IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Kick the compression habit

Digital music doesn't have to mean inferior sound quality. Ignore the marketing hype and you can turn the iPod and its wannabe clones into true hi-fi audio gadgets. By Gary Krakow, MSNBC.
The iPod has the capability of providing true hi-fi audio; it's just not being marketed that way.
The iPod has the capability of providing true hi-fi audio; it's just not being marketed that way.Apple

You see them everywhere. Apple's iPod is now synonymous in people's minds with portable music.  Twenty years ago, it was the Walkman that was state-of-the-art for portability.  Twenty years before that it was a transistor AM radio.  The other thing they have in common? All three were inferior to the recorded music standards of the time.

But these days, you don't have to stand for that.

Former battery problems aside, the iPod is a magnificent device which has the capability of providing true hi-fi audio.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way it and all the wannabe clones are being marketed.

Instead of telling you how great your music can sound, Apple and other MP3 mass-storage device manufacturers boast how many compressed music files you can fit on their devices.  Apple, for example, boasts “you easily slip up to 10,000 songs into your pocket.”

What you have to strain to see in the small type at the bottom of the page is that to squeeze 10,000 songs onto your iPod they have to be compressed into Apple’s AAC format at 128Kpbs.  Apple figures each of these files is approximately 4MB.

That’s great if you’re into archiving the Library of Congress’ collection into your hip pocket.  If you want to actually preserve your music, you can do a lot better.

Ideally, what you should be doing is listening to songs encoded in Apple’s AIFF format.  AIFF files and the similar WAV files in the Windows realm are not compressed at all.  Each file is approximately 30 to 40 MB each, or about 10 times the size of files compressed into the AAC, MP3, RA or WMA formats.

When music is compressed and then uncompressed, there are losses: little things like spatial qualities of where each sound is and tonal discrepancies.  Listen for cymbals, horns, voices and even drums and bass sounds; the more the music is compressed the more it strays from sounding real.  Higher compression rates sound better (320K sounds a lot better than 128K) but once you listen to how clear, real and lifelike non-compressed music sounds, you’ll never go back. 

To my ears, compressed music files are the equivalent of junk food to the music industry. The difference is like comparing a slice of the best bakery-made chocolate cake you’ve ever eaten to a Devil Dog or a Ring Ding.  Fulfilling richness vs. empty calories.  Both are satisfying chocolate desserts but which one will you remember as being something special?

Fight for your right to AIFF files
The downside to uncompressed files is that you won’t be able to fit 10,000 songs on your 40 GB iPod.  Instead, you'll have to settle for a measly 1,000 to 1,200 songs.

Apple also doesn’t make it easy to go uncompressed.  If you buy music from the iTunes store it comes to you in that 128Kbps AAC file. That means you need to rip your own music from CDs.

Better yet, tell Apple that you’d like the option of hearing the iTunes music you're paying for in the best possible format.  What you're getting now is a highly-compressed file with sound quality 25 to 50 percent as good as an uncompressed one.  Unfortunately, you’re not paying 25 to 50 percent of what uncompressed music sells for in CD form.

Additionally, while the convenience of buying individual songs on iTunes is nice, you still don't really "own" those files.  Unlike owning a CD, you’re actually renting the rights to play AACs on a limited number of devices.

We should demand the right to spend our money on the best-sounding music files possible.  Being able to download AIFF files would offer more bang for the buck.  Literally.

Future music systems
Compressed music files do have their place, it's just not on a 40 GB device.

I’ve been testing a 128MB MP3 storage device from M-Systems, the people who invented those keychain USB storage drives.  For $80 you get a small, cute and very portable music player, plus a built-in FM radio and voice recorder.  With these kinds of devices, and there are many on the market, using 128Kbps compressed files makes all the sense in the world.  You can get 20 to 25 songs or two albums into the memory bank.

All of this will begin to make a bigger difference when distributed music systems become popular.  I’ve just heard a preview of a marvelous-sounding system, available later this year, that will allow you to control and play the music files on your hard drive in any and every room of your house.  I think it could be the home audio wave of the future.

Such a hard drive doesn't need to be attached to a computer, either.  It could just be one of those new standalone, network storage centers attached to your home Ethernet network.  I’ll be testing one with 250 GB of storage.  At Apple’s standard compression rate, that’s room for more than 60,000 songs.  In WAV/AIFF format that’s 7,000 non-compressed songs or something like 700 CDs.  I don’t think I own 700 CDs.

Finally, whatever portable music device you have or intend to buy please discard the earplugs they give you and buy something that allows music to sound like music.  Device manufacturers give headphones to you for free because that’s what they’re worth.  Whether you spend $40 or $400 for your device, it’s worth it to listen to what a pair of Koss, Sennheiser or Shure (try a pair of E3c's) headphones can add to your listening enjoyment.