Blaming MP3s And iPods For Ruining Music

from the gotta-love-the-audiophiles dept

It seems that with every new generation of music delivery, there are going to be people who complain that the quality just isn’t up to par with what came before. Remember when CDs first came out, there were quite a few upturned noses who insisted the sound quality just couldn’t compete with vinyl LPs. And now that mp3s are becoming the standard, folks are complaining that the quality simply can’t live up to CDs. This has certainly gone on for a while, as we’ve noted there are even online stores that cater to audiophiles who believe that compressed mp3s just aren’t worth listening to. However, now it’s going even further, as the WSJ claims that some audio engineers are saying that the popularity of mp3s and iPods is ruining music. The theory is that audio engineers are using iPods and mp3s as the lowest common denominator for recordings. Since they know that so many people are going to end up hearing the song just through the cheap white earbuds of an iPod, that they don’t bother to make a high quality recording that would sound better on high end stereo equipment. Thus, the claim goes, pretty much all music is sounding somewhat crappy, and it’s turning people off from the latest crop of new songs. In other words, music is less popular today, because the songs are engineered to sound like crap. This seems silly. It’s certainly a different argument than the industry’s typical claim that downloads are killing the music business — but it’s equally ridiculous. Sure, there may be some engineers who are doing a cruddy job in engineering the music, but as one audio engineer in the story notes, there’s no reason to ever engineer a song “down” to mp3 levels. Instead, you should just engineer it to a higher level and it’ll sound fine on a CD as well on an iPod. However, to put the whole thing in perspective: songs compressed to mp3 level certainly do lose some quality at the margin, but there’s only a small group of audiophiles who really care or will notice on a regular basis. At the same time, compare that to how much more music is being produced today thanks to cheaper production tools and easier distribution of music through the internet, and I think you could make the case that the mp3 and the iPod has done a lot more to improve music than to hurt it.

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Comments on “Blaming MP3s And iPods For Ruining Music”

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Charles Griswold (user link) says:

Re: Re:

So that’s why Brittany sounded so bad…

No, there are some things that just can’t rightfully be blamed on technology. On the other hand, the only reason she sounds as good as she does (ahem) is because her voice is computer enhanced. So, in a sense, technology is responsible for making her popular and, thus, for us having to put up with her.


JGM says:

I can’t comment on the “ruining the business” part of this, but since this is TECH dirt I’ll say this: you betray your technical ignorance in this area when you say something like “should just engineer it to a higher level and it’ll sound fine on a CD as well on an iPod”. This incorrect assumption is the root of the whole Loudness War issue.

The consensus of people who actually know about this stuff (recording engineers, critics, audiophiles) is exactly in line with the cited article, as it applies to sound quality and the sapping effect over-limiting and level over compression has on the enjoyment of music.

See related articles here:

and an explanatory video here:

SailorRipley says:

Re: Re:

I have a hard time deciding whether you just misinterpreted what Mike said/meant or whether it’s intentional.

As I was reading Mike’s blog, I interpreted “engineer it to a higher level” as a higher level of quality, not loudness. Call me crazy, but snippets like “…that they don’t bother to make a high quality recording that would sound better on high end stereo equipment.”, where “high quality recording” and “sound better” (not sound louder) are used do seem to make me conclude that interpreting “engineer it to a higher level” in any different way is malicious and/or intellectually dishonest.

Not to mention the fact that the Loudness War you refer to originated a long time before mp3 and the iPod came along. So to drag that into this seems a stretch at best…

TheZorch (profile) says:

Re: MP3 & MPEG4

I thought that the new MPEG4 audio format was supposed to significently improve upon the audio quality of compressed digital music. The only limitation was insufficient processing power to play MPEG4 audio, but that was a few years ago and today we have that CPU powee. So where did that next-gen audio compression technology goto? I know Apple’s MP4 isn’t the same specification, or is it. I was told it was a derivative of MPEG4 built using the Quicktime Audio format.

The keys to improved audio compression should a high frequency rate which determines the sampling rate-per-second (44.1MHz is Audio CD quality), and the data should be recorded at a higher bit sampling rate. Average MP3 audio is 16-bit, some are 24-bit. The higher the bit sampling rate is the higher the amount of audio data can be captured per second. Compression algarythms which chech for sound ranges above human hearing can remove this from the recordingm filters can remove other external sounds, thus you get higher compression along with a high quality recording. Or at least that’s how an ideal audio compression format is supposed to work.

JGM says:

Re: Re: MP3 & MPEG4

But as somebody else mentioned, the “compression” that is problematic here is not the data compression used to create the MP3/MP4. It’s the audio compression (and limiting) used on the song mastering stage, in response to the presumption that the song will be previewed on laptop speakers and eventually heard on an MP3 player with earbuds in a noisy environment.

This isn’t about audiophiles whining that MP3s don’t sound as good as CDs; it’s about obvious intentional dumbing-down of the music *before* any such conversion occurs.

mob (user link) says:

Bad music

Were tape players ever blamed for creating bad music? the ipod is a tool to listen, the mp3 is a format, both for listening to the music. I agree, a lot more music today is bad than before.

I blame record companies and large entertainment companies for looking for the next big fad rather than looking for all of the talented artists. The proof is in the radio stations found in almost every city. Every station plays the same songs, over and over again. Are they good songs? Sometimes, but not always. Why is that? Quick money for the big companies maybe?

The more potential money they lose, the more they force us to listen to what they want us to buy. This in turn makes the people who listen to music look for other ways to discover music.

Maybe the big record companies can embrace the times, and invest in having a larger library of available music rather than hoping that one artist will make millions.

Did I just go off on a tangent?

dond says:

It’s important to note that cheaper tools and easier distribution only make creation and distribution of music easier. They have no bearing on making music better, ie SOUND better. If The Beatles, let’s say, get on iTunes, their music will not be any better. Only more broadly distributed. Broad distribution is usually a good thing.

Futhermore, I am not a musician or “audiophile”, but I can absolutely hear the difference in the 128kbps mp3 and CD versions of a song. What lies “at the margins” is important data. It’s like stripping the brightest whites and the darkest blacks from an image. What’s left has less punch, more middle gray, less interest.


YouKnowNothing says:

It ain't the technology...

It’s not the technology that’s making the music sound bad, it’s the MUSIC that’s making the music sound bad. Britney, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Fergie, Coldplay, Fallout Boy, The Killers, Maroon 5, Kanye West, etc. It doesn’t matter if any of that is “CD-quality” or “mp3-quailty”, it’s all a load of shite that sounds bad no matter what format/bitrate it’s in.

I think the expression is “polishing a turd” or “putting perfume on a pig”…

Nick Dynince (profile) says:

sound quality does not sell records

I am an audio engineer as well. When I was learning, this was the same school of thought that went into mixing through Yamaha NS-10 speakers. These were not the greatest speakers, but the most closely emulated the listening experiences (as far as the size of the speaker) that most people were going to listen through.

To say that no one wants to listen to new music because of the sound quality is ridiculous. There are lo-fi indie rock and hip hop movements where engineers will purposely make the sound quality bad. This music also appeals on an very emotional level because of the passion of the performance you can feel in the music. On top of this, the very first phonograph recordings sounded terrible compared to what is available today, yet people sill purchased records and phonographs. It was for this very same reason: the emotion of the performance had to appeal to the listener *despite* the poor sound quality.

The nature of recording engineering has changed, as it has for the last 100 years. To say that music is ruined because of the change subjective.

David Patterson says:

Re: sound quality does not sell records

Yeah, NS10’s really sucked didn’t they? My philosophy always has been if my mix doesn’t sound good on your cheap speakers, buy better speakers. I have to listen to this project for hours, I am not going to monitor through crappy systems.
I have noticed that I spend much less time listening to CDs. They just annoy me after a while. They’re either overly compressed or full of aliases in the quiet sections. I simply cannot enjoy listening for hours as I do with analog formats. Heck, the best compressor I have is putting the two-mix through my Revox in record/repro.
However, sound quality is not the issue when it comes to poor record sales. People download what they like because they’re tired of paying $20 for one good song and an hour of junk and out-takes on commercial CDs.
I shall continue to record and mix in the best quality the client can afford, even if the end product does turn out to be on an iPod. As I said, I have to listen to the project for hours.

TheDock22 says:

Never understood....

I never quite understood the quality issue. I mean, I buy cds and I listen to MP3’s and don’t notice a sizable difference in the quality of the music. As long as their is no distracting static I don’t care.

Beside to all the audiophiles out there, live music is WAAAAY better than any CD or LP out there. And that is what I usually listen to.

Mack says:

Which compression?

I do believe compression is the main reason pop music sounds like crap, but not the kind of compression you seem to mean.

MP3, or data compression, comes way too late in the chain of events to be the issue. It’s compression of intensity — the desire to be ‘punchy’ and to ‘cut through the clutter’ — that makes most hit music unpleasant, and actually physically tiring, to listen to.

daniel says:

I blame the car manufacturers for making automobiles with automatic transmissions. Not having a stick shift waters down the driving experience. Those of us who enjoy high performance driving are having a heck of a time finding a worthwhile car, because the mass audience is all too willing to purchase an automatic …

(an attempt at an analogy 🙂

Elepaedio says:

It's not the issue

I’m an old fart, grew up with AM radio. FM was classical and jazz music, you heard Motown and pop/rock through a single tinny speaker. “Record Players” featured ceramic carts and tracked at a kazillion grams. 45s and LPs were stored under the bed. The music industry thrived. I’m not arguing against quality, I’m only saying you can’t blame mp3 players file compression for the state of the music industry. The industry is pushing crap from top to bottom. Signing talent, production, distribution and broadcasting is one big monopolistic industry for collecting $.

Long says:

Radio vs MP3

If you look in the past, many people were buying CDs or listening to radio. This means that many people are listening to radio with its static and poor sound levels. Now people are buying and listening to CDs and mp3 rather than listening on the radio.

I certainly noticed a difference when I used my Sony Ericsson W800 to listen to music and then had to listen to the radio. Everything sounds bland in comparison, the bass was dull and the static was more perceptible.

Fred says:

It may well be that only 0.0001% of music listeners are “audiophiles” with the “high end stereo equipment” necessary to even be able to hear the difference, but 100% of that annoying subgroup can be counted on to comment on stories like this one to proclaim to the rest of us that MP3s and compressed AACs sound like crap. Here’s a sharp rap with the cluebat – most people (a) don’t care, because we can’t afford a $7,000 stereo and (b) think that you sound like a bunch of pompous twits.

Random Thoughts says:

music and quality and ...

Many, many years ago the quality of music appeared to be very high. This is because an elite, well-educated upper class found the really good artists and acted as their patrons, commissioned specific pieces. That’s why today we know about Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and the other ‘classical’ artists. It is also why we don’t know hundreds of other artists from those eras and haven’t heard their attempts at producing music.

Many years ago, the role of patron of the arts was assumed by a new class of elite. Instead of spending their excess money to enrich the world about them, they hunted down the talent, signed them to contracts and made billions of dollars shoving it down our throats. The birth of RCA, Epic, Motown and many other ‘robber barons’ like them.

Now, we are revolting against those ‘barons’ and looking for a new model. I hope that model doesn’t turn out to be every hack and wannabe artist throwing their works out with no patronly filter to help us find the good stuff easily.

If the existing patron class would make some simple changes, most of us would have little to complain about.

TO RIAA and its members:
1 – DO YOUR JOB! Filter out the crap. Don’t think you can keep shoving drivel like Spears, Lohan and totally amateur garage bands down our throats while you get richer and richer.
2 – Pay the artists for a job well done. Keep less of the money for your fat pockets. Pay the good artists and dump the bad ones. Popular doesn’t mean good, except to the money-grubbing accountants and never-rich-enough super-egos. Put the melody back in music.

To the public:
1 – Show some taste and appreciation for a fine art. Don’t buy music because somebody tells you it’s what’s hot. Listen a few times before you buy, and buy what little good stuff is out there. Support the good artists. Nobody really wants to listen to Ms. Spears sing, she has no musical talent. All she has is a flabby body to shake in your face. She HAS to lip-synch so she get get at least half her dance moves right.
2 – Demand more from the big labels. Tell them how poor their talent pool is.
3 – Don’t steal the really good music – it’s worth paying for. Don’t steal the bad stuff, either. Why risk it?

K says:

You cant say its the music thats killing music.
Its $$$$$$ thats killing our exposure to good music.
If it doesnt sound a certain way, or isnt catchy enough, or the big labels dont own it, its not giong to get played on the popular stations.
Music isnt created from the heart/soul any more. Its engineered to get millions of listeners, be catchy and buys its way on to the radio.
For example. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger by Daft Punk. The original is a much better song than the Kanye West version, with retarded rap “lyrics” over it, that gets alot of air play.
Your average person does not know the difference between just listening to a song (aka just listening to lyrics or the fun parts) and actualy listening to a song like an audiophile does (aka listening to the dynamics , clarity, creativity, instrument seperation, imaging, staging). Its 2 very different ways of listening to music, and most people dont want to take the effort to do the 2nd, so MP3’s to them are no better than CD’s.
Then you have what people listen to music on. Stock car stereos, walmart $100 boom boxes, BOSE, and other HT in a Box.
Combine all that and you have a perfect recipe for crappy music.

Random Thoughts says:

... and by the way ...

A high-quality LP ( I mean good artists, good recording set-up, good engineering, virgin vinyl, clean masters, etc.) will always beat the best CD.

The best CDs will always beat an MP3 because of compression losses in the latter.

That said, the upper range of available quality in MP3s is more than good enough for almost 100% of the listening needs of the average listener. Only a few have the ears, appreciation for music and the playback system to need more than the very best MP3, best CD or good LP.

Anthony says:

i agree

to the post above me, yes especially #3

and… yes, mp3s are bad. I have 10,000+ songs in itunes, but no cd’s to show for it. sometimes i look and wonder – and lately, its not even worth downloading. I dj for hobby, i purchase cd’s and here and there some LP’s. Yea, there is a diffrence.

People should buy cd’s. Also its the artist, some crappy songs is what is killing the music, “The way i are” i belive is a good song and some of the oldies (i am 17).

paul says:

Ipod and MP3 impact on music

I would say without a doubtthat MP3/MP4 music quality is lower then that of a CD or LP, but if you are not playing the music on a quality systm you will never know the difference. I have a high-end system that I only use for CDs, I use the Ipod and MP3/4 for the gym, traveling and the alike.
Audiophiles and audio engineers will continue to listen music using the best they can afford to get the most from the recording.

rojah says:

#3 hit it on the head

mp3 is just a format. the music sucks in general nowadays. I recently was able to open my wallet to buy some cds of artists that i thought were worth the money & genuinely put there all into their work. most of the albums i was picking up were old jazz albums (charlie parker, miles, max roach or sonny rollins). you can’t blame the medium for the artists work (or lack of). I don’t claim to be an audiophile, but i do have “very good ears”. when i encode my cds in flac format & stream them to my roku soundbridge, i am VERY impressed with the sound.

why is there even a discussion about quality? we (the consumers) are all being screwed by the record industry. the price of cds is still overpriced. Cassette tapes took time & material to produce — vinyl too. cds can pressed for a fraction of the cost of the other two mediums. consumers should be receiving a DVD in 24bit/96khz to please even the audiophiles. i am sure the audio is recorded in AT LEAST this quality (hence why you get special re-releases priced higher sometimes). I don’t hear audiophiles complain about the quality of their dvd movies …so they are pacified & everyone else gets a good quality recording (whether you can tell difference or not). But of course that makes too much sense & is ethical.

Anonymous Coward says:

Music is more popular than it has ever been. The misconception comes from the fact that there are so many accessible bands now, and fewer huge stars. Mp3 does degrade the sound, but realistically the vast majority of consumers can’t tell the difference, not to mention how degraded the sound is just from normal engineering these days using too much dynamic compression.

Alex Casteleiro (user link) says:

sound quality

I don?t want to get in an argument, I just want to share what I know hoping that will bring some light to the debate. The truth is that vinyl has better sound quality than cd, and cd has way better quality than mp3. If you look with a microscope on the groove of a vinyl you can actually see a sine wave wich is analogous (the same) to the original source (after the riia filter), the cd?s since they have to store the music (data) with bits (ones and zeros) the sinewave becomes a stepped representation wich needs of filters to smooth the sinewave right before it leaves the cd player. MP3s to save data space, they delete the sound information they assume that the human hearing can?t notice. If a piano and a guitar hit the same note at the same time, MP3s will only store the information of wichever is louder.

It is true that MP3s are a revolution in the music industry, but it is also true that the sound quality of mp3s is worse than cd?s and vinils. If music is going to be mostly listened to in ipod headphones, that is what the audio engineers are going to mix to. There is no need of an acoustically engineered control room for mixdowns anymore, a laptop + protools + ipod headphones is all you need.

Like I said, I hope this helps.

CRTisMe says:

Two Additional Audio Issues

1. The long term potential injury to ears from prolonged listening thru ear buds in noisy urban environments. If there is a great deal of injury then the market for higher audiophile quality material is impaired

2. If I remember correctly EE Magazine did a teardown/analysis of an iPod and determined that the iPod was additionally EQing the music to have it sound better on an iPod than a competing MP3 player that was set for a flat response. So that adds yet another layer of distance from the artists/engineers original intention.

Boris Jacobsen says:


Re: “If a piano and a guitar hit the same note at the same time, MP3s will only store the information of wichever is louder.

Utter rubbish! Where did you get that from? For starters, there are a few stages in recording between the instruments being played and the conversion to mp3. Almost all professional recordings these days are multi-tracked and then mixed so that there is a suitable balance between the instruments. Even if it’s a live recording, the person who invented a microphone that could pick up just one instrument when two are playing would be a very rich person. So would a person who could devise an algorithm to perfectly separate out different instruments in a recording. mp3 ain’t that clever.

Boris Jacobsen says:

I blame advertisements....

The problem began when advertisers realised they could make their adverts stand out by using audio compression. The peak level of a recording has to conform to strict broadcasting standards. However, compression and limiting increase the volume of the quiet bits (on a sub-millisecond basis), to put it simply, so the overall and perceived volume is louder.

The trouble was, some audio engineers realised they could make their songs stand out in the same way. And once a certain percentage of mastering engineers were doing this, others felt they had to follow suit otherwise their songs would sound ‘lost’ on the radio.

For a while, artists would release a radio edit for broadcasts. In some cases, this might be a radio-friendly 3-minute version of a 4 – 5 minute song, but it would also be more heavily compressed than the version released on vinyl or CD.

Where ipods and mp3’s come into it – people are less frequently listening to whole albums – more often, they listen to random sequences of songs by various artists – so again the problem is one of the songs ‘struggling to be noticed’ by sounding as loud as possible.

So it is true in a sense that music has suffered. It has lost one of its fundamental emotional qualities – dynamics. This is not the only recent loss – most bands these days record to a ‘click track’ – an electronically generated ticking that the musicians keep in time with, generally set to a constant tempo throughout a song. Thus music has also lost variation in speed, to some extent.

Find any oldish piece of piano music. Not Elton John. Something like Chopin. It’s full of instructions to gradually or suddenly speed up, slow down, get louder / quieter. The music sounds vastly better this way, and it is these qualities that are being lost in today’s sterile music studios. Not all music, but most of it.

iSaac says:

what I do as a music-lover.

I do NOT qualify as an audiophile….but I like my digital music to sound good…so I rip my CD’s at 256k bitrate into mp3. I know, I know, its not lossless, but it sounds better
than the standard fare one finds on the net or that friends
use to rip in thier mp3 players.
Its like my own little “preservation” technique…

This bubble was just burst when today (9/13/07) i learned
about the LOUDNESS WAR. I feel like my ears have been slowly
raped for about a decade….its quite the bummer

Alex Casteleiro (user link) says:

Re: Re:

I think that you don´t have to be an audiophile or have whale genes, all you need is to be able to listen to both with a good sound system.
The diference is more noticeable if you compare a good (original with a good pressing, not a bootleg) 45 vinyl (yes there is also sound quality differences between 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records) and the mp3 version of the same song. You not only will hear the difference, you will FEEL the difference.

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Fred Mulligan says:


This whole topic is utterly nonsensical to me, every time I hear about it, and no matter how hard I try to empathize with the “audiophiles” who assumedly are better than me at recognizing differences in sound quality.

However, I’m no moron, and I’m pretty damn observant. MP3 may be a compressed audio format, but there is no question that the quality of a professionally recorded song played back from a computer through high-end speakers sounds better than one played back from a vinyl record, cassette tape, or in some cases even a CD.

The fact that this is even a debate is purely frustrating. This doesn’t have to be broken down into terms of data and mathematics. If you listen to a vinyl or a cassette, the audio is muffled, distorted, and almost drowned out by static feedback. Each progression in format has reduced this feedback–not to mention individualized frequencies of songs so that effects like treble and bass can be tweaked effectively.

Digital audio (maybe not necessarily mp3s) is by far the best quality of recorded audio available to the world today, and if anyone seriously thinks that any obsolete format beats it in quality, then being an “audiophile” straight-up sucks. Because if I had to live with the real perception that vinyl record audio sounded legitimately better than the formats available today, I think I would just give up on music.

I still don’t understand how this is even a question.

Matt says:

Re: Ridiculous

Fred, you’re not getting the picture here.

Why do audiophiles continue to chose analog over digital? While I cannot creep into everyone’s mind, I’m willing to bet it all lies within the actual mastering of the music. In this case, the audio format is irrelevant. Vinyl is an inferior medium in my mind, but there’s absolutely no question a properly recorded/mastered LP will trounce a lousy recorded, poorly mastered CD (or any other digital file). So you see, specifications aren’t what they seem to be.

Digital audio is one of the greatest things to have ever happened to music, but it’s NOT used to its fullest potential. Isn’t it pretty sad?

By the way, a person doesn’t need a “$7,000” stereo. There’s more budget, quality (GASP!) systems in the $500-1000 price range than ever before. Brands like Cambridge Audio, NAD, Music Hall, Rotel, etc. And you can actually build a pretty DAMN good system of used components if you do a search on that Audiogon website

Jesse Greathouse says:

Ridiculous = ignorance


The nonsense here is your ignorance on the topic. It isn’t the medium in which the audio quality is being chopped, it is currently in the mastering of the Album. Before the Album ever even hits CD or MP3, the compression is being blown up which means the dynamics are completely neutered. The loss of audio quality will never be known to the listener because the dynamics simply don’t exist in ANY format the music is being played in. This is being done purely to get bands noticed on the radio and myspace, and nothing more. The studio compresses the master to the loudest possible volume, to the very decibel. Publishers know that if their band gets noticed on the radio, they are more likely to sell CD’s. This makes the music industry more lucrative, but does absolutely destroy the value that customers receive from the product.

Music is an art form. It is not ethical to chop off the audio dynamics of something produced by a musician. This causes harm to one of humanity’s remaining virtues. Please do not contribute to this argument with personal reflections of which medium is superior, such speculation is completely off topic and dilutes the argument.

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