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DonB's picture
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 24 2007 - 1:31am
Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

Hi everyone,

I am a 60 year old newbie. Just getting interested in really enjoying music. I have set aside a sum of money to purchase myself a good (hopefully) audio system strictly for music.

That said here is my confusion. A person I met told me that there was no need for me to purchase CD's for my music. That I should get an Ipod and download the music I wished to listen to and run it through the new system I planned to purchase. Or if not an Ipod then download it onto my harddrive, burn a disc and then play it thru my system. He then told me about all the great reasons ( and they seemed legimate and good reasons to me) why the advantage by not buying CD's. I then asked him would the quality of sound be the same. And he said yes.

It worries me if he is wrong for several reasons. One I plan on spending about $5000.00 ( which is a lot of money for me) on the speakers, amp, pre-amp, cable etc. Since that sum of money is a lot for me I would hate to buy a good sound system only to have garbage coming out, figuring the old adage "garbage in, garbage out" is true in audio equipment.

My Questions: 1. Is there a difference in quality of CDs and downloaded music? 2. He stated that what difference there was could not be detected by the human ear. Is that true?

Thanks everyone

scott1krr's picture
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 9 2007 - 9:19am
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD


The human ear and brain is probably the most amazing listening device ever. You can pick up on things that you never thought you could but you do have to train your ears a bit before you really can hear it. most of the time in life we are limited by what we think we can do...and this applies to listening as well and here is an example.

I have been DJ'ing House/Trance music for about 8 yrs. and in those years i have trained my ears to pick up on things that not many people ever hear. having spent so many hours listening to multiple beats played on top of one another and having to analyze which one is faster and slower has made me incredibly sensitive to beats that are not in an annoying point. when i go to venues now i usually hear two beats: one right and one left...due to the pathlength differences from the various speakers in the club. I try to explain to friends who are standing next to me but they never hear it and joke that i have made myself crazy. but i know its real and if i center myself in the room all the doubled beats go away.

lets get this straight up front... there is no such thing as a TRUE lossless recording. all recordings compromise the original sound in some manner. Even the CD is an inaccurate source...especially at the higher frequencies where the sampling rate is barely twice the frequency of the sound and thus many high frequencies are "best guess estimates". our goal as music lovers and audiophiles it to find the least altered recording and to reproduce it in the most authentic way possible so that we may be able to hear deeper into the intricacies of the music we love so much.

having said all that I'm sure you know what the rest of my answer is going to be.

Much like you i just spent $5k on a new home system and it is my first real home stereo system (dabbled in "mid-fi" home and hi-fi car audio for years). Over the years i have acquired a few thousand songs on MP3 format on my computer and have even invested in a studio grade sound card for my home recording projects. I cant tell you how disappointed i was in my digital music collection once i started playing it on a system that is able to reproduce the most fine details.

Even comparing my 320kbps MP3 to the original CD there is NO comparison. Imaging, tonal accuracy and instrument harmonics are all blurred by the compression. Think about it... you are taking a medium that is already compromised (CD - 44.4k / 16 bit PCM) and compressing it 8-16 times! there HAS to be loss!

Another great example. I have live CD by a rock band named O.A.R. (Of A Revolution). the band features a sax and when listening to the MP3 the live show sounds top notch. put in the CD and all of a sudden i am very distracted by an echo on the Sax solos. That echo is actually reverb/echo in the arena feeding back into the singers mic and having a split second delay. this is totally lost in the MP3 version (even at 320k).

It is a sad state that the world is in these days with regards to this topic. as technology keeps getting better we have better ways to record and reproduce music. however the mass public seems to only care about squeezing another 20 songs on their iPod regardless of how it sounds. We have one group of minds focused on making recorded music as accurate as possible and another group trying to compress it as much as possible and that puts the market at odds with itself.

the really sad part is that the mass market doesn't seem to care because all they want to hear is the the beat of the next catchy radio tune played over lo-fi ear buds in an attempt to drown out their unhappy existence in this world. My concern is if that is going to compromise future development of formats that are greater than CD like Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio...and that makes me sad as a music lover and someone who loves to find detail.


P.S. check out my thread in this forum regarding my "starter system" that was built on the same budget as yours.

highcurrent's picture
Last seen: 3 years 12 months ago
Joined: Oct 14 2007 - 7:35am
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

You can download music or copy original cd at xp you should know how to rip and then burn it lossless, the recording is great on this.

lionelag's picture
Last seen: 2 years 4 months ago
Joined: Apr 18 2007 - 9:40am
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD


My Questions: 1. Is there a difference in quality of CDs and downloaded music? 2. He stated that what difference there was could not be detected by the human ear. Is that true?

If the downloaded music is lossless (FLAC, ALC, AIFF, WAV), then there's no practical difference between it and a CD-- in some cases, it might even sound better. If you're talking about MP3 and AAC, it really depends on your own listening abilities. AAC sounds better to me than MP3, but the 128bps downloads from iTunes are definitely not as good-sounding as tracks from a CD. Think of how limited cassette tapes sounded compared to LPs (forget the noise of dirty LPs for a second). Get a CD and play around with ripping it. I could guess a 128bps MP3 vs. a CD with almost 100% accuracy, if I knew the recording. If it were 320bps, it'd be harder. You might feel differently. Most of the stuff on my iPod is ripped at either 160 or 192, which is fine for listening at work, but not for "serious" listening. I gather that most of the crowd here can't even stand 192bps....

bifcake's picture
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Nov 27 2005 - 2:27am
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

There are a few issues to consider:

1. The PC option offers tremendous flexibility in terms of music storage and access. There is no need to physically store hundreds of CDs. All your music is stored on hard drives. The upshot of that is that you need to be really comfortable with PCs and data communications to ensure that you can troubleshoot a problem if it arises.

2. There is greater costs associated with PC based solution. In order for digitally stored music to be played, a Digital to Analog converter is required to convert digital data into an electrical pulse that will drive the speakers. A CD has one built in. A computer will require an external converter if you wish to get the same quality out of your PC as you would with a CD.

3. You can absolutely hear a difference between compressed and uncompressed music. If you want the same quality from your PC, you should download uncompressed music. That will require greater hard drive space, which translates into costs. Furthermore, you have to invest into a backup solution in case your hard drive fails.

Summary: Whereas the PC offers advantages in flexibility of storage and access, the CD solution offers the advantages of an easy interface, plug and play, no maintenance overhead.

See what's more important to you and make your decision accordingly.

Hope this helps.

Elk's picture
Last seen: 3 months 4 days ago
Joined: Dec 26 2006 - 6:32am
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

There is indeed a huge difference in quality between CDs and downloaded music. You will be able to hear the difference, especially on a $5,000.00 system.

By the way, you can put together a wonderful system within your budget. You are going to have a blast!

CharlyD's picture
Last seen: 4 years 7 months ago
Joined: Jul 20 2006 - 4:01pm
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

The suggestion you received to forego a CD player in favor of an iPod will get a system that has far greater convenience than the physical medium solution with the capability of sounding at least as good as most inexpensive CD players (<~$200). I've measured the performance of the iPod and other portable music players, and their performance (S/N, THD, frequency response) is not bad. Check out the measurements by JA on the iPod version 1 at The top-level iPod now offers a 150GB hard drive that will store over 400 CD's in a lossless format. And if there is music in your collection that is more for the gym or driving, you can put vastly more compressed music on the device. There are several sources for downloading lossless music of several genres. CD's are an obsolete and dying format. Go with the iPod/Zune solution!

Elk's picture
Last seen: 3 months 4 days ago
Joined: Dec 26 2006 - 6:32am
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

Whether to use an iPod or computer instead of a dedicated CD player is different issue than whether downloaded music sounds as good as CD's.

A CD ripped to a computer and played back through a good digital to analog converter does indeed sound as good as a CD played back on a CD player.

However, a downloaded MP3 does not sound nearly as good as either of the above, regardless of how it is played back - whether played back by an iPod or by a computer.

Windzilla's picture
Last seen: 1 year 3 months ago
Joined: Oct 19 2005 - 10:10pm
Re: Quality of Downloaded Music vs. CD

there are lossy and lossless formats, with lossy formats (mp3 for example) you get just that, a loss of quality. with lossless formats (FLAC is such a one), well theoretically there is no loss.

If your buying your music online then the quality will be variable. I personally don't like to buy my music in a non-cd format, I like having the backup, and ripping my cd's is easy, quick, and can give you better results at times.

If your investing 5k in this system, you may want to look at a cd/harddrive combo unit, like that from oppo or the Cambridge Audio 640H.

frankly there are lots of options out there that would allow a hard-drive based ease of use, without limiting yourself to the I-pod, not that ipods are limiting but designing a 5k system would be, IMHO.

for example, given your 5k budget, you could buy a squeezebox and benchmark dac, and 500gb Hard drive for 1400 bucks, use it with your current computer and you have a setup I hope to have.

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