Sound quality

Prefatory note.

Since I first wrote this piece, I’ve tried to consolidate the accretions only for other accretions to start building up. With that in mind, I’ve tried to consolidate the entry again (01.01.17).

MP3 is dead? Er, no.

No, the licence has expired (May 2017), but all the overly excitable hacks are claiming that the format is dead. No, idiot children, just the licence.

Back to business.

If all things are equal (i.e., the hardware), I aver that the quality of an MP3 file is only noticeably bad below 128Kbps. At that level, MP3 music is just going off the perceptible boil. Near CD quality MP3s (i.e., 320Kbps) don’t sound hugely different from CD quality FLAC (which is also the result I get from double-blind testing). 24 bit studio quality music is, I think, merely numbers and not perceptibly different from CD quality FLAC, which is as much as human hearing can cope with.

If all other things are equal (i.e., the sound files), I aver that the quality of sound production depends on the quality of the kit, as well as it’s specs. There must come a point, I think, where all the extra money in the world is adding less and less. My Sennheiser Momentums and Sony MDR-1aDACs are noticeably better than my Logitech H330s (which aren’t really intended for listening to music) and my Edifier headphones (which were a mistake; and I was ripped off, having been charged ¥190 for a pair of headphones I could’ve bought in WalMart for ¥100), but the former pairs are somewhat more expensive than the latter, which shows in the quality of the sound they produce. Sooner or later, though, the hardware must reach a point where it all starts to sound equal regardless of the price.

For example, does an £896 Shure SHA900 DAC produce noticeably superior sound to my FiiO E17K, which cost me about £80? Both devices are supposed to be able to process studio masters, but where would I cease to notice the difference? And does this have less to do with the DAC than it is to do with the speakers or headphones attached to it?

One observation I will make is that it all depends on a point of comparison. If I have no point of comparison, my Edifier headphones sound all right, although the range of sound is clearly rather narrow. But having switched to my Momentums, the change in sound quality is immediately apparent.

Another observation that I’ll make is that there seems to be no audible distinction between analogue and digital. My MDR-1aDACs have both options. I can use the built-in DAC to listen to music straight off the iPods, or I can stick a bog-standard 3.5mm cable; and having tried both the lightning connection and the jack socket, I can be fairly confident in declaring that there is no audible difference. Besides, as I’ve previously noted, why would a manufacturer try to make things sound worse one way and better another? It makes no sense and it’d be bad for business.

I’ve done a double-blind comparison, which confirmed my suspicions – I can’t tell the difference between near CD quality and CD quality music, and the few studio-quality pieces I have sound nice, but they don’t shine brilliantly.

To add an example here, Hyperion were offering one of the tracks from Guyot’s Te Deum Laudeamus et al. as a freebie. I got both CD- and studio-quality versions and then listened to the beginning of each, switching back and forth between them. Could I hear the slightest difference even through the sample rate of the 24-bit version was double that of the 16-bit one, and even though the bit rate of the former was nearly four times greater? No. Even when I switched the settings on the 792G to match the 24-bit file, it made no audible difference. A second test with headphones merely confirmed the same.

I’ve read an article by a professional sound engineer and have watched a video on YouTube by another. While I may not have understood the technical details, the message was that CD quality is perfectly adequate. Studio-quality downloads are another attempt to get people to part with their money, but not for any viable reason that is driven by human physiology.

At the end of the day, I do tend to be a bit sceptical about the claims surrounding 24 bit music. If people want to buy pricey studio-quality downloads, that’s their choice, and if they choose to believe that they’re getting a better listening experience, that’s quite possibly their delusion.

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