Have you heard good music lately?

That’s a trick question, as the emphasis here is on heard; only you can decide what constitutes “good” in your case.

Or maybe the question is, “Depending on how and why you listen, do you know what you’re missing?”

Don’t worry–I’m not going to get into Audiophilia Extremis. I don’t have that kind of money or those kind of ears. I’m talking about differences that I really believe almost anyone who cares about music will hear–at least subconsciously and probably consciously.

Background

I recently decided to upgrade my 2GB $40 MP3 player (Sansa Express) to a 4GB $50 player, at a total upgrade cost of $10. Which is to say, Office Depot had house-brand 2GB microSD cards on sale for $10, and the Sansa Express has a microSD expansion card.

I long ago reripped all my CDs at 320K MP3, the highest quality for MP3, because I thought I could hear the difference between 192K (which I’d originally ripped at) and 320K–and I was certain I could hear the difference between 128K and 192K, without even paying attention.

So I was going to choose something like 450 tunes to fit into 4GB (at 320K, music typically uses about 2.3 megabytes per minute; figure right around 28 hours of music for 4GB, or around 420-480 songs, given that lots of the songs I like are 4-6 minutes)

But I remembered, before I started in, that I’d planned to do some selective editing of some cuts, and two cuts could be dealt with very easily. (There are quite a few where I’d like to do a bit of editing, but that takes time…) Namely,

  • James Taylor’s version of “Walking My Baby Back Home” has an inexplicable 50 seconds of pure silence at the end of the song–probably a CD mastering error of some sort.
  • The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”…well, I find the last 2+ minutes excruciatingly repetitive, and I can actually do without John’s yelping.

So I downloaded Audigy (again–I’d had it on my old desktop, although I’d never used it) and the MP3/Export plugin. (There’s apparently now a good free competitor to Audigy, which I haven’t investigated: I don’t do a lot of sound editing, obviously.)

And opened “Walking My Baby Back Home,” confirmed that the last 50 seconds were in fact a flat line on the audio visualization, and deleted all but the first three seconds. Then saved it.

And played it in Windows Media Player…and, well, ugh. It was lifeless, a little muffled, uninteresting. Then checked the filesize. Hmm. 2.2MB for a 2.5 minute song.

Whoops. The MP3 export defaults to 128KMP3. I hadn’t checked that.

So, reripped the file (at 320K–I’d set Windows Media Player for that and it’s a sticky setting), redid the edit in Audigy, and saved it again–after changing the MP3 setting to 320K.

It sounded great; pretty much identical to the CD, and worlds better than the 128K MP3.

This should come as no surprise

128K MP3 is somewhere between AM and FM quality, at best. You’re throwing away 90% of the data in the original recording: How can you expect that the results won’t be damaged? (And, of course, “restoring” 128K MP3 to a CD-R as .WAV files does not do anything to improve the sound quality. “Lossy” means just that.)

What did come as a surprise was how obvious the loss was–and this wasn’t through some fancy stereo system or even the lovely Altec-Lansing PC speakers I used to use. It was through $10 Sony clipon semi-earbuds. (I’m not sure what to call them. They have loops that go over your ears; the speakers themselves sit sideways into your ear, but they’re not really in-ear phones. They’re a damn site better than the usual earbuds that come wih music players–and that certainly includes iPods, from everything I’ve heard, but come on: They’re $10 devices!)

Other voices heard from

I was reading an anecdote where someone’s son, home from college for the holidays, happened to listen to a CD of music he enjoyed–and had been listening to on a portable music player at a typical bitrate (probably 128K-164K). And suddenly exclaimed about how much better it sounded, how much more music was there.

True golden-ear readers (if there are any of you out there) will be appalled that I’m listening to MP3 at all, or that I even consider CD to be good sound quality. (Even worse, I believe that some of the CD-Rs I used to record, consisting of 320K MP3 expanded back to WAV, may just possibly sound better than the original CDs–which turns out to be at least theoretically possible, given jitter issues. Let’s not press that point.) Understand: I don’t claim to be golden-eared, and may not be too far away from hearing aids. $500 headphones and $50,000 speakers would just be wasted on me, I suspect.

I was using the $10 Sonys, which are great for travel (the Sansa Express is an unusually compact player–basically a fat flash drive–and it and the Sonys fit into a little zipped change purse that I can drop in my pocket), because my old home headphones (a $30 Radio Shack set with titanium elements, probably made by Koss) fell apart: the cheapo plastic hinges just snapped after a few years of use.

Since then, I’ve acquired some surprisingly decent headphones–Sennheiser PX100, oddly-foldable on-ear (but not circumaural) phones that cost $37.50 at Amazon. (They just arrived today. The first time I’ve ever purchased audio equipment based on Consumer Reports’ recommendation. They’re excellent by my standards, but headbangers and bass fanatics won’t like them. They’re designed to travel well.) I’m sure the differences would be even more obvious on these, to say nothing of anything like high-end equipment.

Try it yourself

If you have even halfway decent headphones (or speakers, for that matter), and if you’re listening to low-bitrate downloads or rips, and if you have a CD with any of the music you’re listening to…well, give it a try. Actually listen to the same songs (particularly songs with voices and acoustic instruments, e.g., guitar, piano, whatever–folk, jazz, you name it) in both forms. Pay attention.

I think you’ll find there’s just more music than you’ve been hearing–maybe not more notes, but a lot more to the notes. You’ll hear the instruments more clearly, you’ll get more out of the singers.

There’s also a subconscious aspect to this, at least for many (most?) of us. If you find that you stop listening to your digital music after half an hour or so, you may be suffering “digital fatigue”–the nature of the loss and artifacts in low-bitrate digital music tends to be tiring. I love Pandora, but I really can’t listen to it for more than 20-30 minutes; it makes my ears hurt. That’s true of almost all streaming music.

Maybe you’ll find that you don’t hear a difference or don’t care about the difference. Maybe you’ll find that you do.

If you do, there are steps you can take:

  • Rerip your CDs, either to .WAV (if you have loads of disk space and devices that can handle it) or a lossless format such as FLAC (again, if you have loads of space and compatible devices), or at least to high-bitrate MP3 (I’d suggest 256K or high VBR at a minimum; 320K is the max). After all, disk space is cheap these days–surely you can afford a gigabyte for every seven hours of music?
  • If you use a portable player, think about the tradeoffs. Do you really feel the need for 2,000 songs on your 8GB player? Personally, I’d rather have 450 songs I really care about than 4,000 songs that I may never listen to more than once a year. But that’s me. (I wound up with 463 songs, after going through the 2,200 I have on hard disk and informally rating them. I could squeeze a few more in, but this is good. If I wanted to include all the songs that I rated at least as “pretty good” (3 stars) instead of just “very good” (4 stars) and “excellent” (5 stars), I’d need an 8GB player. Maybe next year. Maybe not: The very good/excellent playlist is both varied and quite wonderful.)
  • If you’re still using the earbuds that came with the player–no matter how much the player itself cost–try something a little better. $10 will get you semi-decent devices; $20 will buy fair sound; $40 will buy pretty good sound. From what I’ve read and heard, most name-brand players (including iPods, Sansa’s devices, Muze and Creative’s players) will produce much better sound than the default earbuds provide; they just need better earphones.

I won’t tell you what kind of music you should enjoy. I will suggest that some of you may not be really hearing the music you love–and that you’ll enjoy it more when you do. (And you don’t need to go for broke to do that: Note that my “stereo system” at this point cost $87.50 total, and is very satisfying.)

4 Responses to “Have you heard good music lately?”

  1. Francesco Says:

    >I long ago reripped all my CDs at 320K MP3…
    Very interesting article. May I know what kind of software (if any) do you use to have the titles of the tracks automatically downloaded? I tried with Windows Media Player, but often it seems not to download them correctly, and write them manually is a very time-consuming task.
    Thanks
    Francesco, Rome (Italy)

  2. Blake Says:

    “Pay attention.”
    I guess that’s my problem, I almost never pay any attention to what I’m listening to. I don’t even know the lyrics to almost every one of the songs I listen to all the time. For me it’s just something playing in the background while I work now.

    When it comes to music, I’m now a quantity over quality guy now. I’d rather have a million crappy small files than a thousand high quality large files.

  3. walt Says:

    I used to use MusicMatch Jukebox, before Yahoo! bought it and then shut down its successor. I use Windows Media Player, which uses one of the big Internet databases, and gets things right most of the time. (There are occasionally spelling errors.) Even with MusicMatch, once in a while the database data would be wrong.

    It is, after all, a magic trick: CDs do not contain any data indicating what songs are on them. The databases are using the length of each cut on the CD as a key to determining what the CD is.

    Blake: You’re using music as background–and the rules are different there. (There are no rules there, actually.) If the sound quality doesn’t actively irritate you, I don’t see a problem.

  4. the.effing.librarian Says:

    I ripped thousands of songs at 128 and didn’t notice too much loss because I’ve been playing them in the car (I was trying to cram as many songs as possible onto the CD). But one day, I had the volume up all the way and the audio just broke up and sounded like crap. It had always sounded like crap, but I never really paid attention. So now I do 160 which doesn’t break up in the car. I use the lame encoder and dbPoweramp. I don’t do VBR because my CD player has trouble reading that. I might experiment now with the settings just to see what I get. I can’t imagine I would want to go over 192, but I’ll see (hear) what I get with the highest settings. I just really like having 200 songs per CD. I wish my player had an input jack or USB slot and that would solve some these problems. Anyway, running my test with Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick. “Stiff Competition” should make a good test with loud and quiet parts.


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