Just Shoot Me

As an audiophile, one of my core beliefs has always been that, once they have heard better sounding music, everybody would want it. That's how it worked with me: My friend Bill sat me down in front of his Quad '57s and cued David Bowie's Heroes on the turntable and once I heard all of those new sounds coming out of my beloved old LP, I was a changed man.

Of course, it didn't hurt that my wife, sitting next to me, said, "We're going to own a pair of these speakers, aren't we?" That's simply proof that I'm a very lucky man.

But I digress, I was saying that I believed that choosing better sound was the natural reaction to being exposed to it. Not perzactly true, says "informal" research conducted by Jonathan Berger of Stanford University and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

For the last eight years, Berger has polled incoming students on their sound preferences—and I don't mean just asking them which format they preferred. He did demos. "Students were asked to judge the quality of a variety of compression methods randomly mixed with uncompressed 44.1 kHz audio. The music examples included both orchestral, jazz and rock music. When I first did this I was expecting to hear preferences for uncompressed audio and expecting to see MP3 (at 128kbps, 160kbps, and 192kbps bit rates) well below other methods (including a proprietary wavelet-based approach and AAC). To my surprise, in the rock examples the MP3 at 128kbps was preferred. I repeated the experiment over six years and found the preference for MP3— particularly in music with high energy (cymbal crashes, brass hits, etc) rising over time."

Another comforting illusion shattered.

Professor Berger says it's all in the "sizzle," by which I take it he means the sounds of dynamic compression and the (to me) annoying glaze of lossily compressed formats. Berger points out that it's what his students are used to—and therefore expect.

This small survey really rocks my world. I've always defended the iPod because it allowed users to choose their poison, when it came to formats. I was willing to sacrifice capacity to maintain sound quality and, I assumed, so would any right-thinking person, once they had heard the difference—and make no mistake, the differences are audible.

Keep in mind that Berger's students aren't a random sampling of Stanford students, but rather are students in the Music and Acoustics departments (or so I gather). That means they are probably better at hearing differences than most—or are at least willing to acknowledge that differences exist. And still they choose MP3 over Red Book!

Somebody talk me down—tell me that this is not one of the signs of the impending audio apocalypse.

Mark Fleischmann's picture

Thanks to Auto-Tune, the majority of younger pop listeners now believe the human voice is a pitch-perfect instrument with a heavy dose of the glaze you refer to (it's an excellent description). As far as they're concerned, the glaze is part of the instrument, so that synthesized sound has been folded into their aesthetics along with the complementary artifacts of lossy compression. Even in live settings, music gets digital echo and other processing, even if it's just someone just playing acoustic guitar and singing. I think many younger listeners may lack a frame of reference for natural, relatively unprocessed sound.I think hearing loss may also play a role, even among the young, something new and horrific. You wonder what they'll have left when they're our age.Blast your ears with earbuds all the time and you end up with a bad frame of reference for critical listening -- and deaf.

Trey's picture

I am looking for the source paper to check out the experiment design to see if I can spot anything amiss. Does anyone have a link to the actual paper? I cannot find it.Trey - holding out hope in his heart

agillis's picture

The way sound is transferred to our ears is part of the experience. A concert in a well designed concert hall sounds different then a concert outdoors. Many people love tube amps because of their "warm" sound. In fact tube amps are distorting the music because of their inability to reproduce it perfectly. I have seen solid state amps that have a "tube amp" setting to reproduce this. This is also why there is no prefect music system. Building a system to listen to music can depend a lot on your own tastes. I think as the systems that reproduce music get more sophisticated they will offer more options to play back music in different ways. I can imagine an iPod in 2025. It will be the size of a wrist watch and have 100TB of internal storage. All music will be stored in 256KHz sampled 9.1 channel sound. But there will be settings to play the music in "mp3" mode. Right next to the tube amp setting :)

Trey's picture

Agillis, I agree. I think that better reproduction allows the hack part of the music to work better. The hack is the part that can get to our emotions so easily, the thrill up the leg if you will.I get that much more from better sounding music, and have seen the effect with friends of mine.That is why I am doubting the quoted article and would love to check out their methodology.Trey

Yuriy's picture

My friend, you have a bit of a spammer problem. I wonder if anyone tries to read the posts between the health and wellness crap. My concern in addition to the preference for highly compressed audio formats is that most people (especially the ones who don't write for or read audiophile magazines) prefer tiny plastic computer speakers to simple bookshelf speakers in the same price range. I'm amazed by how many people there are out there who love music but don't own any kind of audio system apart from their computer.

lx's picture


Jeff Glotzer's picture

128 MP3's definitely have more treble energy, though it tends to sound much more "etched" than natural. It's no wonder that in rock those listeners found what they did. They havent spent time listening (really listening at length, over years) to a natural and distortion-free musical presentation, there is then no way to make a qualitative understanding about what is good and what is great. Obviously, a less bright and less etched recording is less 'hi-fi' and less aggressive, and what do you want in rock? Aggression, intensity. Easy to understand. Moreover, I have heard from women viewers of HD for the first time (many examples personally), that they couldnt see the difference and what the hoopla was about. Only after seeing the two HD and SD side by side, did they understand what was there and missing in both accounts! Same deal here in an audio example.