Much like my forty-something friends have an affinity for vinyl albums and analog tape, a classroom experiment by Jonathan Berger suggests (not surprisingly) that today’s young people prefer the compressed sound of MP3 files to technically superior alternative formats:
[Berger] has [his students] listen to a variety of recordings which use different formats from MP3 to ones of much higher quality. He described the results with some disappointment and frustration, as a music lover might, that each year the preference for music in MP3 format rises. In other words, students prefer the quality of that kind of sound over the sound of music of much higher quality. He said that they seemed to prefer “sizzle sounds” that MP3s bring to music. It is a sound they are familiar with.
My first MP3 was a Glass Hammer sample track downloaded from the band’s Web site. It was encoded at something like 96 or 112 kbps, and I was amazed at the quality considering the small file size. In retrospect, the file was poorly encoded (it’s recommended that your standard stereo MP3s be encoded at nothing less than 128 kbps; ~200 kbps variable bit rate is recommended), but this was 1999 or thereabouts. The prevalent audio download options at the time were severely down-sampled WAVs or crummy Real Audio files. So, the “sizzle” was a minor quirk that eventually grew on me as I discovered more band Web sites, (the original) MP3.com, etc. My last CD player, a Sony Walkman, broke in 2006. I haven’t yet replaced it, and probably never will. What’s the point? I have a computer and a portable MP3 player now. Whenever I buy a CD, I can rip it to MP3 or Ogg Vorbis and slap the files on my music player. Compact discs have become the archive media from which I extract my day-to-day tunes.
A couple of years ago, I read an article about how the MP3 format covers its ass while compressing audio. Oftentimes, the result is subtle artifacting (wobbles, pops, squeaks, etc.), as well as something called “pre-echo,” which is how MP3 handles quick, hard sound attacks. Say, that of a drum hit. At the time, most MP3 encoders produced files with certain undesirable artifacts, but one (BladeEnc, I think) created a sort of ambient background noise, almost like a very, very subtle reverb, if I’m not mistaken. Tying into Berger’s statements, there may be something to the way in which MP3 garbles the sound it encodes.
Technical claptrap aside, I’ve tried several times to differentiate between properly encoded MP3s and their uncompressed WAV sources, and I’ve never been able to tell the difference. Someone with better ears than I will have to make the case against the unstoppable proliferation of compressed music.