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PAR Blog of the Week: Lossy/Lousy — Waiting for MP3’s Ultimate Replacement

Young and fresh on the scene, you were the best thing ever and we all loved you. But as time went on, they tried to replace you with some dazzling new competition. You bravely held on for decades, but today they talk about you as if you’re over, finished … and it’s true, your time has passed. And look at what’s replaced you: some cheap and easy floozy, who doesn’t even hold a candle to you!

I’m not talking about an aging starlet … I’m talking about the beleaguered CD and her more popular successor, the MP3. I’ve tried and tried to embrace lossy data compression — with its easy distribution and time-saving compactness — but I can’t. I don’t care if they’re smaller, I don’t care if they’re faster, I don’t care if they’re easier: MP3’s sound like ass and I’m sick of hearing them.

The thing is, I’m an audio engineer and I only care about sound quality. If I don’t no one will; its my job. I don’t care nearly as much about the music industry, or faster uploads, or instant worldwide distribution. My focus calls for maximizing sound quality and the wonderful emotional effect a killer recording has on minds and hearts.

MP3s sound so lousy that you can tell them even on radio, despite FM’s limited dynamic range, narrow bandwidth and prevalent distortion. Don’t try turning to satellite radio for hi-fi relief: they’re often using MP3s there, too — sometimes with reasonable success, more often than not with those telltale compressed abstractions: a lack of distinction and separation in the bottom end, that modulating “chirpy” distortion on high hats or that veiled murkiness across the high mids (not to mention the oddly distorted vocal sibilance of poorly encoded MP3s).

I was hoping that “the cloud” revolution held promise, but it seems to be just more of the same. With Muve Music, Spotify (the latter of which uses 320 kbps MP3s, an effort towards quality at least) and others, I can surf through vast oceans of music, always wondering if “the kick is supposed to blend with the bass like that” or “is this veiled ‘color’ that I’m hearing ‘in-the-mix’ or in the encoding?”

I’ll end this rant with the satisfaction of knowing that in time the MP3 will be remembered as a briefly transitional format. As our data pipelines get bigger, processors get faster, hard drives evolve and the public hungers for something new, we will find uncompressed data, “premium audio” soon widely sold. The good ol’ stereo CD wasn’t supplanted by superior DVD-A, SACD or surround sound, as those formats all required new equipment and expense. The format of the future will be easy/breezy for pampered modern consumers: 24-bit, 44.1 kHz WAV files, no data compression, no physical media, whether streamed or “in the cloud” or “in your box” and compatible/sync-able with all your devices. Hi-fi with low hassles. Then finally, there will be a worthwhile successor to the CD.

Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording and a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.