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Will Kids and MP3s "Ruin" Music Recording Quality?

A Stanford professor conducted research on perceptions of recorded audio, and he discovered that today's youth actually prefer the "imperfect" sound of a digitized MP3 recording over a more perfect audio reproduction of the same music.

The professor, Jonathon Berger, a professor of music, has experimented on his incoming freshman classes for a number of years with a little music "taste test." He played various recordings of music in different recording formats, including MP3, and then quizzed them on which sounds they preferred most. Each year, Berger reports, the proportion of students who prefer MP3-quality sounds has risen. 

But why is this the case?

MP3's are, from a technical standpoint, one of the worst possible ways to record and reproduce sound. Think about it: vibrating air enters a microphone, and an electrical signal enters an analog-to-digital converter. There it's chopped into a numeric representation, which can be a pretty good sampling—though never perfect. The resulting string of numbers is too large for convenient use—a CD album's worth of music takes around 650MB. So some software takes that numeric sound representation, and then ditches most of its fine detail to create an mathematical representation of what the original sound patterns look like: an MP3.

The result is a highly compact digital "impression" of the original sound, often with muddled sonic detail (the famous "mushy" sound quality) and favoring high-frequency sounds. It's a convenient way to shrink the recording, but no-one would ever agree that such a lossy system is the best way to capture sound in excellent detail.

Yet Berger says that the kids love the mushy mid-range and poppy "sizzle" sounds that MP3 recordings often possess. Sound quality is a highly emotive issue and it's tricky to get right, as anyone who's ever tried to set up a high-quality stereo system will tell you. So, of course, Berger's findings are mostly a reflection of "liking what you know," that is why some audiophiles still prefer the "richer" analog sound quality that comes from a vinyl record.

Is it really a tragedy for music? Not particularly—digital storage capacity proceeds at leaps and bounds on a daily basis, meaning storing higher-rate MP3s (and digitally-compressed music in other formats) is getting easier. And there's already a trend for "high quality" MP3s, thanks to developments like iTunes Plus, that pushed larger file-sized tracks for their improved audio quality. It's just a question of whether today's kids will prefer the quality of that format—or not.


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  • Greg Fox

    It's indeed quite sad that MP3 and AAC are now the dominant format, and that people are actually willing to pay money for them. I would (and do) pay good money for higher quality digital files that are CD quality or better.