Music Compression

    Neil Young has railed against MP3 and streaming media.  To some extent he is right, an MP3 is compressed, losing most of the information in the master file.  He calls it “the worst quality in the history of broadcasting”.

    I am not sure on the latter.  In the 60’s and 70’s the transistor radio and cassette were king.  AM radio was hardly high fidelity, and many singles were mixed to sound good on AM radio – all middle, no bottom or top.  The cassette may have found its way into hi-fi but was always hamstrung in the high notes by slow tape speed.  However, most people probably listened on portable players.  The point I think is that pop and rock music evolved in an era of (for most people) lo-fi reproduction.

    Wind forward to the present day and the medium of choice for most people is now their phone, probably with the cheap ear buds that came with it.  Roughly the sonic equivalent of the transistor radio or cassette player back then.  Mention high resolution downloads and you will probably get a blank look (FLAC????).  OK, Apple and others do not make it easy.  To buy HD tracks you need to go to a specialist store.  Add in the bigger file size, and people will quickly realise longer to download, and fewer on the device.  Add in higher cost and the majority of people are going to stick with the easy option.

    Fact is most people will not hear the difference between MP3 and FLAC, and most people do not care, they are happy as they are.  So Neil may well want to change our listening habits, and full marks for trying, but I think the battle is lost.

    For people listening on standard players with stock earbuds, the sound quality change between mp3 and 16 bit 44.1 khz FLAC/ALAC (CD quality) is likely to be marginal.  The difference then to 24 bit 192khz FLAC even less appreciable.  With a good player and good earbuds there is a difference to be heard, but the convenience and price of the standard offering will always win.  It is a market where volume counts over quality, and it has always been that way (back to the transistor radio).  Streaming provides per play income, which is attractive to record companies, but streaming on low bandwidth connections means high compression – low quality.  The quality of the file being streamed is automatically throttled to avoid interrupted playback.  The majority who just want to hear the latest and greatest don’t care enough to complain.  All they can hear for £9.99/month? – bring it on.

    What I would like to see is Apple offering ALAC downloads alongside the standard AAC in iTunes, and both Google and Amazon doing the same with FLAC.  Of course it would be good if Apple supported FLAC in iTunes.  Having to convert FLAC to ALAC just adds unecessary friction to the process.  Apple doesn’t even offer a FLAC import facility, so that means third party software – more friction.

    If you want to change how people listen, then make it easy for them to listen to lossless music.  That means making it as easy as iTunes – click, download, listen.  Until that happens, and I am not holding my breath, I will buy from independents where I have that choice (7digital.com for example) and convert it to ALAC to get it onto my iPhone.

    Given how hard it currently is to listen to lossless music, it will remain niche.  The vast majority of music buyers value cost and convenience over quality and I can’t see Pono Music or anything else changing that. iTunes disrupted the market by making it easy to buy and listen to digital music.  It integrated the source with the player.  Arguably, anything that does it different, no matter how good it sounds, is going to struggle.