A Scientific Explanation of Why MP3s Sound Like Crap

MP3s are wonderfully convenient.  Unfortunately, they sound like shit when compared to CDs and to a nice piece of vinyl played on a good turntable.  

And it’s not just MP3s.  AAC and WMA files also sound crappy.  PopSci explains why.

Audio data compression, at its heart, is pretty simple. A piece of software compresses a piece of digital audio data by chopping out redundancy and approximating the audio signal over a discrete period of time. The larger the sample time-period, the less precise the approximation. This is why an MP3 with a high sampling rate (short sample times) is of higher quality than an MP3 with a low sampling rate.

To test if the human ear was accurate enough to discern certain theoretical limits on audio compression algorithms, physicists Jacob N. Oppenheim and Marcelo O. Magnasco at Rockefeller University in New York City played tones to test subjects.

The researchers wanted to see if the subjects could differentiate the timing of the tones and any frequency differences between them. The fundamental basis of the research is that almost all audio compression algorithms, such as the MP3 codec, extrapolate the signal based on a linear prediction model, which was developed long before scientists understood the finer details of how the human auditory system worked.

This linear model holds that the timing of a sound and the frequency of that sound have specific cut-off limits: that is, at some point two tones are so close together in frequency or in time that a person should not be able to hear a difference. Further, time and frequency are related such that, a higher precision in one axis (say, time) means a corresponding decrease in the precision in the other. If human hearing follows linear rules, we shouldn’t hear a degradation of quality (given high enough sampling rates — we’re not talking some horrible 192kbps rip) between a high-quality file and the original recording.

Continue reading.  Trust me.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “A Scientific Explanation of Why MP3s Sound Like Crap

  • March 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    …and that's why I took the time last year to re-encode my entire physical library to ALAC. I figured if I'm going to buying vinyl and transferring that my computer, I may as well invest in a large HDD and ditch the compression. I'm very happy I did.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.