For a while now I have been doing talks at various universities or even at the Dana centre (part of the London Science Museum), and the focus of the discussion often falls on the ‘quality’ of audio today.
In essence I find myself stating my case that the MP3 format might have helped the digital music player industry grow, but that it has held back the progress and sound quality of music for the majority of people.
The MP3 was launched at a point in history when memory capacity was limited. The MP3 format compresses the audio which results in the file taking up a lot less space. For example a CD quality file lasting around three and half minutes can be reduced from 38.5 Mb to around 3-10Mb depending on the amount of compression applied.
Of course ‘compression’ cannot be done without a hit in the audio quality. The MP3 format in effect results in parts of the recording being removed. Normally its the part of the audio which is not crucial to the sound and ‘narrative’ of the music. This results in a range of frequencies being removed. Although not crucial to the listening experience these frequencies are noticeable, especially if played through a decent hifi rather than the standard Iphone headphones. Placed against a CD, a MP3 is clearly inferior for the majority of music genres. However, this reality has not stopped MP3 taking off and being the ‘format’ of choice for the majority of people. Apple have their own version called AAC, but this too is inferior to CD.
Where as the visual would has not only avoided reducing quality (yes I know compression is used for digital broadcast - but it always has so compared to SD television its a win, win) but its actually gone HD and FULL HD mad. Maybe its because watching things is a primary activity, where as sound takes place whilst something else is taking place for the majority of people? However, I still believe that many people still listen to music just for the sake of listening to music, and hearing it in its full glory is something which most people would appreciate. Why else spend money on that expensive Bose Ipod dock if you don’t care about the sound quality?
Believe it or not audio HAS gone HD. We have 24 bit audio and it can be recorded and played back 192Khz (the frequency at which a sample is taken - the higher it is the more accurate the recording). Its just that, except for the production environment, these formats have failed to take off. Home cinema has helped a little as Blue Ray can support some of these formats, but for most people CD quality sound is still the best they have ever heard, and they live in a MP3 world for most of the time.
The success of the MP3 format has been the main factor holding back progress. MP3 players were created to play back MP3s and hence new or even older alternative formats were locked out of the consumer offering. However the owner of MP3, Thomson, have now come up with MP3HD. This is excellent news!
What is great about MP3HD is that its backwards compatible with older players. So if you download a MP3HD file but your player can’t play HD files, it will still read it and just play a traditional MP3 version. However, when you upgrade your player then your files are already HD and you haven’t got a wasted download. Now these MP3HD files are not better than CD but are promising the same as CD sound, which is good. However, one assumes that the format could be extended to a FULL HD audio standard with the same backward compatible principles being applied.
The pressure to act is now with the actual download stores and hardware manufacturers to adopt this new standard. We want Amazon and co to offer MP3HD files for download and for hardware to support the files. Clearly download stores won’t jump at this despite the improved experience for customers. This is because of the extra bandwidth the stores will require to be able to send all this data to consumers. Additionally consumers will need fast broadband connections to recieve a file within a reasonable period of time. The latter of these concerns is not really relevant in most of the developed world with broadband fast enough to deliver this for most people.
The earlier concern, regarding the bandwidth download stores will have to use to deliver the files, is relevant. Indeed, this would most probably result in the files carrying a higher price. Though, this might stop the format establishing itself in the first place. Perhaps Thomson should lower any licensing fees required to use the format, at least to begin with, to help it take off?
Either way, its good to see that the quality of Audio is at last being made relevant at the consumer level and is not just an academic issue for the producers and professionals in the industry.