booster whereas my iPod has several automatic EQ settings that are probably actually giving me a better mix... I usually use the 'Rock' setting as that is what I listen to most of the time.

As for headphones, my sony headphones (nothing fancy... just a basic pair of walkman headphones) do sound better than my cheapo spare pair... however, I did try some more expensive headphones that I bought for playing around on a four track a few years back that do SEEM better but I think that might have more to do with the fact that they cover the whole ear and keep other sound out than actual quality... besides... they're pretty bulky and uncomfortable... all in all, the difference was pretty negligible... the only thing I really noticed was a difference in volume... nothing notable in terms of clarity.

In the end, there is an inherited hearing loss on my dad's side which is already kicking in for me, so it might just be that I'm not sensitive enough to hear the differences... as Ba said, it's arguable that the difference isn't audible for most people... so that's probably even more true for me. So, I guess, maybe Johnny Greenwood is right... music will never sound as good to me as it did when I was seventeen.

Jake said...

You should still totally check out mono versions of Revolver & Pepper. It's like looking at God in the face.

Curt said...

Scott, listen to your old Beatles CDs and then listen to some of the remastered tracks on the more recently released Yellow Submarine soundtrack and then tell me your old discs still sound fine. The difference is almost painful.

On a marginally related note, every music purchase that I've made in the last two years has been on vinyl and 95% of those vinyl purchases have come with FREE access to MP3 and/or FLAC downloads. As someone who writes about music professionally, this really presents the best of both worlds: the warmth of vinyl plus the convenience of digital music (meaning I can skip CDs altogether).

Patrick Ray said...

This is a great comment string. Props to Geoff Klock for the post, further props to the community.

I'm currently purging my CD collection down to the grooviest common denominator. In so doing, I'm considering switching to pure digital.

I'm a bit of a minimalist and every thing I own gets attention. I figured that switching to my current 72 piece collection to a single device could be cool.

While I haven't reached a decision yet, this string contributed to my thoughts. Good stuff, folks. Gratitude.

bnight said...

There is huge difference between .MP3, CD and obviously Vinyl but you will notice this difference if you use a pair of great stereo speakers. I bought new stereo speakers for Christmas and I discover that most of my .mp3 files sounds terrible with a lot of noise on high volume trough the stereo speakers same songs from cd sounds clear on high volume. A friend of mine have the same speakers as we bought them together and one night he was explaining to me that he only get 320 kbit/s mp3`s then I show him the CD version of the White Album it was a night to remember as we listen trough the whole White Album and it perfectly showed off the quality of the speakers. Huge difference then 320 kbit/s mp3s that he was using before. So yeah always CD`s sound better then mp3 and yes in order to enjoy great music you need stereo speakers as well as great receiver and amp. Hope this helps.