Imagine a top-of-the-line supercar made by one of the most exceptional car brands:
German, Italian—you name it.
Once the final shine is added to the exquisite Murano leather interior, and that flashy shiny beast rolls off the factory line, it appears like it was made for no other reason than for you to hop in and rule every highway in the world. Half of the car’s total weight is the twin-turbocharged direct-injected V-12 petrol engine. Heck, the manufacturer even recommends that you fill the tank up with premium fuel laced with gold flakes before taking your first joyride. This is a vehicle to be reckoned with.
Now imagine the manufacturer decides that the car is too heavy for shipment, and therefore remove that monstrous 750 horsepower engine and replaces it with a standard combustion engine. You’re beginning to catch on… this has a lot to do with the digital age standard of compressed audio.
What Is Compressed Audio?
When songs are recorded, mixed, and stored, it’s standard practice to work with equipment, programs and files that are capable of preserving the full quality of the music. Before digital audio, songs were stored in analog format: first vinyl records, then tape cassettes, then eventually moving on to CDs at the beginning of the digital age of music. Sure, these folks take up some space, but the other thing they have in common is the ability to store all (or at least most) of the data required to play your music in high fidelity. This is part of the reason why audiophiles will rave about their vinyl collection.
Digital audio files, unlike analog, are often compressed, using computer programs. This makes the file smaller so you can fit more songs on your listening devices. There are three varieties of audio file compression; each offers certain advantages:
Lossless audio files contain 100% of the audio data. Consequentially, they offer the highest-quality sound, but they also result in the largest file sizes. The two most popular formats of lossless audio files are WAV (Waveform Audio Format) and AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format).
Compressed lossless audio files are designed to squeeze audio data into a smaller file size. They still take up a lot of space, but the benefit is that you still don’t lose any audio data. Theoretically, this file type should sound identical to the aforementioned lossless audio files. Two examples of compressed lossless audio file formats are FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and Apple Lossless.
Compressed lossy audio files are made by removing certain types of audio data to shrink the file size. Lossy compression can be adjusted to compress audio a lot, or to compress audio very little. As a result, most audio file formats strive for a balance between audio quality and file size. The most common compressed lossy audio formats are AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) AAC and MP3.
“But there’s no difference, this is just a result of the placebo effect. All music files sound the same because compressed files are designed to still sound the same as files that have not been compressed. This is just one of those bogus ‘facts’ that audiophiles use to fuel their hobby and make themselves feel like their hobby is more meaningful!”
Well, that’s certainly one opinion on the matter. If you’re skeptical or just curious, we suggest you check out this audio quality test that NPR created a while back. Don a pair of headphones and see for yourself if you can physically hear the low quality MP3 file among other higher quality digital audio formats. Unfortunately, most of the digital audio that you hear is the latter: low-quality MP3 format.
We’ve come so far in the 21st Century — why do we still use compressed audio?
The first iPod, released in 2001, had 5GB of storage and could hold approximately 1000 songs. Today, smartphones offer hundreds of GB’s of data storage, allowing you to store hundreds of thousands of songs. Since we’ve really made a lot of progress on our data storage issue, and since compressed and lossy files were intended to solve data storage issues – why do we still settle for low-quality audio?
It’s habit. Compressed MP3 and AAC files are the standardized method of storing, selling, and downloading digital audio. If you want higher quality audio, you need to do a little extra work to seek out sources that offer music in FLAC or WAV format. The easiest way to cultivate a lossless audio library on your computer, though, may still be to buy CDs and rip their lossless audio directly to your computer. If you like an artist enough, go ahead and buy their album. You are more directly supporting them with your business than you are through iTunes or Spotify — plus you get to own their music in lossless format as well.
Streaming and Compression
Music listening is evolving headlong in the direction of streaming. With affordable subscriptions from platforms like Spotify, Pandora, Play Music, and TIDAL, you can choose from libraries of millions of songs without having to download a single one of them. Most streaming platforms offer “high quality” audio streaming, and these subscriptions often cost more. For example, TIDAL offers three tiers of streaming subscriptions, including MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) quality audio files – akin to the true lossless audio files we discussed earlier.
Whether or not you decide to invest in these “high quality” streaming subscriptions is entirely up to you. It’s worth noting, though, that more entertainment streaming services are beginning to see the value in offering support for higher definition. Today’s incredibly fast internet speeds allow services like Netflix and YouTube to offer high quality audio in addition to video. These services deliver you the highest quality content possible by determining how much data your internet can handle.
Why Should You Care About Audio Compression?
Since 2005, Audioengine has been trying to bring something new to the audio market.
Our products are purpose-built for the way people listen to music today, including the breezy ease of streaming compressed audio. It’s quite likely that every second of streamed audio you hear is compressed to a fairly low quality in order to ensure that you can access your content on demand. As a proud speaker brand our goal is to give you the tools you need, including the knowledge of audio, to ensure that you are enjoying your music to the fullest.
At Audioengine, we gauge our success by the number of customers that literally smile when they hear their favorite song play through our speakers. If you’ve already made the decision to listen using a quality product such as Audioengine Wired or Wireless Speakers, it’s probably worth doing some research to ensure that you are satisfied with the audio quality you receive through whichever platform best suits your lifestyle. Your speakers are like an engine — you ought to fuel them with the good stuff to enjoy maximum performance.
Header image courtesy of FindByPlate.com