Comment of the Moment: Losing My Religion on Audio Quality
The Comment of the Moment is concerns audio quality from the Steve Jobs, MP3's & iPods thread by rkennke:
Not sure why most discussions about audio quality need to be so religious. The fact is that you can make very fine CDs (just take NY's CDs starting from mid-90s to today) as well as very crappy vinyl records (oh boy have I listened to crappy stuff in the 80's and early 90's).
The thing with CDs is that 16bit depth and 44KHz resolution is just fine for human ears. Sure you can create much higher-resolution audio, and it carries tons of more information, but it's effectively inaudible. That is a consequence of the inability of human ears to hear anything beyond 22KHz (heck, most people probably cannot hear beyond 16KHz already) and Nyquists laws.
Similar things can be stated about MP3s. At a high enough bitrate, they are indistinguishable from CD quality. Double-blind listening tests shows that beyond 192kbit/s MP3s basically are indistinguishable from CDs or MP3s of higher bitrate.
The problem as far as I can see is CDs that are not well done. There's so many ways that CDs can be screwed up. Digital is very unforgiving with regards to clipping. Go beyond the dynamic range of the CD (i.e. turn the mix up too loud) and you get very bad distortions since the signal will be clipped off (whereas in analog you'd 'only' distort the signal). Unfortunately this is a very common practice nowadays (loudness wars). One reason why SACDs sound much better is that the mastering process for SACD strongly discourages this cranking up to the max loudness. Another problem with digital lies in the mixing and mastering process. Each transformation of the original recording means loss of information. Mix 2 tracks together and you loose information. Adjust levels of a track and you loose information. Etc etc. That's why it's important to record, mix and master with high-res audio. That has not been done in the first decade(s) of CD audio and that's one of the reasons they sound bad.
On the other hand, analog recordings and vinyl have their own share of limitations that the guys in the studio need to have in mind. The resolution of magnet tape and vinyl is not infinite either. At some level you get crystals of stuff which ultimately define your possible resolution, and the depth of the groove and mechanics of the tonearm severely limit the dynamic range of vinyl records (that's why the RIAA curve has lower levels for the bass: when the bass gets too strong the needles would simply hop out of the groove). Also, the resolution of the signal depends on the running speed of the needle over the groove. You get higher quality on the outer end of the LP than on the inner tracks (and that is audible!). Well-made records only have stuff on the outer range for this reason. The best sound you get on EPs that only have one track on the outer end and run at 45rpm. Of course the same considerations apply with regards of the recording, mixing and mastering process: you need to use much higher-quality material during the process than you use for the end result because of all the inevitable loss in between.
Please stop being religious.
Listen to the music not the technology. Give me any well done CD, vinyl or MP3 and I'll be happy! It doesn't get better only because I listen to it on the highest resolution format on the most expensive stereo ever. Music is good when it touches our hearts. And I remember how some music touched me very deeply even when I listened to it on the crappiest cassette player ever in my parents house.
Our take on this isn't so much that folks get religious on audio quality as much as that they are passionate about how their music sounds.
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