Written by: Alex-Fi

Angry Metal-FiAngry Metal-Fi is a series of articles that are cross posted on Angry Metal Guy and Metal-Fi as a collaborative effort to evangelize dynamics in metal.

Well, it’s not. It’s actually two letters and a number, technically speaking. However most audiophiles, or at least most who purport that their never-ending quest for fidelity is a holy one, curse the MP3 and blame it for single-handily destroying modern music. Why? Well the usual line of thinking goes as follows: Since MP3s are lossy they can never sound as good as the original; yet because the format and its ilk are so ubiquitous, fans have gotten used to its substandard fidelity and thus, don’t understand the plight of the budding audiophile. As a result, audiophiles around the world have taken up arms (Say hello to my little friend… – Dave) to raise the bar on fidelity and publicly denounce the evil that is the MP3.

There is certainly some truth to the above, but the whole story is a lot more complicated, and certainly a lot less black and white than audiophiles would like you to believe. As I stated above, MP3 mainly gets a bad rep because it’s a form of lossy compression, but what exactly does that mean? Well first off, it’s certainly not the same thing as dynamic range compression, which audiophiles seem to constantly confuse with lossy compression. So in order to truly understand how MP3s work, we need to first tackle the “compression” part, which is really short for data compression, or the process of conveying information using fewer bits, and then work our way back to the “lossy” part.

Data compression has its roots in information theory, a discipline that was practically created overnight when Claude Shannon published his seminal 1948 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which formalized the concept of information entropy, or how much duplication of information is contained within a message, and also introduced Shannon’s theorem, which stated that for any given noise contained in a medium of communication, it’s still possible to deliver error free information through it up to a maximum rate. If this theorem sounds vaguely familiar that’s because the Nyquist sampling rate is based on this concept as well.

MP3ForDummiesData compression can be further classified as either lossy or lossless. Lossless encoding schemes preserve every single bit of information that was conveyed in the original message. It does this by exploiting a message’s intrinsic information entropy, and then re-encodes these redundant bits more efficiently. However, when the message is decoded, all the bits, including the redundant ones, are restored intact. A great example is when you buy music off of Bandcamp, which is delivered to you as a downloadable zip archive. And since zip archives compress the files contained within them losslessly, you can rest assured when you uncompress those files every single brutal bit will be accurately accounted for.

But MP3 is lossy, which means it analyzes the music and throws out information that it deems “unnecessary.” But wait a minute, aren’t all samples created equally? How can it possibly know what bits of brutality are necessary versus ones that are unnecessary? And I’m not talking about Sunn O))) here either. Well my friends, that leads us to the subject of psychoacoustics. Psycho-who-stics? Stay with me.

Pyschoacoustics is the study of how we perceive and respond to sound. If you really think about it, the sensation of hearing death metal is not just waves hitting our ears, but actually our ears collecting those waves and creating electrochemical signals for our brains to interpret. And guess what? Our hearing is not always perfect. In fact, it’s actually far from it.

Depending on the frequency, intensity (loudness), and location (phase) of the sound in question, our ears may or may not perceive all the spectral content present. In fact, our ability to distinguish two different frequencies when played simultaneously is defined as our ear’s frequency resolution, and in humans, it’s about 2Hz give or take. Psychoacousticians classify this inability to perceive frequencies as a form of auditory masking, and it’s not the only one. Not only does our hearing have several types of auditory masking in the frequency domain, but we also have what is called temporal masking, which is our inability to hear distinct sounds in the time domain. For example, a really loud sound may mask a softer one if both are played simultaneously, but if those sounds are played with a small delay between them, oh say 5ms of each other, you’ll then be able to hear both of them.

So armed with the above in mind, you now have a feel for how the MP3 encoder may deem some samples as “unnecessary.” I’ve over simplified a lot for brevity’s sake, but in essence, when you feed a file to the MP3 encoder it will analyze the metal in question, determine how we will perceive the music using its built-in psychoacoustic model, and then start removing samples that it claims we can’t possibly hear anyway. Believe it or not, the MP3 encoder also employs a form of lossless data compression on top of its initial lossy pass in order to reduce the file’s size even further. Amazing.

DiskplayerYet if the MP3 is such a marvelous engineering accomplishment, why, oh why are audiophiles always berating it? Simple. It takes all the ego out of critical listening. The MP3 encoder doesn’t care about the listener’s pedigree or how expensive the gear is in which it is being played on. It has its model that has been scientifically vetted and ruthlessly employs it as it sees fit. And that model knows that audiophile or not, our hearing is inherently flawed, and it takes great advantage of that simple fact. In fact, the MP3’s psychoacoustic model is so good that tests have shown that we can’t really hear the difference between high bit-rate
MP3s and CDs
.

Now don’t get me wrong, even though MP3’s pyschoacoustic model is not configurable, the number of bits you allow for encoding is. And if you don’t give the encoder enough bits to store information, then depending on the spectral content of the metal at hand, it will cause audible artifacts that were not part of the original recording. Case in point, a lot of MP3 encoded promos I receive sound terrible because there are no industry wide standards and labels purposely sacrifice fidelity as a poor man’s way to combat piracy. But the fact is, high bit-rate MP3s sound glorious, and I’d much rather have a dynamic recording in MP3 than a smashed version of its lossless counterpart.

So should you rip everything to MP3 as your primary archival format? Absolutely not. The MP3 was never designed for that purpose. If you are selecting the MP3 option every time you buy music off of Bandcamp then you are making a grave mistake. For example, perceptual codecs such as MP3 and its better sounding successor, AAC, were not designed to be transcoded. So even though converting say a FLAC file to an MP3 can yield an equivalent headbanging experience, the reverse does not hold true. That’s why it is absolutely imperative that you always have a bit-perfect copy of the original source material in case you need to convert it. Finally, given the fact that storage and network bandwidth are orders of magnitude more abundant than when the MP3 was first invented, it seems superfluous now to try to compress megabytes into smaller megabytes when affordable storage is now measured in terabytes and high-speed Internet is fairly ubiquitous.

Here is something to think about before I leave you: The MP3 has helped fans discover more new music than any single piece of high-end audiophile gear ever invented. And last I checked, it’s the music, not the gear which we should be most passionate about. If audiophiles really want to improve the way modern music sounds, start with how it’s recorded and processed before waging war with the format in which it is distributed. Put simply, petition artists, labels, and fans to stop the Loudness War. Until then, and only then, can we have a serious discussion about fidelity.

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  • Pimpolho

    i really like these articles, but i’m sad that i cannot have an opinion on the quality of sound because my phones sucks, everytime i change the phones the quality changes aswell.

    • We *hope* to have more headphone reviews this year. And hopefully not all in the big budget category.

      • Siege Bantayan

        I would absolutely love that.

        • De2013

          Me too!

      • Pimpolho

        that would be awesome, thanks

  • This is an absolutely spectacular article. Thanks so much for writing it, Alex! You covered not only the difference between mp3s and lossless files, but you also took shots at all those asshats who call me stupid for commenting on a record’s production when reviewing 320k or ~275k (v0) mp3s. I fucking hate those guys.

    • Dave

      Unfortunately most AES studies on this subject are locked behind pay walls, so this is really the best we could do. Ultimately though any study can only show you what others hear or don’t hear. It’s very easy to do your own blind test at home. Take any CD, create MP3 files from it using the LAME encoder, and then run Foobar’s free ABX comparator tool. That’s the only way to know for sure what *you* hear or don’t hear on your own equipment.

      • Hit me up with links, I’d gladly grab them since I have access via my work.

        • Any AES article is available to you for free?

    • Just to tack on to what Dave said, there is a great book titled “Understanding the MP3” by Sterne which I read last year or the year before that goes more indepth about all the studies they did. His writing style leaves a lot to be desired (it’s at a collegiate level but way too verbose for my tastes) but the content is invaluable.

      If people (read: audiophile-centric journalists) had ANY idea how much testing they did even with 128k vs CD, they would think twice before writing some of the ridiculousness I stumble across at all the usual suspect sites.

      I do wish I had time to talk about how MP3s and cat brains are loosely connected, but I will leave that as an AMF homework assignment.

    • Kryopsis

      Unfortunately it’s unlikely that the people who scoff at your MP3 reviews will be convinced by articles such as this. They will probably laugh at the sheer mortal arrogance of comparing lossless to lossy and keep stockpiling expensive headphones, amps and DACs. In the age of information, remaining close-minded takes great determination. Personally I never understood people who approached music purely from the direction of sound quality.

    • Kevin Dillon

      I don’t know if it’s me or what but I cannot for the life of me hear the difference between Flac and MP3 320/V0. I do store all my purchased music in FLAC on my NAS and when I’m on my computer I do listen to it in FLAC since it’s already there. But when I’m mobile my phone has all V0 MP3’s (although now google play music has pretty much replaced this part for me). On my PC I use HD800s + Lyr amp powered by a ZxR. On my phone I use Westone 4R earbuds. And yeah, with both setups I’ve done blind tests where I was unable to hear the difference — even with well produced artists not in the metal genre.

      Maybe my ears are starting to go as I climb into my late twenties but V0 is pretty much good enough for all my listening needs. I’ll obviously still continue to store stuff in FLAC for archival purposes (I should also probably start looking into better filesystems to prevent bit-rot, as synology is still using EXT for their system).

      • You might consider going the DIY route with FreeNAS

      • dig deep

        I had the same experience man. Ran a few tests with a couple of DAC/amp combos and a 3 pairs of flacs vs mp3 (320/v0) (the same song for both) when deciding which DAC and/or amp to purchase. Couldn’t tell the difference between the flacs and mp3s.

        the only song that did sound (slightly) better with a DAC/amp combo was Origin – the indiscriminate especially the last minute of the song.

        I came to the conclusion that most of the metal I enjoy listening to is gonna be compressed (production wise) as hell anyways so investing in a DAC/amp won’t enhance my listening experience as much as that of a classical listener.

      • Rizzle01

        Thank you for the new term. I doubt I will forget bit-rot going forward.

    • Weren’t there transparency tests made by hydrogeaudio back in the 00’s? I remember one of them convincing me to make my own ABX tests and switch my preferred format to OGG at ~160kbps

  • André Snyde Lopes

    Now THAT is a clever title and with a clever article to match. This is an excellent primer on audio fidelity, introducing concepts and explaining them in a simple yet accurate way. Awesome stuff.

  • Monsterth Goatom

    “If you are selecting the MP3 option every time you buy music off of Bandcamp then you are making a grave mistake.”

    Yikes, that’s me! I usually choose the “MP3 320” option. I apologize if I’m missing something, and maybe If I read the article again more carefully I’d be able to answer the following question on my own: in regards to such downloads, you seem to be saying that it’s better to download the FLAC version and then use a program like Max (I’m on a Mac) to convert it to, say, AAC at 320 kbits/s. Is that right?

    Thanks for the article.

    • tomasjacobi

      Well you could do that, but the easiest way would be to just download both the MP3 and the FLAC file from Bandcamp. There’s no limit to how many times you can download once you buy something on Bandcamp.
      But as I’ve said elsewhere I would recommend just getting the MP3 and then you can always go back and re-download if you should ever need the file in a different format.

    • Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. You are MUCH safer if you store the FLAC bundles locally and then transcode to your heart’s delight using something like Max (btw, I do exactly that on my Mac).

      tomas is right in that Bandcamp acts as your backup server sorta speak, but for LONG term storage I still think you are much better off housing yourself.

      • Monsterth Goatom

        Great. Thanks Alex, and Tomas.

        • If you’re in the Mac universe and use iTunes, then you can use ALAC. I download ALAC first. Though Alex might be able to say whether that’s dumb or not. But definitely take the lossless and transcode later.

          • ALAC is fine! Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t offer ALAC for most releases last I checked.

          • Monsterth Goatom

            Yea, that’s the problem with iTunes — you have to take what they have, which I think is MP3 at 256. I wasn’t aware they offer ALAC, at least not in North America.

          • clarkey

            Buy the file on Itunes then Download the FLAC from Rockbox. Its not piracy if you own the file anyway.

          • Rockbox? You mean the custom DAP firmware? How do you do that?

          • clarkey

            Nah, the Metal torrent site called rockbox.

          • I see…

          • Apple sells no lossless files. And I refuse to buy digital music that isn’t lossless. If there isn’t a lossless version available, I purchase the CD.

          • I thought they sell ALAC sometimes?

          • I’ve never seen it. If they would than I’d be much more likely to purchase files from them. But so long as I’m paying for V0 AAC files what I would pay for the CD, I think it’s a total ripoff.

          • tomasjacobi

            While a lot of people don’t like ALAC because it’s made by Apple, they actually made it open-source and as far as I know it’s just as good as FLAC.

          • Dave

            Now that ALAC is open, it’s just as good as any other lossless compression scheme. That’s what’s so great about lossless compression and why you should choose it over lossy. You can convert ALAC to FLAC, and back as much as you like, no harm done. If another format comes along in the future that has a better compression algorithm than either of them, or you want to be a hipster and use APE, you can do that. Once you’ve compressed to MP3 or AAC though, that’s it. Any more conversions WILL significantly degrade audio quality.

        • sweetooth0

          just download both and save yourself the hassle of transcoding the files.

          • Monsterth Goatom

            What I took away from Alex’s feedback is that, for example, a record downloaded as MP3 320kbit/s does not sound as good as the same record downloaded in FLAC and then transcoded to MP3 320kbits/s.

            Once I’m finished with the FLAC, I wouldn’t use the files again (as mentioned, I’m careful to back up my iTunes directory). The FLAC files would just be sitting there taking up space and gathering dust.

          • No Monsterth, just the opposite, you would ONLY use the FLAC files as the source:

            FLAC->320MP3 = 320MP3

            That’s transcoding from lossless to lossy, that’ fine. I do this all the time.

            320MP3->FLAC != 320MP3

            That’s transcoding from lossy to lossless. That is dubious and potentialy worse sounding.

            320MP3->FLAC->320MP3 != 320MP3

            That is lossy to lossless back to lossy. Again, dubiuos.

            The bottom line is you always want to start with a lossless archive and transcode as you need.

          • sweetooth0

            Yeah, unless you’re convinced that your transcoder at home is superior to whatever was used to make the bandcamp mp3 file. I honestly couldn’t even tell you if there was superior or inferior mp3 encoders out there. i just use LAME and have since mp3’s inception.

          • Monsterth Goatom

            Sorry, I was trying to say, badly obviously, that, for example, this scenario:

            Digital download on Bandcamp > download as FLAC > transcode to MP3 320 (i.e. “FLAC->320MP3 = 320MP3”) produces files with better sound quality, as opposed to:

            Digital download on Bandcamp > download as MP3 320

            At least, that’s what I understand from your responses. I understand going from lossy to lossless is bad, and as you mentioned in the article.

            Thanks for your patience (and time!)

          • BC 320MP3 *should* be sonically equivalent to FLAC->MP3. There have been issues with their encoding process however (read web bugs) from time to time (I know this because some artists have complained to me and BC directly).

          • Those are serious claims, I think I read another comment about this at your site about the FLAC encoder, did these artists have any proof of this? It would be very easy to do a bit comparison of the source files vs. the bandcamp FLAC’s.

          • Yes they did. And yes, it was fixed.

          • We have a winner!

  • tomasjacobi

    “If you are selecting the MP3 option every time you buy music off of Bandcamp then you are making a grave mistake.”

    I beg to differ.
    You can re-download from Bandcamp as much as you like, so downloading MP3 320 is fine; you can always download it again in a different format if you need it. There is no need to fill up stacks of harddrives with FLAC files.

    But thanks for a great article. MP3 is definitely the red herring in most discussions of music fidelity.

    • You are relying on Bandcamp’s existence and current policies. What if Bandcamp gets bought out by the record labels? What if Bandcamp decides to move to another format, will they then retroactively offer all of your original purchases in FLAC? Maybe, maybe not. The bottom line is you want to grab the FLAC archive first and then transcode to whatever other format you like. That is by far the safer option.

      • tomasjacobi

        I guess I have a more optimistic outlook than you :-)
        Sure. Bandcamp could close tomorrow and all I’ll have is my MP3’s, but while that COULD happen I find it highly unlikely.
        I think that if a better format pops up in the future, Bandcamp will adopt it and I’ll be able to re-download my purchases in that format.
        But if it makes you sleep better at night knowing that those lossless files are stored on your own hard drives, then sure, go ahead and download in FLAC…

        • Monsterth Goatom

          Like many, I’m interested in getting the best sound with the less disc space. I could have all my music in lossless format in iTunes, but iTunes would quickly become bloated.

          I’ve heard other audio experts say it’s very hard for the average listener using good equipment (“good”, not audiophile quality) to hear any difference between a lossless file and the same file transcoded to AAC 320. If I’m happy with the sound I get from my files at AAC 320, and I back up my files regularly (which I do, double redundancy), I don’t see why I should hold on to the FLAC files. Bandcamp may disappear, but my files shouldn’t.

          • tomasjacobi

            I agree completely. Even if Bandcamp disappears, you still have your files in a perfectly fine audio format.

          • And when you have to transcode it because your device doesn’t play AAC and you need to transcode it, now what?

            And when you decide that lossless is the way to go for whatever reason, do you plan on downloading all hundreds, even thousands of zip files again? Seriously dude, look at our Metal-Fi Bandcamp page – that’s my personal collection (and that I believe doesn’t exactly include stuff before Metal-Fi existed).

            Grab both, you’ll thank me when your 80 and deaf! LOL! :-)

          • tomasjacobi

            You really think MP3 will cease to be playable on devices anytime soon?
            I think there’ll be a lossless format sooner or later that takes up much less space than FLAC and I think I’ll be done downloading my files before you’re done transcoding your FLAC files.
            LOL back at ya

          • Batch convert in Max, man, batch convert! Or as most said, download both! :-)

          • tomasjacobi

            I was talking about that place where we won’t need roads…

          • Monsterth Goatom

            I see your point. Hard to know what the future brings, so better safe than sorry. If I do start downloading FLAC as well as MP3, it’s a bit of a PITA, as I have to figure out where to store the lossless files and then come up with a backup plan.

    • You’re also assuming that every single album will remain in your library for all of bandcamp’s existence, and that’s not the case, I have seen a couple of albums missing from my collection either because the artist didn’t actually hold the distribution rights (I think this happen with some of Moonsorrow’s) or they could be limited by newer distribution agreements that force them to use other outlets exclusively.

      The point is MP3 is not an archival format, because of its loosy nature. Sure, MP3 is convenient for many reasons,some of them being ubiquity and overall competence even compared with more modern formats (at some bitrates) but that does not necessarily mean that is adequate for ALL archival purposes.

      • tomasjacobi

        No, I’m assuming that most albums will be there and that’s good enough for me. I’m just not obsessive enough for this whole archival thing.

        • Sure, call it obsessive. I guess you throw away the CD’s after you rip them to MP3’s then?

          • tomasjacobi

            No I dont, but it sure is tempting :-) I could use the space…

          • Well I don’t deny the convenience of MP3, it’s just not an all-purpose format, and that is the point that Alex is making.

  • Refined-Iron Cranium

    It does seem like audio formats are somewhat pejoratives in some audiophile circles (i.e., FLAC and WAV files are instantly better than MP3s). I’ve also heard older musicians berate mp3s like the auditory scourge.
    It’s unfair, really. No other format has the advantage of portability as much as MP3s. A lot of us are on the go most of the time and we want our music with us. Many albums released on vinyl have access codes to download the albums digitally. And while physical media like vinyls and CDs have their own charms when played on a good sound system, high-bitrate MP3s really don’t sound much different, save for some distortion issues at higher volumes / EQs.
    Anyway, this was a great read. Bandcamp is an incredible site with the option to buy the FLAC files and they can easily be converted back to our favourite portable format via MediaHuman (or whatever else).

  • Robert Turnbull

    Not much else to say but basically a giant thumbs up to the article!

  • Handy Donut Hole

    Excellent article! I have always had a curiosity about the digital music debate that plagues the music scene and this article explains it perfectly.

  • Graham T. Hanson

    Excellent write-up, it’s always good to read something backed up by some actual science.

  • There is something to be said to a format that has stayed competent at the usual bitrates as long as MP3 has. Even the newer formats are usually more efficient at lower bitrates but as you well mentioned the broadband and storage space hikes has made these uses less relevant for the average user as they were in the past when 1 GB was so big we thought we could never fill it in our lifetimes.

  • Wilhelm

    Great article, ” these so called “Audiophiles” are fighting the wrong war – fight the Loudness war!

  • You are talking about making high bitrate mp3s and other digital formats from an owned lossless source for easy portability. I’m not sure if musicians and audiophiles have a real problem with that, I think they actually are against online piracy when the downloaded lossy files come from unknown and unreliable sources. And nowadays they aren’t scene rips but mostly converted exclusive web streams from Soundcloud or Bandcamp. In these cases the end user gets a badly ripped lossy version of a ripped lossy version of the actual album. That’s a huge deterioration and I truly believe this is what the artists really regret.

    • No, these are the promos sent from labels. A LOT of them (don’t believe me, ask AMG, Steel, X, anyone who is in this game) are very low bit-rate MP3s. Why? I still think it is to combat piracy. The idea is that if it does leak (or when it does unfortunately), people will still be forced to buy it because the quality will stink.

      • Back when I ran a music site we’d get sent some awful quality MP3 files from labels. I remember writing one review where I had to say the record sounded like shit but wasn’t at all clear whether it was the album production or the dreadful review files.

        • If I had nickel….

          Dave and I have actually skipped reviews or at least heavily delayed them because we didn’t have a proper version of a release.

          FYI, Metal-Fi will not even entertain a stream only review (at this point anyway).

          • I did reach the point of refusing to do stream reviews. It’s ridiculous to do this while you know damn well the album has been leaked from another route already.

      • I don’t know, I see it differently. True that ten years ago leaks came exclusively from ripped promo CDs and spread on p2p, but today the situation is changed. Leaker journalists are the smaller problem, mp3 bloggers took over and generally they don’t have any promos they’re just filling out the web with ripping advance streams, and most of the time the end user gets these instead of proper quality mp3s even after the album came out and the good quality is available. All in all I don’t really care about those people, if they’re satisfied with that, God bless’em. Oh, and I agree, if a label is that disrespectful that requests a review and offers shitty quality mp3s, you all have to have pride and refuse doing it.

  • BaboonKing

    Hah! A Creative Nomad… I had one of those back in the day. It was a bitch to carry around, but at the time, having 6 GB (!) of mobile MP3 storage was unheard of. :)

    • I owned one too! Though, I still thought my MiniDisc player was the coolest thing on the planet when I had it.

  • MP3 became a dirty word for me when I bought most of mine from Amazon. The horrific quality of many files sold by the company really annoyed me. I had a Slayer album where the volume was down near the noise floor, an Amon Amarth album that was accidentally in mono. I complained at was refunded “thanks we’ll fix these”. But judging from the song previews much of this rubbish is still on sale there. Meanwhile I’ve had very good MP3 files from Google and 7 Digital.

    I’m happy to use MP3 files on portable gear. Though I have often used Vorbis instead as it offers a better quality to file size ratio. I don’t have golden ears though and for the most part I couldn’t tell the difference between a q8 Vorbis file and FLAC.

    Kudos to Bandcamp though. I always grab the FLAC version. I wish more major artists would offer lossless downloads. Net speeds and storage are so inexpensive these days there’s no reason not to. I’ll convert to MP3/Vorbis from that for portable gear, meanwhile my PC and NAS use the FLAC versions.

    I must admit to keeping a FLAC version of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son on my portable devices though. Because that is holy. :)

    • Ernesto Aimar

      Holy is having the album on vinyl or the original CD. To admire the artwork, read the lyrics, watch ridiculous promo shots from the musician.There’s nothing holy about digital files, and that’s why I will always buy albums, no matter if mp3, FLAC or whatever format sound as good as the physical shape recording. Besides, I can always rip from CDs in order to carry on my portable music player.

      I must say though, tha high production costs can be tough for young unsigned bands and in that case bandcamp or any platform that allows them to publish their music seems loable to me.

      But going back to the original topic, I also think there’s not much a difference between a 320kbps mp3 and a FLAC file.And there’s certainly nothing wrong in reviewing that format (which is the only promo format used by bands nowadays)

      • Note sure you followed the humour and self depreciation in my post.

        • Ernesto Aimar

          Well maybe not but it was nothing personal ;)

          The thing is I just needed to say that because the main problem with digital formats to me is that they feel empty. No artwork, no lyrics, no credits….just a cold file. Ok, it has the music, which is the most importat thing, but I really like to appreciate the link between the music and the art/lyric concept. It’s kind of a ceremony.

          • Me too – I would pour over the vinyl artwork when listening to my Maiden albums in my youth, following the lyrics too. I could spend hours looking at the Somewhere In Time sleeve.

          • Ernesto Aimar

            That’s the kind of magic I was talking about;)

  • Igor Sombillo

    How many back up drives do you have? Because hard drives can just as easily crash and there goes your FLAC files. If I really like an album I get a physical copy I think that is the only way to really archive your collection.

    So unless you have a really good back up system, mp3 vs FLAC will not matter.

    Nothing beats the mp3 for its portability, and unless you are using really high end headphones not too many people can really tell when listening to 320 or even high VBR compression.

    • I have an external and then I have a backup. Plus, I rip from physical copy or get stuff via bandcamp. It ain’t perfect, but it’ll do.

  • Noobhammer

    I have to ask then, since I am a frequent purchaser from Bandcamp, what would be the recommended downloads for lossless? I usually download the .m4a lossless iTunes version they offer because I want to try and get the best sound possible while traveling with it on my phone or iPod.

    • Quality wise, any lossless codec will give you the exact same sound quality as the original material. Choice comes from convenience, if you’re used to the Apple way, you’re all set, every apple device you own should be able to play ALAC files out-of-the-box. FLAC is more generally used on the PC/Non-apple side because it has been an open format from the start, so many non-apple devices and software will be able to play it out-of-the box.

  • madhare

    Thanks for this article!

    Audiophiles aside, I guess for many basic music fans like myself there is the simple question of storage space to consider. Sure, it has got
    much easier and cheaper to store digital things but it can still be problematic.

    I know all the arguments why “lossless is better”, but I still can’t bring myself to use FLAC and other high-quality formats. I have pretty diverse taste in music from movie soundtracks to ambient to heavy. So I have ended up with 50+ GB of music. (Used to be around 60 but I decided to prune it down.) I already feel that’s too much, and there’s good new music coming out all the time.

    A) It’s stupid that it takes up so much space on my drive, because, among other things, I always need to spend a bit more money when buying my laptops.
    B) Even more importantly, it’s a pain in the ass for backups. I feel the only truly rational method is using online backups, so you can always have your stuff back no matter what. (Ever tried uploading 50 GB or more to an online backup?) Without the music I would probably only need 30–40 GB total storage space.

    What about physical formats? I’ve thrown all of them away after ripping them. If you try moving several times between countries, you will understand why. (Each gram counts, either in money or muscle and joint pain.) What about Spotify? No, I’m not going to pay over 100 euros a year for music that I’ve bought once already when I was a teen.

    So fairly good quality mp3’s seem to be pretty a reasonable alternative at the moment. (In addition to aac.) In a way, it’s a question of music quality versus other general living quality.

    • I do agree it almost becomes a chore to keep a reasonably populated library that you care anything at all in some balance between convenience and relative safety.

      As an example, right now I have 300GB on one of my hard drives where I keep around 450 albums between FLAC bandcamp downloads and rips from CD’s. My backup is on a personal NAS device and I even take some time to backup some of them to blu-ray as well.

      It can be done, it is a hassle, yes, but it can be done in reasonable ways. Yes the NAS investment is not something everyone can do on a whim, but as an investment it could be the most reasonable for some cases. I mean in the long run it could be cheaper than the power bill for keeping the PC turned on to upload 50GB to, say, google play music. Plus the monthly bill for google play music. And hey you could buy laptops with smaller hard drives.

      • madhare

        Is that 300 GB the total amount of your music collection? I could never imagine maintaining that. According my iTunes I’ve got 22 days of music, 800 albums and 7110 items, totalling 52 GB. Now I’m curious, is there a music collection size limit to being an audiophile!? :D

        My general philosophy is that everything should be backed up online. I do have a TimeCapsule at home, but if the house burns down or something, that will go with the laptop. (And all drives have a bad habit of crashing at some point.) So to me, paying for good online backup is more important than, say, traditional home insurance. Materia can always be replaced, my work can not. Once I started out on that path, it felt stupid and cumbersome having different backup method for music than other stuff.

        • No it’s not my whole collection. The total size must be at least three times that. I do have an online backup, just for work stuff. It is cumbersome but it is a compromise. I know that if the house falls down I will be left with the bandcamp collection. Of course if the house falls down, rebuilding my music library will be the last of my concerns.

          I’m considering asking for permission at work to keep a second nas there as offsite solution but I have some security concerns with that.

  • Liviu Nastasenko

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine article any music lover should read, but… The author IMHO misses an important thing. MP3 is implementation dependent, ie the ‘quality’ depends on HOW it’s encoded, which encoder is used. Maybe it has changed for the better now, but in the olden days they used to have at least several implementations of this ‘psychoacoustic’ model (take Fraunhofer vs LAME for example) and you just wouldn’t know what the ‘source’ used to bake the MP3s. This usually resulted in drastic quality variations throughout the collection. The main reason I switched to FLAC. Another point is that one could ask themselves WHY should one be content with something crippled if she can have the cake and eat it? Storage/Internet is cheap nowadays and 56k modems are a thing of the past.

    Just my three pence

    • It has changed for the better, only the very early implementations are the ones that are noticeably different (read: worse sounding) than almost every popular modern implementation when they encode around 128Kbps.or higher, be it FhG, LAME or even iTunes.

      I do agree with the position that storage and bandwidth has become almost a non-issue (not everywhere, but most) But it will be some time before lossy encoding is a thing of the past. There is the mobile and streaming issues and those are still in need of very efficient psychoacoustic models, and MP3 is still very competitive compared to modern formats so we can’t really totally discount it yet.

      • Liviu Nastasenko

        I guess in the end it all depends on what type of person you are. If you’re the “easy going”, “no worries” type of a person – MP3 in 320kbps is definitely the way to go. But audiophiles tend to be the “OCD”, “order and perfection above everything else” types of persons and that I guess is what’s making them look for uncompromising solutions.

        • Yeah I can see what you mean. I’ve been called obsessive (in this thread even) and anal when it comes to my music library. And I personally think I just have a nice balance, lossless for archival and desktop playing and lossy for almost everything “on the go” but even that seems like too much work for “just music” for some people.

        • Rizzle01

          I consider myself somewhat of an audiophile and easy going. So yes 320kbps mp3’s suit me just fine.