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How Good Is MP3?

By John Penner

A lot of people believe that as long as you have a 44.1kHz sampling rate, and at least 16 bit samples, you're going to get really good sounding audio.

Having switched over from using my CD player as my primary source of audio to MP3 files (as they're very handy when you're working on the computer all the time anyways), and having hooked up my computer into the AUX input of my stereo system (instead of using the cheaper PC-speakers), I wanted to find out for myself just how good MP3 stacks up in sound quality compared to older formats I used previously on my stereo - CD and VINYL. Don't laugh, the results were quite surprising.

To get good sound quality, you need to begin with a good SIGNAL source, good quality components, a quality AMPLIFIER, and good reproduction - SPEAKERS. in my test, i used a NAD power amplifier, LINN keleidh speakers ($2000/pair), a typical 44.1/16bit stereo PC sound card, at 128/bit rate (in MP3), SoundEdit 16 Audio software (for recording AIFF), and Oliver Dreer's MPEG Audio Creator 2.01 as codec engine. The contender? - A 1968 vintage DUAL turntable with recent ORTOPHON magnetic cartridge and a stack of vinyl records.

I took the line-out from the NAD, recording the audio from the turntable directly into an AIFF file (~40Mb), and then did an A/B listening test between the original source of the Vinyl record and the 44.1/16 bit AIFF reproduction of this signal.

The usual assumption of computer users is that if you have an original sound input source - LINE LEVEL AUDIO coming in, and when you listen to that line level source, and then record and digitize that source to a 44.1/16bit stream of digital data, the theory goes that you should get out the same dynamic range, clarity, and general sound quality that you put in. I'm afraid to say - it just ain't so!

After balancing signal levels, I began by switching back and forth between the original sound source, and the AIFF version with the "Tape Monitor" button - I was amazed! The CLARITY, the dynamic RANGE, and the overall IMAGING of the stereo signal, and SMOOTHNESS of the sound from the vinyl was MUCH better than the digital reproduction. If you're running on an el-cheapo computer sound system ($200-300), then you're never going to know, but if you've got a good quality sound system (say NAD with LINN speakers), then the difference in dynamic range and sound quality become very apparent. when i rip'd the AIFF file into MP3, the loss in FIDELITY was even greater.

A lot of people will say, "no, this isn't so". but anybody who disagrees has not actually done an A/B listening test with a GOOD QUALITY turntable & vinyl and a typical PC sound card (@44.1/16bit) themselves.

so, i would have to conclude that all the claims that MP3 sound is "Good Quality" is all a bunch of marketing rubbish. this notion only survives because most people haven't ever actually heard a really good analogue stereo system. You can listen to what people tell you, or you can try it for yourself - get the facts. MP3 is an incredible advancement that will change DISTRIBUTION of music, and is very sensible for getting music into the PCs we use everyday, but it is ridiculous to continue having ILLUSIONS that the sound quality is getting better just because it is digital - that is nothing more than marketing hype. MP3 files sound great for what they are, but their quality is only comparable to analogue cassette tape - which for the consumer masses is generally good enough. but don't think that the sound you're actually getting is any BETTER!

I will acknowledge that the RANGE in quality of turntables is much wider than that for CD or MP3 files - it is no secret that you can get REALLY HORRIBLE sound from VINYL, but that is if you're using CRAPPY (plastic) turntables, with bad cartridges, and old used and abused vinyl - your' comparing a worst case situation to a typical case situation. What most people don't know is that you can also get better sound from vinyl that you can from CD (which provides a higher lowest-common denominitar than vinyl) - if you get a good quality system. Using an el-cheapo plastic turntable on a CANDLE or EMERSON stereo just won't cut it. The TURNTABLE makes all the difference: DUAL, B&O, LINN will all give you better quality than CD out of a turntable, but most of the record players out there WILL NOT give you better sound out of a turntable. Since most people aren't willing to invest in high-end audio, there quality of sound experience actually gets improved with CDs, so they never realise that the best quality of sound actually diminishes with CDs/MP3/Digital Audio.

[Note: following are ammendments subsequently made to article]

oh delightful discussion!

as mp3 is a music format, it is refreshing to hear people start talking about how the music *sounds* instead of talking about protocols and encoder version numbers. some of you actually started talking about differnt makes of amplifiers instead of the version of the encoders you were using.

others of you have brought up such excellent points!

| The reason the author's experiences with digitzied audio
| were so bad was because he used "a typical 44.1/16bit
| stereo PC sound card" for his tests. Generally speaking,
| the A/D converters in typical sound cards are absolutely
| horrible.

- the sound card is the weak link! specifically: the anaglogue componentry and the A/D + D/A converters.

- CD rippers reading digital data off CD yields better sound quality because it bypasses the cheap AD/DA converters in the sound cards.

- vinyl does sound better if you've got a good system, but typical cases for CD raise the lowest common denominator of sound experience.

- people are talking about sound being "more detailed" and if encoding "blurs" or "thins" the sound.

- in the mix of responses, some people's responses indicated that audio quality after a certain point wasn't as important as convenience of access to the music.

- raising awareness of quality issues between mp3 and other medium is considered "anti-mp3 propaganda" (amusing). the guy is alright though, because he made a good point about the converters, and suggested a better way of encoding files (higher bitrate).

some people mentioned that because they didn't care about the quality of the sound after a certain point, that they couldn't imagine that sound quality would be any more important to others. i think they must speak for themselves.

others brought up the convenience/quality of digital audio was better than that of analogue - records may sound better, but they're a pain. this is why MP3 will proliferate faster than vinyl - because the value now is more on convenience than on sound quality. after a certain point sound quality becomes a secondary issue to convenience. it is exactly this convenience (e.g. being able to email a friend or listener a song as an mp3 file), that will radically alter the distribution of music, and continue to challenge the roles of the currently established music industry.

there were some really good points about *sonic* qualities of a medium vs rumble and hiss and noise. the number of people who evaluate sound on sonic qualities is shrinking compared to number of people who measure the quality of sound by their "specs" (hz, db, and sampling rates).

this is exactly what i was trying to do with my article. to stimulate a disussion going about the sonic qualities of this sound format (mp3), as oppossed to merely a "spec" debate. after all, its the way the music sounds that is most important, all the rest is details.

thank you to all for your comments.
if with the article, i have gotten people to start thinking not only about the technical & convenience aspects of MUSIC files (the quantitative aspect) but also of the way they sound MUSICALLY (qualitative aspect) - then it was worthwhile. :-)



a general response to a long thread of messages...

| Have you ever realized that the soundcard you are using in your PC
| might be the one messing things up?
| you failed to include information on the sound card.
| Typical sound card? What kind? Were you using good cabling in
| very short lengths (In fact, your method was completely flawed...
| Subject: Are you out OF YOUR MIND?
| How could you expect to get a decent audio recording while
| recording through your PC sound card???
| ...what kind of idiot are you for using a cheap PC soundcard, are
| you a homo?
| In your artical at, You didn't mention what sound card you
| were using to output the MP3'S. That also makes a big difference.
| Remember your sound card takes the digital and converts it to anologe.
| MP3 good for what it is but next time tell what sound card you are
| using because not all sound cards are created equal. Please forgive
| my spelling...
| Using a standard PC internal audio card to test MP3 or digital audio
| in general is completely unfair: between the PC's interference noise
| and cheap DA chips it will degrade the quality of any CD-ripped
| audio into oblivion on playback. It's true that most people have a
| cheap soundcard and even cheaper PC-speakers to use with MP3, but
| neither the MP3 standard itself nor CD-audio is tied to this kind of
| setup. So if you give your records a superlative setup that most
| people don't have either, you should do the same for all things
| compared. Furthermore...
| One thing he totally forget to mention in his article was that the
| average DAC in a soundboard mildly speaking is crap!...
| you used a pretty much average soundcard to do your encoding...
| I have a big problem with this. Not all soundcards are created equal. ~
| My question to you is: what was the frequency range of the codec
| you were using?...Also, did you try a higher bit rate? I typically
| encode at 160, not 128.
| Test carried out by the MPEG Standard committee have shown
| that with the technical model encoder (developed by
| Fraunhoffer and the MPEG committee), transparent quality
| was achieved at 196 Kbit/sec.

i have been informed by NUMEROUS emails that i should re-perform the whole procedure with a professional level DAC for sound in/out if my testing is to be "valid". i agree, and this is no big news: the sound is only as good as the weakest link - the DAC was the weak link. also, a higher bitrate than the (usual?) 128 should be used.

but this is not a super-scientific end all and be all test to prove once and for all that MP3 is or isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread! this is to get people at home to hook up their machines, and try things out for themselves. if a dozen people hooked up their soundcards to their stereos at home somewhere to try it out themselves instead of listening to someone else's claims (like mine), then i consider the "article" a success.

| A friend of mine didn't believe me and accused me of being an
| audiosnob... so I had to give him *the* listening experience...
| My friend still hasn't recovered.
| I've recently conducted my own experiments to determine if the
| sound quality of MP3 will hold up...After further research, I
| discovered that the reason for the difference was due to the
| inferior quality of the D2A converter...
| HELLO PEOPLE!!!! I keep hearing this crud about LP's or Tapes
| Sounding better. Is not true and can not ever happen.

some people have spent their whole music-listening lives without having given vinyl a second thought, because CD is the only format they have actually used (as had i). they have been told "digital is better than analogue" so many times, they couldn't believe anything that contradicts that. because of the article, some people stopped taking someone else's word for it and began to try it themselves, and their awareness of quality music formats expanded beyond digital only, and also into the realm of analogue, and they were appreciative of having their horizons broadened. others became digital zealouts and resorted to name calling because they came across an article that didn't praise digital over analogue, and correctly pointed out that the methods used could have been improved. others, went waking the dead dogs of "analogue vs digital" ad nauseum (i must admit the unfortunate naming of the article set it up for that).

with what i wrote, i merely wanted to raise awareness that often we are told one thing that sound is so and so good, and that the old formats don't sound good compared to the new formats. often the "superiority" of a system is simply accepted by a lot of people because it is repeated often enough, and not because so many people have actually tried it themselves and judged with their own ears. by comparing mp3 with vinyl, i wanted to raise awareness of this, and several readers did try it and did hear a difference. some people started talking about musicality, and sonic quality instead of just bits and bytes. i wanted to challenge the notion that just because a format has been superseeded in popular usage does not necessarily make it sound any better or worse than it ever was. i wanted people to stop talking specs, and start the critical listening themselves. to make up their own minds by using their ears. my letter was a seed to get people experimenting for themselves. HOWEVER, if i had known that it would be posted as an ARTICLE, i would have edited it much better in that direction first! it needed a rewrite). it was not to be the definitive spec report. in this respect it has partially succeeded, because many of you have reported that because of the letter/article, you HAVE tried it yourselves - CONGRATULATIONS! :-)

in general, my rule of thumb is that music recorded on digital should be played in a digital format, and music recorded on analogue should be played on analogue. the entire sound-tailoring done in the mixing and mastering process optimizes for the characteristics of the used medium. if you prefer analogue or digital depends most on what you VALUE. depending on your priorities, you will naturally tend to see one format as superiour to another - and they are, depending on what criteria you measure them by. in general however, the less processing put in the path between recording and playback, the better the sound (digital or analogue). the best recording is: nothing added; nothing taken away - "transparent".

thanks for all your responses, and most VIGILANT exhortations to "get a better DAC!" - i will probably do this so i can work with VISION DSP and get decent sound quality. i will (and do) listen to music in mp3, on vinyl, and played live - each has their place. just because digital sound is good, doesn't make vinyl sound bad - it just means you have two good sounding formats; different uses - you can't email a vinyl album either unless you encode it to digital, and that's what brought up this whole affair in the first place. my father had missed a vinyl record he had bought long ago ('63), and i wanted to send him an email with the music as an MP3 attachment so he could hear his music again. i wrote the letter (posted as an article) after being amazed at the difference in sound quality before and after digitization. of course, i could go out and buy a better DAC, quantize at a better level, etc. as many of you so pointedly suggested, but my dad still wouldn't have heard his music two weeks ago if i had waited for all that... he got it as an mp3! :-)

best regards,


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