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Glen Pitt-Pladdy :: Blog

Could someone please explain...

I've just been catching up on Jeff Atwood's blog and hit The Great MP3 Bitrate Experiment plus it's sequel. Oh dear... and then on to attacking PHP - he does seem to be on a roll with popular emotive arguments.

The old audio format argument is one that I've seen many times over and invariably the sensible people get drowned out by a load of pseudo-scientific stuff that ends up being the core of both sides arguments. Possibly worst of all, it's invariably argued from the Lowest Common Denominator point of view.

What's the point anyway?

While I can sit here and write for hours debunking arguments on both sides, I don't want to waste my time - it's well studied that humans base their evidence on their beliefs, rather than basing their beliefs on the evidence. And before anyone argues, yes, I did easily spot the original sample just with my PC speakers, but while clear differences between many MP3s, they where more difficult to decide the quality due to the synthetic 80's recording interacting with in different ways with the encoding (why do these sorts of tests always depend on the vast majority of people having abysmal equipment to listen on and use some awful consumer quality pop recordings?). One thing I found myself many years back when I started testing MP3 encoding is that with VBR the quality of the bitrate engine often has more impact on quality than the average bitrate when higher average bitrates are in use and that wasn't covered here. Add to that people seem to prefer what they are familiar with over true quality, which would invalidate listening tests with anyone not familiar with high quality recordings... ie. the vast majority of people.

All pointless arguing aside, on with my argument.... Why are so many people obsessed with having to turn everything into the lowest quality anyway?

Personally I aim for the highest standards practical with everything I do, both professionally and for leisure, but I am regularly faced with both fierce critics and admirers. It seems there's few things that polarises opinions more than striving for excellence.

Notice I use the word "practical". From an engineering standpoint compromise is part of life, and pushing the boundaries against compromise with innovation is what progress is about. Many modern innovations where possible some time ago, just they weren't practical (often for cost or lack of market demand) until recently. What I don't understand is why compromise just because we can?

Going back to the example of audio formats - these days we have:

  • Plenty of bandwidth - the highest quality audio I've bought so far (24bit/48KHz FLAC) would take around 2-3minutes to download for a typical album on my home internet connection (assuming like me you have a good ISP and the source CDN you are downloading from is up to the job). I've got a fast connection, but definitely well below the fastest home connections on the market. In lossless compressed formats files do not magically grow massive by using higher quality - lossless compression reduces redundancy, not information (unlike lossy compression which reduces both). As an example, I took one of these 24bit files and converted it to 16bit and re-encoded it into FLAC which changed it's size from 30.3MB in 24bit FLAC to 30.1MB in 16bit FLAC. Get the idea?
  • Plenty of cheap storage - as discussed above, the file sizes are not huge for lossless compressed audio as some will have you believe, and these days big storage is cheap. An easily affordable (and in fact common on many home PCs) 1TB drive will easily store more tracks than most people will own (and many more than they will regularly listen to) in a lossless format. In my case I have a 350GB volume that is less than half full with my entire music collection in FLAC as well as being used as a PVR (video recorder). Who can't afford that?

The point for audio on non-portable systems (eg. at home on a PC), is that there really is no reason to reduce quality in the majority of cases - the highest quality available will be handled with ease. For portable applications practicality dictates you may need to compromise and transcode to MP3/OGG for the reduced capacity of practical flash storage and the fact that few portable devices handle FLAC.

I can understand all the arguments back in the day when an 80GB hard drive was as big as anyone could afford and everyone had dial-up or if they where really lucky a 512Kbit DSL/cable internet connection, but why are people still arguing over this stuff?

So, could someone please explain...

Why do people argue to reduce quality, against achievement or against having high standards without reason?

Is this just modern day intellectual Luddism?

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