Photo (CC) Alosh Bennett.

With the regularity of clockwork, stories about how digital audio consumption is degrading the quality of music are published and then re-published. Nearly a decade after the introduction of Apple’s iPod, this still apparently qualifies as news. The content of the articles is so identical, you could believe the bylines are a ruse, a nom-de-plume for the same author re-publishing the same story.

Whatever the reason for their supposed newsworthiness, the problem with these stories isn’t their claims about the variable quality of music listening. I think it’d be hard to overstate just how sub-optimal real-world listening by real-world consumers can get. The problem is that these journalists, inexperienced in the actual history of the technology they’re covering, falsely identify a technological trend.

In the process, they miss the real story of how listeners listen.

Here’s the latest offender:

In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back [The New York Times]

The story conflates everything from comparing analog to digital to dynamic compression in mastering to data compression, so it’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ll do my best to separate out the issues. (After all, you barely have to read this article, because you’ve read this story – substituting a couple of sources here, a couple of metaphors there – repeatedly for about ten years.)

Myth #1: Audio advancement hasn’t kept pace with video advancement.

Here’s the myth, from author Joseph Plambeck:

The last decade has brought an explosion in dazzling technological advances — including enhancements in surround sound, high definition television and 3-D — that have transformed the fan’s experience. There are improvements in the quality of media everywhere — except in music.

First, this idea itself is internally inconsistent, at least in part. People’s home theater setups are full of music, from the soundtracks to games to movies to video of live concerts. In fact, the quality of audio in audiovisual contexts – including music – has improved alongside the video. Consider:

Original VHS format: Poor frequency response (100 Hz – 10 kHz), mono, or stereo with hideous dynamic response. In fact, this isn’t even worth measuring – it was awful. Couple that with poor analog reception or low-quality analog cable signals, and it means the 1980s, peak of the music video, sounded like crap.

DVD: Typically AC-3 or DTS digital audio, with better-than-CD audio quality (in terms of theoretical specifications), and digital surround capability. [Clarification: technically, it’s the theoretical 24-bit, 96kHz encoding rate that would make audio on DVDs “better” than CDs. Commenters are correct, though, that the lossy audio format, combined with real-world concessions to space, could degrade real-world audio quality – though you also get more channels, which is a good thing. For a better advance from the CD, see the Blu-Ray disc. Ed.] So, the NetFlix age is better off than the Blockbuster age.

Gaming: Games increasingly use compressed but relatively high-quality audio, approaching CD quality, and in digital surround formats. With intelligent surround mixing, this also leads to better channel separation and spatial separation, and a more pristine listening experience. Not only that, but because gamers use auditory clues to help them perceive where they and enemies are in space, anecdotally many non-musician gamers I’ve talked to are particular about their sound experience.

But that’s not the argument here. Apparently, the lowest-quality audio distribution format can be compared to the highest-quality video format. That just doesn’t make sense.

Let’s turn the tables, by way of comparison. I can even write the headline:

“Video Quality Suffers in the Age of the Internet – Unlike Audio”
By Peter Kirn[‘s fake evil imaginary brother]

Kids today, with their YouTube and their over-compressed, handheld shot video. Why, I remember in the old days. I used to shoot in gorgeous film on my Bolex and edit by hand on a Steenbeck.

Audio quality today is fantastic. 10.1 surround is the norm, as is better-quality mixing. Just listen to The Lord of the Rings recording. It’s spectacular. It’s a whole orchestra and everything. You can go watch the movie in a THX-certified theater, and listen to nearly three full hours of music. In fact, by the time you’ve watched the trilogy, you will have sit and listened to a longer piece of music than a Wagner opera – and you won’t have gotten out of your chair (minus that quick bathroom break).

Not like video. 320×240, really? Over-compressed video encoding and 15 fps? Stations that call themselves “HD” but exhibit noise artifacts do to over-compression – to say nothing of the less-popular, standard-definition stations squeezed into your cable signal to allow you to have 2000 stations? It’s as if people aren’t videophiles any more. It looks horrible.”

You get the point. Nothing above is incorrect; it’s just a matter of perspective, and whether you combine the best practices of one medium to the worst practices of another.

In video capture, the difference is more pronounced. Modern digital cameras now shoot in increasingly high-quality audio, which previously was often more compressed than the video. My new Olympus E-PL1 actually shoots uncompressed PCM audio alongside its motion JPEG video.

In fairness, the author here is talking about “music.” If TV in HD is now the norm, there isn’t an equivalent shift in the common format for distribution of musical albums (see myth #2). And that’s fair – mostly. But the issue is, again, comparing different delivery formats for different delivery applications for different content. Sure, the musical album hasn’t had the leap forward that, say, television has, in the move from standard definition content to high-definition content. But by the same token, would you compare the 16:9 cinematic experience – which was already “high fidelity” and “high definition” in optical film before the advent of these technologies – in the same way? In fact, if you did, the advances in cinema audio have been greater in the cinema than the advances in film presentation. While digital projection and 3D have very recently improved the situation, urban movie theaters getting carved into subdivided rooms actually made a lot of movies smaller, not bigger or “higher def.”

Photo (”>CC-BY) iamaruntimeerror.

Myth #2: MP3s reduce audio fidelity in the name of mobility

This topic has been discussed to death. At the risk of giving away the ending, low-bitrate MP3s don’t sound very good. Higher-bitrate MP3s do sound pretty good. (The same is true of Apple’s AAC-encoded audio, which incidentally, shares the audio codec being used on those DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and consumer digital video recorders.) In fact, bizarrely, the New York Times article doesn’t compare any hard numbers on perception of high-bitrate MP3s and AACs to CDs. It just takes it as a given that they aren’t as good, without any actual research.

But the central thesis of the entire article – one we’ve seen before – is this:

In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and convenience. This is the obstacle the industry faces in any effort to create higher-quality — and more expensive — ways of listening.

Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

As usual, the lay journalist struggles with the notion of data compression, saying that the process is “eliminating some of the sounds and range contained on a CD.”

In fact, by design, lossy compression does nothing of the sort. The ideal behind MP3 compression is to eliminate tones which are themselves inaudible, masked in the normal perception of music. That means that, encoded correctly and with enough data, an MP3 should theoretically sound identical to a PCM-encoded CD.

There’s often a difference between theory and practice. But to suggest that the aim, the goal of MP3 or AAC is to eliminate auditory, perceptible sounds in order to increase portability is simply inaccurate. Perceptual compression designed so that, according to the appropriately-named Karlheinz Brandenburg, compression pioneer of the Fraunhofer Institute, “the basic task … is to compress the digital audio data in a way that … the reconstructed (decoded) audio sounds exactly (or as close as possible) to the original audio before compression.”

You do need enough data for the compression technique to work its magic, which is why the shift from lower bitrates in MP3/AAC to higher bitrates on leading digital music stores is so important. But at a certain point, you no longer perceive anything missing, and as Duke Ellington would say, “if it sounds good, it is good.”

If the audio compression is successful, that means a generation of fans hasn’t traded fidelity at all, if the previous popular format was the audio CD. The “if it’s successful” part is important, but it isn’t as simplistic as this (and most other stories) would have you believe.

Newspaper journalists continue to treat MP3s as though it’s still 1999. In 1999, it wasn’t uncommon for people to illegally download music from services like Napster that were encoded at bitrates that were too low, and that actually contained encoding errors, which will cause auditory distortion and pops. That’s not true of a track downloaded from Amazon or iTunes today. These issues are significant.

A discussion of how compressed audio compares to an audio CD actually isn’t an easy discussion. Even simple metrics like frequency range or signal-to-noise ratio aren’t directly applicable to audio that uses perceptual encoding techniques, because by definition, they use variable encoding rates to change from frame to frame. The quality of the encoder and its settings make a big difference. Suffice to say, it’s possible to create an MP3 or AAC file that isn’t as satisfying as an audio CD, or to create one that – even for many trained ears – is satisfying. I won’t even try to debate the merits here, because to get the answer technically correct, we’d have to do more work.

To have a technically-robust discussion, though, we’d actually define what we’re talking about: comparing, say, the quality of a direct-to-digital audio CD with a broad dynamic and frequency spectrum as played on a standard audio CD and a 320-kpbs MP3. That could be an interesting discussion, and you might even choose the audio CD over the MP3 in certain cases. But it probably wouldn’t reach any sweeping conclusions like generations of listeners turning their backs on quality in the name of cheap thrills.

In the dance of logical fallacies, articles like this one never define the terms of their basic thesis – the “generation of listeners” trading convenience for quality:

  • What generation? (I’ve seen everyone from age 8 to 80 with an iPod.)
  • Compared to what? (MP3 to audio CDs? AAC to 8-tracks? What?)
  • Who’s judging the quality, and how? What’s quality?
  • When? Who? Where? … What?

But yes, I suppose it can be said that at an indeterminate time, using an indeterminate playback format (MP3 or AAC or … something) with an undetermined bitrate (maybe 128k, maybe 256k), listening through a range of variables that have gone undefined (headphones? background noise? are you using your blender when cooking in the kitchen?), an indeterminate group of people listening broadly to things that might be called “music” (whether that’s the Brandenberg Concerto or Frank Zappa) from some indeterminate era, itself recording originally through some unknown means at some undefined time, has audio quality that is not as good as some other music music listened to by someone else … sometime. Or something.

I can’t really argue with that, can I?

Myth #3: The iPod is the perfect emblem of a generation that doesn’t care about music

Quick: what’s small and portable but sacrifices audio fidelity for over-compressed music with no frequency or dynamic range? It’s portable, it’s pocketable, it was a wildly-successful creation that changed how a generation consumed electronics and music alike, and it has terrible earbuds.

The iPod? No, I’m talking about the Japanese transistor radio. By contrast, it makes the iPod looks pretty amazing. The transistor radio had:

  • A terrible tuner. In order to save space, cost, and power consumption, the tuner in early radios – the “transistor” in transistor radio – was often sub-par. Say what you will about MP3s or online streams; at least you don’t have to tune them out of the air. Weak signal? Weak music.
  • A crappy speaker in a crappy housing. Want an insider tip for how to make a bad speaker sound even worse? Here’s a hint: put it inside a rattling plastic housing.
  • AM radio for music delivery. The irony of talking about MP3 as a step backward is nothing when compared to AM radio, which supported mono output and bandwidth of only 10 kHz. Analog mono FM radio sounds better, let alone a current average digital file. Only later did transistor radios add FM radio support, and it was some time before stations embraced the format.
  • Terrible, mono earbuds. The iPod’s weakest link is the lousy earbuds Apple ships with the device, but early transistor radios were even worse. Aside from holding one up to you ear, you could plug in an earbud – yes, one earbud, in one ear. The earbud was terrible, and mono. The signal was terrible, and mono. And you had one in only one ear.

I’ve always loved listening to transistor radios. They have gotten better. But that’s the point: they’ve gotten better, not worse. And an iPod can usually beat one of these devices when it comes to sound quality.

Myth #4: Music is getting squashed by loudness wars – blame the iPod

No article on the evils of digital music would be complete without reference to the Loudness Wars:

With the rise of digital music, fans listen to fewer albums straight through. Instead, they move from one artist’s song to another’s. Pop artists and their labels, meanwhile, shudder at the prospect of having their song seem quieter than the previous song on a fan’s playlist.

So audio engineers, acting as foot soldiers in a so-called volume war, are often enlisted to increase the overall volume of a recording.

It’s a subject for another post, but I’m tired of the “loudness war” being applied to “music.” What music? What genre? Recorded by whom? When? I’ve heard exquisitely-engineered music from the past few years. I’ve heard brickwall-limited pop songs that … well, would have sounded like crap even without being poorly mastered. I’ve also heard music that used over-compression for intentional distortion in some genres (like Dub) long before anyone began worrying about loudness wars. (I’m also unconvinced by the listening habits described here. We know how many singles versus albums are purchased, but not how people listen to their existing music collections, so I’m dubious.)

But that’s not really the argument here. The issue is what’s to blame. In fact, I believe historically the author again has it completely wrong. The technology that began to change how music was mastered, that began to cause people to move from one track to another, isn’t the iPod. It’s the radio. And if anything caused the homogenization of music at the top of the charts, it wasn’t the introduction of digital singles. In fact, the iPod has technology designed to level out volume levels automatically on a playlist. The trend attributed to the loudness wars scaled in the 1990s, as sales of CDs and CD singles – not downloads – were on the rise.

Let’s face it: A&R people don’t care what a track sounds like by the time it’s found its way to your iPod playlist. You’ve already bought it. Job over. What they care about is how “loud” that track sounds when you haven’t bought it. And that means impressing the people who run the radio stations.

If you want a historical variable in that time span (and the more recent decade), look to the consolidation of broadcasting companies and radio markets.

The nonpartisan Future of Music Coalition (FMC) found that in 2005, half of listeners tuned to stations owned by only four companies, and the top ten firms had almost two-thirds of listeners. At the same time, radio listenership has declined 22 percent since its peak in 1989 in the top 155 markets.

Source: Peter DiCola, False Premises, False Promises, Future of Music Coalition (2006)

It’s a topic for another article, but I just can’t find a rational explanation for why the iPod would make less dynamic range make sense. Personal listening means the ability to set your own volume level, and data compression and poor-quality headphones mean that over-compressed music sounds worse, not better. The charges levied against the iPod might just as easily be directed at the Cassette Walkman of the 80s, on which people routinely listened to mix tapes of their own creation.

At the same time, I haven’t seen anyone argue against the notion that media consolidation might be the culprit, even though radical consolidation took place over the same era that the “loudness wars” were supposedly raging. I welcome other theories here. But even if you don’t agree with me, I don’t think you can take it as a given that the iPod is specifically to blame – and I’d think you’d want some evidence, regardless.

Myth #5: Technology is the cause and determinant

There’s a bottom line to my endless rant. (I know, I know – get to it already.)

Via Twitter and Facebook this morning, while I was blowing off steam about this article, a couple of people referred to how artists “intend” their music be heard. I’ve got bad news for you: your listeners don’t care about your intentions. Part of the genius of people who are great mix engineers or great mastering engineers is that they know how to shape music for the worst-case scenario listening environment, not just the best.

It’s not that some MP3s don’t sound terrible, or that music is sometimes mastered poorly or overly compressed. It’s not that the standard earbuds on the iPod aren’t awful, or the blown-out speakers in someone’s car aren’t poor – they are.

The variable in all of this that’s more important than the technology is the listener. Listeners are fickle and unpredictable. They don’t always concentrate on music. They don’t always care about fidelity. “They” don’t always agree – which is why some people don’t replace those default earbuds, while others blow thousands of dollars on listening equipment.

Too much of the debate over listening focuses on the technology and not the listener. The listener – and perception – is everything. And that leaves us to our final myth:

Biggest myth of all: Perception and reality are one and the same

There’s an unstated elitism in most of these discussions. I think it’s worth a separate post, so I’ll come back to this video and the ideas in it, but one key revelation is that even golden-eared pros can have their perceptions fooled by comb filtering in a room or even the placebo effect:

[Mix engineer] Anyone who records and mixes professionally has done this at least once in their career—you tweak a snare or vocal track to perfection only to discover later that the EQ was bypassed the whole time. Or you were tweaking a different track. And if you’ve been mixing and playing around with … whether you’re a professional or just a hobbyist, if you’ve been doing this for a few years and you haven’t done that, then you’re lying. Yet you were certain you heard a change! Human auditory memory and perception are extremely fragile, and expectation bias and placebo effect are much stronger than people care to admit.

There’s a lot more to this panel. It winds up being a lot more interesting than the debates over MP3s and digital downloads, and get to the heart of how we hear. I’ll try to pull it apart and talk to people with more expertise than my own about is soon, but in the meantime, there are copious notes and audio downloads to go along with the video:

Thanks to oivindi (see also SoundCloud) for the tip.

Why bother with this whole rant? I’m hopeful that, if we look beyond the simplistic explanations to the actual science, history, and magic by which we all hear music, we’ll find out a lot more about what music means. The story above came from the business section, but the industry isn’t a good place to look for answers. The failure of a format like SACD shows a real failure of understanding about how people listen, how they perceive quality, and even basics of how formats and compatibility would appeal. Nor has the recording industry always given you a better product for more money: they were just as happy to sell you excerpts of music at ridiculously inflated prices at lower fidelity for mobile formats in the form of ringtones.

My alternative rebuttal:

1. Audio and visual technology have advanced in lockstep, whether or not consumers have always bought the gear.
2. MP3/AAC files can sound just fine, so it’s not fair to leave audio complaints at their doorstep; what we need is better testing under optimal circumstances, not just how these formats fail.
3. The transistor radio, not the iPod, was the great backwards step in mobility; it shows just how important being mobile and cheap and for how long, years before digital.
4. The real culprits in the loudness wars is media consolidation and top-of-the-charts senselessness, not mastering engineers or iPods.
5. Listener are the variable, not tech.
6. Human perception is always the first place to consider – even with pros.

If you want to improve “fidelity,” even for your own listening, you can’t ignore the listener. You can’t ignore perception. And you certainly can’t ignore history. But pay attention to these things, and who knows what’s possible?

  • A bit wordy, Peter, but dead right.

    Today we live in a world of untold audio richness, spoilt for choice. But what to do with all these riches? For whom to do it? And why? These are the questions the audio artist should be asking.

  • Ernie Jackson

    Thanks Pete!

    I now have a great reading assignment for sound design tomorrow.

  • CPRoth

    Hoo boy, I'm first? Well, giving it a shot.

    First off, kudos for including the word Steenbeck.

    Having been a lucky recipient of the final days of the Record Business (RIP) in the 90s, I kinda have a bit of a skewed perspective on this. But in the big argument, no, the iPod is NOT to blame for xyz. That's kinda like a sinking battleship blaming water for giving the torpedo that sunk it a platform.

    What really killed music is, it got smaller, and continues to get smaller. And not just in a tactile way (from album cover to jewel case to streams of zeros and ones). The business consolidated, just like everything else. When that happens the ONE thing you know is going to come of it is that the people who originated that 'industry' (ie: the ones that gave a shit) will be looooong gone.

    Here's how it works: After your label has had its run and starts to lose money, you sell out to a conglomerate. The conglomerate says "Aw heck, we're just money guys. You all are the creative types, so just go ahead with what you're doing…erm, except we had a big loss in the last 2 quarters, so half your A&R staff has to go".

    And you know who they are replaced by (and I'm SO not kidding here)? They get the ACCOUNTANTS that found out who the biggest money losers on the roster were last year, got them dropped, and now THEY are rewarded with 'creative' posts, like A&R.

    Um…what did you THINK was gonna happen to the music?

    As far as loudness wars go. Kids kids kids, I can tell you of a time way back when a Jukebox was something the size of a refrigerator (not a Preference on a piece of software) and 'played' media pressed into 7" discs of petroleum. And all the guys mastering those 7" discs (especially the ones marketed towards 'the kids') were told to make THEIR 7" disc louder than the others in that jukebox. That they can do it in another way thru digital code is really nothing new, 'cept it does sound really really bad.

    Peter you are right about the relationship between record label and radio. Don't get me started.

    Still, there are some ghosts in the mp3 machine. There's a big thread over at MOTU-MAC about why some mp3's made from hi rez files following a strict tempo, when then imported into another project, seem to lose tempo (these would typically be longer things, getting into the 7+ min range). Lotsa theories there. But it doesn't change the fact that it DOES exist, and what is that doing to the overall sound of the new file?

    But anyway, great post. Again, totally appreciating all you do here.



  • Thank you for writing this. I saw that idiotic article this morning and was going to write a nasty comment, but I thought better of wasting my breakfast time on a flame. I'm glad you had the energy to tear down every single point the article made.

    Now, of course, no one will ever write that article again. Right?

  • there do exists standards for a reason. when consumer electronics companies diverge for a particular product that doesn't make neither the consumer or the company a culprit. the standards exist as a reference but it's not a law that is imposed on people. professionals in several industry decide what's best for their R&D for their product. although the music industry may seem to be taking a step backwards. engineering and mastering are actually pushing fidelity forward. in time, consumer electronics may catch up to high fidelity but remember, high fidelity exists at several levels and audiophiles have always been a niche market. i used to get and newsletters. i should keep subscribing to them to stay updated on audio engineering breakthroughs.

  • el capitan

    Beyond the myth of falling fidelity Peter you just teach the ny times journalist a lesson in journalism we can replace audio myth with many other myth and it's the same results alas…

  • @Jens (et al): I'm officially cutting myself off from the topic. 😉

    That said, yes, I agree – there are still some questions that are actually interesting:

    What about MP3? As CPRoth says, there are outstanding questions on fidelity and how it's perceived. I think to answer that question, we have to answer some bigger questions about perception and sound. At what MP3 or AAC bitrate is a file a reasonable substitute for lossless formats? And what's the benefit of going beyond 44.1/16-bit (At least 44.1 isn't entirely arbitrary; dynamics are a relatively open question.)

  • fantastically detailed post Peter – thanks for this… many ideas to ponder over.

  • Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for finally putting into words and taking the time to do so, what I've ALWAYS been dying to scream at people when they try and poo poo how far sound quality has come…

    Especially if you think about the availability of great quality sound in comparison to the few elite people who could afford such badass analog systems say in the 1970-80's. Sure they had good quality stuff but you had to pay a price for that and most people simply did not.

  • The only point I'd like to make is that you used to be able to go to an appliance store and get a pretty good Stereo for a weeks' wages (1975). Now you can't buy a good stereo unless you go to a boutique audio store and pay 2 months' worth of wages.
    And yes, I love having a juke box with 500gig of audio files, but that's just a PC.

  • Diegotz

    I absolutely agree! Thank you very much for demonstrating in precise words the falacies of some cheap journalism!

    Our "Generation" is in a great time to listen to music; we can decide how we consume it, in everyway. There's a healty DEMOCRATIZATION of Music.

    I wish I can read an article called “Video Quality Suffers in the Age of the Internet – Unlike Audio” anytime soon!

    Cheers from Argentina!

  • Mike

    there's one issue about the loudness wars that i'd like to point out, despite agreeing with many of your articulate responses.

    i don't think there's much to complain about vis-a-vis new music being mastered to the standards and tastes of the day. of course brick walled mastering, as you point out, tends to go hand-in-hand with the kinds of "drums and vocals" techniques that sound good coming out of wal-mart speakers or from the radio. and if you're trying to make mainstream music today, chances are you want your music mixed for those environments.

    what is especially upsetting in the loudness war, however, is the tendency to remaster classic recordings with the same types of mastering techniques as contemporary pop productions. of course the recent Beatles remasters are an obvious example, but also the Big Star box set and several of the recent R.E.M reissues all profoundly alter the material with over-compression. I think it's a tremendous act of bad faith to rerelease this music in any other format other than one that attempts to preserve as accurately as possible the original dynamic range and volume of the master recordings.

    for many listeners who care to hear something as close to the original released version as possible, digital files of high-quality vinyl rips and out-of-print audiophile reissues like the MFSL are the only option.

  • Jeremy

    Great post! Thanks.

  • Good points.

    You might be interested in this

  • John

    I'm very disappointed in the lack of decent inexpensive widely available stereo and home theater systems. For example, in best buy everything is marketed towards base. Clarity, and high frequency are more difficult to find. I've got some old alesis m1 mk2 monitors that blow away the majority of ipod dock stereos, and they are around the same price? Also, its becoming less necessary to use lossy codecs. Boomkat and Bleep are two online music retailers that offer FLAC and WAV as download options for example. I think the poorly encoded stuff is more an issue for people who can't or don't pay for their music.

  • Excellent article. Allthough I will beg to differ on one front. Movie theatre sound quality. I am going to start taking ear plugs to movies in the future. You want to talk loudness war? Movie theatres are the WMD of that argument. Sometimes it sounds like they just put the ultra maximiser on 11. And those high frequencies! I mean Jesus, I have almost called OSHA a few times.

  • Polite

    Bravo. Well said, Peter.

  • re: Myth #1: Audio advancement hasn’t kept pace with video advancement. …

    This is one area I think everyone can have a valid point since it depends on whether you're talking about possibilities vs actuality. I'm inclined to agree that audio hasn't really "advanced" as fast as video from the standpoint of adoption, i.e. how most people are actually listening to music. Who here listens to surround sound mixes of music albums? Who here creates & distributes surround sound mixes of their own music? It's not that the capability and distribution formats don't exist, but I think a 2-channel 44khz 16-bit recording is the end-all-be-all as far as most listeners are concerned, so there hasn't been a great need for surround sound or other innovations like that. Multi-driver, "surround sound" headphones are silly in practice, and many people often don't listen to music by sitting in front of a couch and staring at the space between their two main loudspeakers unless they're watching a movie. For a lot of the ways I've seen people listen to music, it may as well be mono (and 8-bit and 32KHz). I knew SACD and DVD-A were going to flop as "successors" to CD the moment I first heard of them, because they have nothing to do with how most people view music– not as a medium of total immersion, but as a supplement to their life– something to play in the background as they're otherwise traveling, working or whatever.

    Movies are, by nature, an artform whose goal is total uninterrupted immersion, so it makes sense that televisions and home video have evolved in the direction of ever more fidelity– bigger screens, surround sound, and recently 3D on Blu Ray Disc. Those are all things that enhance the goal of total immersion.

    re: Myth #2: MP3s reduce audio fidelity in the name of mobility

    Enthusiasts from communities like Hydrogen Audio used to hold double-blind "ABX" listening tests in order to measure the "transparecy" of audio codecs. It was generally determined that, as you approached 192Kbps VBR in any modern, mature codec (L.A.M.E. or iTunes MP3, MP4/AAC, Ogg Vorbis, etc.), you're reaching the point where the original is totally indistinguishable from the lossy. They used collections of very short "problem samples", such as a specific Autechre snippet and a recording of castanets that had the tendency to draw out audible artifacts like pre-echo. You can basically rest assured that 99.99% of music is going to be totally indistinguishable from the original at ~192Kbps VBR lossy with a modern, mature encoder.

    The prevalence of 320Kbps CBR just plays on everyone's ignorance and paranoia of lossy compression. I think there was even a test that determined that extreme bitrates like 320Kbps CBR didn't do much to suppress artifacts beyond what a given algorithm is capable of at 192Kbps VBR, so all people are doing with 320Kbps CBR (and the web stores that promote it) is wasting their space, bandwidth and batt life. People should use FLAC or something if you're going for the ultimate in sound quality.

  • Jonah

    Good rant!
    Couple of points:
    If you actually make music it has gotten much cheaper to make high fidelity music that fills mp3 players.

    Also, the quote that people used to sit and listen to music brings up a relatively new phenomenon. I think dancing to music is more traditional. Moving to music seems pretty natural.

  • Nice article, I agree with your points. A couple spelling/grammar checks:

    "Higher-bitrate MP3s sound do pretty good"
    Did you mean "Higher bitrate MP3s do sound pretty good" or "Higher bitrate MP3s' sound do pretty well"?

    "If the audio compression is successfully, that means a generation of fans hasn’t traded fidelity at all, if the previous popular format was the audio CD."
    You probably meant "successfully" to be "successful"

    Myth #6: The Internet is responsible for a growing number spelling and grammar errors. 😉

  • aaron

    Earbuds do suck tho! I wanted to agree with everything you posted (and mostly do except some bits about the 'Loudness war') but the image of the Earbuds kept popping into my head. ARGH. Neverending hell. F Earbuds! And yes, those #$100, Sony, AT or Sennhesier ones still suck! Why can't someone invent something equally as portable but not has awful for your health or quality. Demon spawn!

  • aaron

    The punctation and spelling in this message bas heen frought to u by the letters, B, E and R

  • Microwave Prince

    Sorry, Peter, but you miss the point. It's not about formats, it's how listening habits have changed over time. New generation doesn't know how a good recording should sound. Everyone is listening music with crappy sounding ipods.

  • Orubasarot

    iPod DAC/opamps have never been terrible, just average, i can even drive HD650s with a sansa clip at moderate volume without any significant issues

    dont really care about fidelity though, im starved for good ideas, not production

  • Ok, so another digi-phobic audiophile rant. But both of you touch on the importance of culture rather than tech. Like ShowcaseJase above, this makes me think about this article:

    It is not unlikely that we've been affected by bad compression techniques, and have developed an unconscious liking for it. Furthermore, atleast I think it's pretty boring to listen to any-boring-digital-format-MP3-CD-blabla, but listening to a Laserdisc, Minidisc or 12" is pretty exciting stuff! Of course then, it sounds *better* …

  • oid

    Microwave Prince: You are committing the sin of mythologizing if you think that previous generations were so very, very conscious about HOW things sounded, rather than WHAT they were listening to. High fidelity has *always* been a phenomenon reserved for the few, and not something that has ever penetrated trough the entire social fabric. I know, I grew up with a very dedicated hi-fi dad, and I can assure you that his interests were not shared with the general public – not even 25 years ago.

    Interestingly enough my dad has come to the conclusion that he was way too interested in sound per se, so much so that came in the way of the actual music itself. This is, I think, a pretty common disease in the world of hi-fi.

    Oh, and everyone isn't listening to music on the iPod. Not at all. A lot of people are using Squeezeboxes and other digital devices of pretty high quality, while *also* listening to music on the iPod or whatever.

    The world is seldom black and white. It never was, not even in the past.

  • "Also, the quote that people used to sit and listen to music brings up a relatively new phenomenon. I think dancing to music is more traditional. Moving to music seems pretty natural."

    @Jonah There was a time when people played music with each other at home too … The ease and prevalence of recording has turned us into consumers, not participators. Hell, in general, people don't even know how to dance with each other.

    "Sorry, Peter, but you miss the point. It’s not about formats, it’s how listening habits have changed over time. New generation doesn’t know how a good recording should sound. Everyone is listening music with crappy sounding ipods."

    @Microwave Prince Yup, it's about choice and the kiddies are used to mp3's while I grew up with CDs and records. Maybe many just don't understand the differences and the importance of a good audio setup? It's hard to explain to some people that "computer speakers" generally don't sound good. I can't state the number of times I've seen kiddies walking and listening to music blaring out of a cellphone. Jesus, it sounds terrible! The compression is killing that tiny mono speaker … don't you even realize??

    It's the chicken in the egg problem of who is to blame: consumers for wanted ease of use and portability over quality or the manufacturers for providing devices that favor ease of use and portability over quality? In the end, most people get what they want … crap.

  • Digital technology is the magical box that allows us to produce, to share and to listen to 8-bit overcrushed retro tune or perfectly mixed jazz sessions ( without lowpass filtering and inevitable saturation due to most of the-best-in-the-market analog equipment ). We are free to listen to the same tune on our iPod or to our Hi-Fi speakers in a treated room.

    Broader frequency and dynamic ranges, lot of encoding options (from lossless FLAC to lossy MP3), much less storage space required than before.

    You got choices. It's simple to change idea, and every possibility is cheaper than ever. It's just a better world!

    Good points, Peter

  • hello

    agree with most of Peter's points

    agree stongly with leaving old recordings unsullied and not 'remastered'

    as for mp3s – hard drive space is getting dirt cheap now. there is no real reason why all of our music collections are not made of flac/wav files. god forbid you need to actually choose to leave some of your collection at home when you leave the house. my ipod is only 8gb and still fits a very decent amount of wav albums on it. I remember it wasn't long ago that I was lucky if I got to choose from 4 or 5 tapes that I brought with me in a backpack when I left the house. It seems gluttonous to me to need more.

    I've been comparing 320 and flac, and 320 is just not sufficient. Listen and you will notice its not as full, the sub bass is lacking. Lets listen to a recording the way it was meant to be heard.

    and don't get me started on 'djs' who use mp3s when they play out (off topic I know)

  • Just Noise

    Fascinating, thanks very much – really enjoyed this

  • RRSounds

    In an apocryphal story, in 1966, the Beatles' (EMI) mastering engineers were non-plussed at the loudness of Motown mastering. It took Paul McCartney's prodding to get them to push things at the 45-RPM mastering stage, with the result that the single "Day Tripper" was considerably louder (the bass, in particular) than previous Beatles recordings, and thus presumably, comparable to Motown's.
    I gotta get a copy of the Parlophone "Day Tripper" 45 to hear for myself!

  • Great article!

    Have you read Aden Evens 'Sound Ideas'? A real interesting read by a very smart guy, but with an anti-digital vibe running through it that really rubs me up the wrong way… I'd be interested to see your response to it…

  • dyscode

    first, nice article Peter,
    second I agree with hello.

    the mp3 discussion will very soon be obsolete.
    drive space is no longer an issue and more online labels
    selling uncompressed/lossless audio.
    I have my entire lossless music colletion on harddrive
    and fill my 8gb iPod in 20 seconds on the go.

    <cite>god forbid you need to actually choose to leave some of your collection at home when you leave the house</cite>

    I REALLY LOLed at this. Just Great!

    Another point I want to add is hifi does not equal hifi.

    e.g.: In the old Amiga day I was listening to a lot of MODs. Later I transported these
    to modern MOD player on newer Computers with better DACs. I was totally flattened because on the new higher end system the MODs sounded terrible.

    The obvious conclusion would be that the DACs of the Amiga are better.
    But the CORRECT conclusion is that the DACs of the AMIGA sound better
    because they were bad. Masking errors and frequency gaps and expanding on the
    actual harmonic content.
    Same is with analogue gear with a much wider
    tolerance for errors than digital system, where
    1 wrong bit can kill the entire track.

    And that´s the problem with all the people saying old hifi is better
    than modern hifi. In some way they are right, because modern hifi is much more
    prestine and revealing (also see: digital cold music) how bad recorded
    and mastered the original recording was.

    So while the conclusion may be right, the premises are wrong.

    And also digital recording started to move from ‘sounding aceptable’
    to ‘sound great’ no ealier than about 2003. Once for the technology
    to mature and then for most mixing technician and engineers to lear how
    to use it and see the difference to analogue mixing.

    so far my 2cents

  • Mal

    Great article Peter. This nails it

    As for 'loudness wars'…. mastering for radio has always been a challenge. Whatever dynamic range you leave in will be squashed by their limiters anyhow..

    I was recently attempting to master a CD with appropriate dynamic range..I had several fruitless google sessions trawling through 'loudness wars' articles online, not finding any actual practical guidance as to what RMS min and max, and what Peak levels would be 'appropriate' for this type of program material (meditation)

    Lots of these 'loudness wars' articles appear to be written by 'industry experts', too few written by mastering engineers willing to share the technical detail of what might be an appropriate dynamic range.

  • fudduf

    your claim of DVD having "better-than-CD audio quality" is simply incorrect.

    AC-3 and DTS both implement lossy compression. AC-3 in particular does not sound very good at all, and certainly not CD-quality. There's DVDA which is another story, but since you reference Netflix and VHS, i assume you are speaking about audio which accompanies consumer video. Blu-Ray eliminated this issue entirely.

    i don't agree with most of your other myths either, but i'm more concerned that using false information to support your argument is going to spread disinformation to other people who may decide otherwise.

  • Chris Thorpe

    My take on the loudness wars is that overcompressed CDs are intended to overcome high levels of background noise experienced either outside and wearing earbuds or while driving. Ideally CDs would be mastered with high dynamic range with the listener able to apply as much or little compression as desired. Suggested compression and eq settings could perhaps be included in the file metadata if a standard for doing so could be agreed.

    On the subject of surround sound, it's really only necessary to mention the great missed opportunity of Ambisonics. If only…

  • Hortron

    It could be that we've just gone through a tremendous in-home HDTV growth spurt and people are sitting back and taking stock at how much better their TVs look. When did this happen for audio? I'm not sure – either sometime in the 60s or 70s, or I think subtly in the mid to late 90s when the quality of commodity speakers was raised quite a bit.

  • The bit rate for a standard AC3 compressed multichannel DVD (5.1) is 448 kbit/s
    The bit rate for uncompressed stereo audio CD is 1411.2 kbit/s

    Anyway, I read the comments at the Lifehacker post referencing the NYT article and was appalled by the conflated issues, half-truths and general confusion.

  • I love discussions of "fidelity", as it's often a thin mask for "subjective quality". I'm glad to see some historical examples being wrangled in to the discussion, if not numbers and listening tests.

    "…they know how to shape music for the worst-case scenario listening environment…"

    @Peter: Reminds me of an interview with Madlib, saying he mixes on iPod earbuds.

    "…eliminate tones which are themselves inaudible, masked in the normal perception of music…"

    @Peter: it would be great if everyone heard things the same way, but the specifics of MP3 and AAC style perceptual compression are constrained by a host of non-universal ideologies — Brandenburg, Fraunhofer, decades of psychoacoustics researchers, etc. Check out section 5.7.1 of the article you linked to: he says there are "some hints" that we can perceive complex sounds above 16 kHz, but that the "full scientific proof has not been given". Then: "it is a good encoding strategy to limit the frequency response of an MP3 or AAC encoder to 16 kHz (or below if necessary)."


    (There are some MP3 encoders that respond to this by allowing you to calibrate against your own listening ability, using that as the perceptual model for measuring psychoacoustic entropy during the encoding process.)

    "…music blaring out of a cellphone…"

    @Dan: Hi 🙂 I've heard this too, and it amazes me. We should collaborate on an album specifically targeted at blaring cell phones. You know, "Music for Cell Phones".


    @Renzu: in most listening tests, doesn't AAC perform at the same quality as MP3 with half the bitrate? So this means a 96 kbps AAC is perceptually transparent? I remember hearing 128 kbps AAC was supposed to be the limit.

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  • nick

    nice rant peter.

    i blame the CD and it's limitations of 44.1.

    will anyone dispute the CD sounding better than the same work on vinyl?

    certainly, subjective to perception and quality of gear and listening environment but impossible to argue for CD.

    conversely, anyone that says DTS-MA doesn't sound incredible is deaf. or perhaps the real culprit is the recent tendancy to record/mix/master completely inside the box and the decline of the usage of more musical 2"tape? that's where i'd start.

    and lastly, i think it's scary how little emphasis is placed on a treated room and properly placed "quality" gear with a specific listening position. most "audiophiles" i have worked with (yawn) rarely take this into account.

    as you eluded to peter, there are far too many variables and rarely are apples compared to apples.

    truly, i prefer vinyl, tubes and 2" tape(and solid engineering) but would never give up my ipod w/great 'phones and lossless files.

  • Greg

    Finally! Great article!

  • Hellgi

    "DVD: Typically AC-3 or DTS digital audio, better-than-CD audio quality"

    Wow… AC-3 is a compressed and lossy format, definitely not as good (both on paper and to the ear) than an audio CD!

  • R Pellegrini

    I have a slightly different take. IMHO, the iPod (with decent in-ear or headphone) system outperforms the phonograph-based hi-fi systems of old in quite a few ways, and would therefore be "higher fidelity".

    Signal to Noise and Dynamic Range – winner:ipod

    Total Harmonic Distortion – probable winner:ipod – tracking errors on phono cartridges would often cause significant distortion, among many other sources like overdriving speakers

    High Frequency response – winner:ipod

    Low Frequency response – for quantity, winner:hifi. for quality, winner:ipod (see next)

    Absence of excess reflected sound and room resonance problems – winner:ipod (or any headphone based system) IMHO this is actually a very big deal

    Midrange "coloration" – winner: it depends on the quality of the headphones vs. speakers

    "Being there" subjective elements – winner: hifi (IMHO headphones have an unreal in-your-head vibe)

    I would submit that even the best high-end hifi of today, installed in an uncooperative room can sound less pleasant to some listeners than the ipod. More so than in nearly any other conversation, "your mileage may vary".

  • I think this article is a good dissection of the NYTimes piece, which, in my opinion, really missed the point:

    Consumer sound systems are, by and large, terrible! The systems are either underpowered + expensive iPod docks, crappy computer speakers, bulky or outdated systems, or mobile phones (horror!).

    The iPod is not to blame — portable music experiences are very personal and clearly a tradeoff to enhance portability. MP3 fidelity is fine — anything at 192 kpbs encoding or better is practically the same as 44.1 / 16 bit .AIFF / .WAV .

    I don't think consumers are necessarily to blame either — the problem is that what is being offered is truly unappealing, terrible, and over-priced.

    This is what is hurting and devaluing music — it simply can't be enjoyed by the vast majority of consumers.

  • Okay, I'm cheating a *little* bit. The theoretical limit of DVD audio as encoded on video is 24-bit / 96 kHz. Yes, AC3 is a lossy format, but it's a pretty efficient one, and that means the claim isn't that far-fetched. Of course, in practice, DVDs often make sacrifices in order to cram more content on a disk, so this would have been more fair to say about the Blu-Ray than the DVD.

    "Sounds good" versus "sounds well"… no. Good is an adjective describing the subject (that which is sounding), not an adverb modifying "sounds." It's the same as saying something "looks good" or "feels good." Fixed the typo, though, with which I "looked pretty stupid." 😉

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  • Feral Hotdog

    But dude, audio and video have progressed at different rates. We've topped out a 24bit/196khz in prosumer audio, and yet, even professional video has a hard time keeping up with 4:4:4 video.

    This is the prosumer market, not the consumer market, but it carries over. Most people can't hear the difference between a CD and something of higher fidelity. But almost everyone can tell the difference between DV and HD video. So video made a 'progression' while audio 'stayed still'.

  • @Kyle McDonald: I was speaking from memory, since it's been a long time since I've actually checked. Seems like codecs have advanced a lot since the early/mid 2000s:

    Lower bitrates like 96Kbps is where newer formats (Vorbis, AAC, WMA) differentiate themselves from ye olde MP3.

  • Lots of good points here, folks; thanks!

    But yes, the more I read these, the more I want to know more about just what *we* can hear. Sure, it's easy to brush off what the unwashed masses may or may not be hearing. But it's an interesting question, whether – depending on content and encoding parameters – the pros, too, could be fooled by lossy compression in a double-blind test.

    Anyone looked through the methodology used by those tests? Care to comment?

    "The iPod is destroying music" discussion may get tired fast, but we're never going to run out of things to learn about perception and listening.

    And yes, I agree, as for the generational gap … I'd just like to know when the golden age was. I think, as the article points out, it is probably safe to say people aren't spending as much on home stereo equipment as they once did, and I don't doubt that listening methods have shifted. But that still discounts shoddy listening equipment 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, it says nothing about installed base (if in fact album sales and equipment sales peaked in the 90s and people still own that stuff), nothing about economic trends (in this country, there's a growing gap between rich and poor), and not nearly enough about what actual listening habits – not just purchasing habits – may be. These are all interesting questions, too.

    Has anyone seen stats on those details? (I assume they're out there somewhere.)

    Of course, your listening habits are also in your control. There's nothing stopping any of us from sitting and really listening to a whole album. I've never been so concerned about what The American People are doing so much as, you know, myself, personally. Do you still sit down and listen to an album, end to end? If not, why not?

  • Hey Peter.

    That was fun to read, thanks a lot! I edited it down a little and reblogged it at

    I hope this is in your intentions. If not, or if you feel "misedited", just drop me a line.


  • MrLemonhog

    As someone who recorded on and listened to cassette tapes for years, I say thank you MP3.
    I can put hours of hiss-free, (LP) crackle free music on a tiny little box with no rewinding or FForward. And my MP3 player never eats my music and spits out tape. You kids don't know how good you have it. Great article.

  • @JackFromOhio

    "The only point I’d like to make is that you used to be able to go to an appliance store and get a pretty good Stereo for a weeks’ wages (1975). Now you can’t buy a good stereo unless you go to a boutique audio store and pay 2 months’ worth of wages."
    On the contrary, I believe the opposite to be true. Adjusting for inflation and all that jazz–it can't be the case that in 1975 a pretty good stereo was $600, whereas today you need to pay $2,400 for a similar stereo!

  • People say that less money is being spend on audio gear, but…

    Like music gear, I also feel that stereos have been ramping up in cost-effectiveness over the years. I've heard a lot of low/midrange systems from the early and mid 90s(like NHTs that retailed for over a grand back in their day), and they don't hold a candle to what you can get for a grand from a modern speaker company like Paradigm or PSB or whatever. That's without adjusting for inflation, or without considering new resources like Craigslist where you can get loads of audio gear cheap.

    I remember PC speakers sounding like pure honk back in the mid-90s, even pricier 2.1 systems. Today's $50 2.1 Logitechs or Creatives don't actually sound that bad out of the box. I'm not that horrified by the reality that the majority of listeners are going to hear my music on them rather than on something like my studio monitors. Better that than what you could get for $50 back in 1994.

    Speaking of which… studio monitors have fallen in price rapidly. We're all familiar with that phenomenon.

    iPod earbuds suck, but not much more than the cheap portable headphones people have been using since there were cheap portable headphones. Cheap canalphones (or IEMs or whatever you want to call them) are a new phenomenon I think. I remember when you only had a few names like Etymotic making those (starting at $100). I heard a friend's Creative brand canalphones and they actually sounded alright next to my $150 Etymotic ER-4p, which originally sold for $300 before the flood of new players into the market.

    This is all anecdotal to the extreme, but I just don't buy it when people argue that hi-fi is becoming _more_ expensive and less accessible. A decrease in cost-effectiveness is the opposite of what technology does in any area. Computer-aided design & simulation has probably performed miracles in loudspeaker R&D. Dynamic loudspeakers are complicated beasts (cabinets/resonance issues, multiple drivers, phase issues, crossovers, bass reflex, horns & waveguides) and many articles discussing home hi-fi in the old days will reference electrostatic loudspeakers (i.e. speakers without cabinets & crossovers) as the state of the art back then.

  • PJ

    fantastic article! I'll take the fidelity of a 320k MP3 over a 45rpm any day!!!

  • a.m. gold

    Nice piece. I agree with your point about loudness re. radio. I cannot believe how awful music sounds on commercial radio: compressed at every stage of the digital audio chain from when it is ripped to their servers to when it goes through processing at the local station. The frequency range is a hair's width and today's FM sounds about like AM in the 70s. On the station I listen to most often in my car, the mids are boosted out of all reasonable range and there are almost no audible highs except for vocals. I know it's not my equipment because CD and even MP3 audio playback does not have those issues. Apparently being able to hear distortion is no longer a qualification for broadcast engineering at the national or local level.

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  • Kevin Connor

    Thanks for great piece, Peter. I agree that the drive to convenience does not necessarily imply a drive to low fidelity. We can have both, now.

    Sadly, though, we can't. I don't know about you, but my access to high quality music (by that I mean uncompressed CDs) is severely restricted compared to what it was a few years ago.
    When is the last time you saw a decent CD section in a Borders or Best Buy? iTunes doesn't sell lossless format music, and the classical websites that do have pretty scattered offerings.

    I love iTunes, and I have zero problem with downloading my music. I'm not hung up on physicality. I am hung up on access to uncompressed (data) music.

    My giant beef is that iTunes has killed off the CD, as a side effect, and the massive consolidation of power means that iTunes is my ONLY realistic source for legitimate, paid up music. Because iTunes doesn't do lossless, I am effectively shut out of buying high fidelity music. My choices are drying up. Good thing I picked up the Depeche Mode SACDs when I can still get a player.

    This is an economic issue, which has unfortunately become a fidelity issue. I no longer have the option of buying a CD, because all the CD stores have gone out of business. I don't blame iTunes, here. It's the record labels. They've lost the DRM war, but seem to be preventing lossless out of spite. The battle's over, guys. Those who want to steal, will steal. People like me are willing to pay for high fidelity content, and you (labels) are cutting off your noses to spite your faces.

  • Rich Costey

    On the loudness wars: corporatism, whilst being a easy target, isn't responsible. The truth is- and this you should know- is that until the early to mid 1990's mastering gear couldn't be pushed to make overs as easily and silently as it can now. I have the Weiss DS1 in my room and no matter how many red lights are blaring, it still sounds great. The technology to make albums this loud just didn't exist in the previous decades, and once producers and artists began to notice that some albums were louder than others, everybody wanted their albums to be louder. I mix and produce every single day and I can tell you that the request for louder masters almost always comes from the artist, not the label.

  • Very well written article and I agree with it completely. I used to be an "audiophile" refusing to listen to lossy encoded music, but I got much more pragmatic about it. Still, what I do not appreciate about the new generation is kids listening to music on their mobile phone speakers which sounds bad and annoying.

  • tony

    I have to say this why not advance to making music instead the typical stereo but more like Surround style, but then again not a lot of people have surround system to appreciate a song made in surround sound that would be the next step to innovating evolving music. I heard some artist has started this mission, but of coarse where are you going to play this sort of music live when it would be impossible to appreciated the spatial perception that you are falling into deep rich sound effects of a guy playing the trumpet and its going around the entire 7.1 system or better yet moving around in circles giving you like shit that trumpet sound is going around the entire circle.

  • as an engineer and musician for 40 years, i do think that while previous ways to hear music, [ie vinyl, cassettes, 8tracks! am radio and more] most of the time what we heard was lo fi. the riaa curve is not understood, as how records were played back to avoid surface noise.

    mp3 and aac are removing great amounts of bits to achieve file size. i still would love to hear the beatles remasters on a blu ray 24/96k playback, 16bit cds have issues too.

    and dont get me started on how bad ear buds are….

  • booml

    I really think that portable consumer devices for playing music (right from the car stereos and walkmans) are guilty of the "loudness war." It's definitely nothing new, but the iPod surely is part of it. The should have had compressors built into these things from the beginning.

    I hear a lot of otherwise good music that gives me a headache halfway into the album because of awful compression, especially on vocal tracks.

    As for the other points, I think digital audio fidelity went past numberwang at 44100 Hz/16 bit/Stereo. As much as my cell phone will produce high resolution pictures with the fidelity of a polaroid, my 192 000 Hz 24 bit sound card wont make a difference if someone is listening on their $100 stereo. No matter how many channels you throw in, I've had the best sense of spatial depth in recorded audio listening through a pair of stereo headphones.

    And who says these digital compression artifacts are even to be avoided? We've come to accept and adapt all kinds of coloration that is imposed by studio and mastering engineers and listening gear. We listen on our "warm" tube amplifiers, on the speakers with our favorite tone, or the headphones that give a little more oomph — what the artist did before the song was compressed to 192 kbit/s was already long lost in a range of obstacles.

  • re: "how the artist intended it to be heard"
    Not many comments about the "whole album" aspect, but here goes. I listen to whole albums only in the case of albums that are compelling. Artists seem content to stick one or two songs on an album of noise and whine that nobody wants the whole album. I didn't hesitate to pick up and listen to three albums of "Joe's Garage" because the ALBUM was compelling. And I am perfectly happy with the single of "Lady in Black" because the rest of the album just didn't compel me to listen, let alone buy it.

  • "I think it’d be hard to overstate just how sub-optimal real-world listening by real-world consumers can get."

    I can't begin to tell you how true that statement is.


  • CFlick

    Very much enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

  • As someone who masters audio for a living I can attest to the sad shoulder shrugness every time I have to reduce audio from full res even to 16/44.1k, let alone anything of lower "standard".

    Yes high bitrate AAC can sound ok (relative to the lesser options) yet, since when have fans of the visual arts been fine with visiting galleries to view framed low res jpgs with no option for anything better?

    How many non-tech "consumers" are even aware that their iPod supports full res wav or aif files – at no extra cost? But who's telling them?
    As professionals (and the artists who create the music) we've never needed to aim for a lowest common denominator.

  • An Active Listener

    I'm a bit confused. If a listener's taste in music is subjective, isn't it also possible that there is some level of oversight in testing audio fidelity by testing one genre against another? To me it seems that different genres reveal different results. For example, if the intent of a particular Classical recording is to re-create a live performance, I would think there would be a very different approach to its mixing/mastering than to that of a club floor destined House track or a Sgt. Pepper's. If the playback of various recordings from different genres are compared to each other on the same medium, isn't there also the possibility that the listener could be letting their musical biases interfere with their judgement?

  • Steven Sullivan

    The only point I’d like to make is that you used to be able to go to an appliance store and get a pretty good Stereo for a weeks’ wages (1975). Now you can’t buy a good stereo unless you go to a boutique audio store and pay 2 months’ worth of wages

    Nonsense. You can get an objectively *stellar* stereo (vanishingly samll distortion, dynamic range and frequency response beyond human limits) for a weeks' wages or less. Not counting loudspeakers, of course, which even in 'high end' systems are the most grossly inaccurate parts of a stereo system.

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  • Steven Sullivan

    I’m very disappointed in the lack of decent inexpensive widely available stereo and home theater systems. For example, in best buy everything is marketed towards base. Clarity, and high frequency are more difficult to find

    Nonsense. Again, do not confuse the performance of electronic gear, which nowadays is typically excellent at mass market levels, with the performance of electromechanical gear, i.e., loudspeakers, which has ALWAYS been the weakest link in a decent home audio chain.

    That said, loudspeaker technology and materials have advanced far enough that the performance of 'mass market' gear can far outstrip its equivalent from several decades ago.

    The most important factors for 'clarity' and 'high frequency' of home audio today are the recorded material itself, the loudspeakers, and the room acoustics. (Leaving aside the listeners' own age and high frequency hearing, of course.)

  • Steven Sullivan

    <blockquote cite="Everyone is listening music with crappy sounding ipods.">

    No, it's the the crappy ipod *headphones* (earbuds) combined with extreme dynamic range limiting.

  • Steven Sullivan

    "Sorry, Peter, but you miss the point. It’s not about formats, it’s how listening habits have changed over time. New generation doesn’t know how a good recording should sound. Everyone is listening music with crappy sounding ipods"

    No, it’s the the crappy ipod *headphones* (earbuds) combined with extreme dynamic range limiting

  • Jim Aikin

    "Do you still sit down and listen to an album, end to end? If not, why not?" Very seldom. I'm usually doing something else while "listening."

    A quick anecdote: About 30 years ago, when David Burge (not to be confused with David L. Burge) was writing the Contemporary Piano column for Keyboard, he and his wife were visiting Northern California, and ended up at my apartment after dinner. What struck me at the time was that when I put on an LP (hey, remember LPs?), they both sat quietly and LISTENED to it, all the way through the side. It was just a different response to recorded music than I or any of my musician friends had, then or since. David taught in a highly regarded East Coast conservatory, and I believe his wife did too. Does that tell you something about listening habits?

  • If you have ever listened to audiophile grade equipement you would have an understanding of the issue. Just because you cant tell a difference doesnt mean there isnt one, it sounds just like you dont have access to proper equipment and youve never heard what recorded music CAN sound like, so you wrote an opinion piece to justify your ignorance. You are just wrong.

  • Awesome post. A lot of solid points here. I don't have much to add to this because so much was covered but it was definitely worth the read!

  • quantize

    'Just because you cant tell a difference doesnt mean there isnt one'

    Actually, if you can't tell the difference, your point doesn't matter either.

    That doesn't make you 'right' either.

    Enough with the audiophile jihad snobbery..people make great records with 'inferior' equipment all the time. Where does that leave all that BS?

  • iPods may not be "to blame" but iTunes *is* to blame — selling that 128Kbps garbage. How can you not see that?

    Likewise, MP3s low-pass filter around 17KHz even at 320Kbps. That's decidedly mid-Fi — mediocrity glorified.

    The general lack of support for 24b is also a travesty. WMA is the only reliable format for this. FLAC and QT theoretically do 24b but it is inconsistently implemented and last I checked Apple removed 24b encoding from iTunes (thanks stevechokesondick!).

  • One should not conflate the similarly staggering but independent advances in technology and stupidity.

  • NXK

    Great stuff, though I would point out that a film being in 16:9 aspect ratio doesn't make it 'high definition', it's more the size of the negative that is important. All other things being equal, a 70mm negative is going to be much more HD than a 35mm one. Also, a bigger screen does not mean 'higher definition' it just means a bigger picture. As you increase screen real estate for a given size of negative, the more the film grain becomes apparent. A Super 8 print isn't going to magically become more crisp when shown on an IMAX screen.

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  • Lee Faulkner


    Well done. Great talking points for a drink with other audio friends!

    In terms of the past being "Hi Fidelity" I constantly hear music from the past on DVD's and BluRay used in movies, (often during credits where it's free of SFX and dialog) that sounds fantastic. I run and get my CD of the same tracks (original album CD's), play then on the same system and they sound blah in comparison. Then I just want the whole album in whatever form the movie track was remastered, remixed, retreated whatever. And it's not just a matter of loudness… the original CD's just don't sound as good. So in that respect I think the possibility of better fidelity is right here, right now!

    And besides … anyone want to compare the AAC/MP3 /ipod player to that cassette deck I trained my listening ears on! LOL!



  • nick

    in response to the question concerning whether or not i listen to an entire album:

    yes, when i have the time, i definitely love to get lost in one album. this makes me miss physical product even more as i like to look at album art during.

    i think the reason that many people don't is just the type of person you are and what is appealing to you.

    i can relate it to watching movies. i am constantly annoying friends because many people i know want to talk or exchange glances or whatever during the course of a film. i like to sit and watch uninterrupted til the end. (i even watch credits if it was good). most people are so distracted or used to sensory bombardment to concentrate on one thing.

    let's face it ipods were intended to be a part of the background while multi-tasking. generally, active listening is done on a more advanced system with speakers.

    lastly, i am tired of people harping on the crappy white headphones that come with ipods; apple assumes you are going to upgrade these "freebies". it's relevant to the product yet keeps their margins high. if you think they suck then get a better pair, if you don't you're one of those people i see in museums that spend all of 2.5 seconds looking at the paintings.

  • Actually, I think there's an answer to the White Earbud problem: help those you love. Give the gift of headphones.

    The issue as I see it isn't that people don't know better. It's that they *think* they don't know better, or think they don't deserve better. Maybe we're part of the problem.

    The truth is, the average listener can absolutely, positively tell the difference between the white earbuds of crap and something that's actually decent. But they're often overwhelmed by choice, and they haven't given their own ears the chance for a difference. So instead, compensating for the poor frequency response of the headphones, their tendency is turn up the headphones and damage their hearing. Bad.

    Odds are, at a perceptual level, the average person on the street has ears every bit as good as yours, with or without training. But they haven't given those ears a decent chance to hear different stuff.

    But I'd also question the notion that every listening experience has to be a high-fidelity one. Some of my fondest listening memories have been on poor car stereos with highway noise or, heck, even the windows open, or on a mono radio with a plastic housing I inherited from my parents. (and actually, some of those radios sound pretty good – another case of engineers overcoming poor theoretical specs)

    Look at it this way, and you begin to wonder if the real problem isn't the unwashed masses, but us so-called experts when we privilege our experience above the people for whom we're supposed to be making the music. If we think they'll be happier with better headphones, or anything else, we're probably right – we do have real expertise. So we should reach out to them.

  • Gavin@FAW

    Abit of perspective is also needed.

    Here is a youtube video probably recorded from a mono black and white video signal in the 60s of an hero of mine playing a traditional Irish song on the uilleann pipes. 250,000 views with not one mention of sound quality, only awe of the music. Kind of cuts through the argument abit.

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  • Rebecca

    The ipod and other portable music players are miraculous things. Formats like MP3 and AAC make music available and accessible in ways they never were before. Everyone agrees the earbuds are terrible (and I don't think this is a parenthetical point to the discussion, but there I go with the parentheses). This would not be a hot-button, recurring topic, if it didn't resonate with people though. There are folks out there convinced (whether rightly or wrongly) that they can tell the difference between lossy and lossless files and want the quality and flexibility of an open-source format even if it means the file sizes are larger and downloading is clunkier. If there is an audience, small though it may be, companies interested in serving it and increasingly cheap and easy storage space and bandwidth, I'm unclear as to why one would argue against it.

    Compressed formats are great for on-the-go listening and for most it is "good enough." So are all kinds of "good enough"'s in the world like Chryslers, polyester fabric and point-and-shoot cameras (I'm a fan of all of them). But if there is a market that wants a Cadillac, silk sheets or a professional grade camera, why should a company be criticized for fulfilling that need along with offering items across the quality spectrum.

    People who like the highest quality are always going to argue for it by saying "good enough" is just not good enough for them. I'm not defending the vitriol of any audiophile, and I do not believe compression is the "death of music," but I am defending the right of a company to offer something to serve that audience and, ultimately, the music itself.

    File this under: Can't we all just get along?

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  • Great post, Peter. I don't think it'll be enough to silence the quasi-journalism you've attempted to squash.

    While i do agree with you on most points, i deviate a little on the perceived lowering of standards with the advent of the mp3. When i see tween and teen cousins and their mp3 players, i always take a look to see what format they're using and what quality they gravitate towards. None of them have had a single 320kbps mp3, no FLACs, and very few 192kbps files — which is the point i really start to notice things being altered. I've asked them why they don't go for the better versions, and they have no idea of the variants and effects of the different kbps.

    If the consensus is that it's ok to have 160kbps mp3's as the standard out there, then yes… we've gone backwards. I would like to see all online distributors move towards 320kbps mp3's or better, and i think they will eventually. Even moreso, i would like to see lossless audio compression become standardized on every portable player, so nobody has to compromise.

    Yes ultimately choice is a great thing, but currently the choices are still a little limited and subject to ill-informed people ripping good music at bad bitrates.

    And don't even get me started on vinyl rippers…

  • @c. todd: yeah, but these were the same youngsters who in another age making dubs of dubs of dubs of tapes (or playing them until the metallic coating came off), and taping pennies to the cartridge of their phonographs to keep dirty albums on cheap turntables from skipping. It seems like the CD was the anomaly, if anything, just as it was in its sales surge.

    I think the MP3 "standard"is already 256-320k. (AAC is 192, but it's a more efficient format.)

    But yes, I don't see why quality can't improve. I think on streams, it has.

  • Rambodeish

    A great article exposing both poor journalism and poor research, and almost as interesting to read was the discussion afterwards where several great points were added by the pro's.

    The 'great unwashed' as you put it would mostly become instantly perplexed if you tried to lecture them about the quality of digital audio, and so it's easy to see why companies who stream and distribute music take advantage of this crowd by rolling out their standard file at lower quality; even if a minor percentage did notice the quality degradation, the majority wouldn't be able to explain what they were missing. And the suspicion would be raised with friends, who would almost certainly say they heard nothing wrong.

    Again, the Industry part of the Music Industry must be stressed, as one guy was saying they have accountants replacing A&R men now… So you can bet your granny that they'll be rolling out the least they can get away with, to cut distribution costs etc., etc.

    Here's the thing though – shouldn't we be expecting the best quality for our download or whatever? I mean if I'm paying out of my hard-earned cash to hear a band's material, I want the best quality reproduction of what they recorded not some cheap "lite" version of the art they created in the studio. I would prefer them to give me the best that's on offer, and if I fancy saving some space on my iPod, I'll convert and compress it myself – otherwise, should I want to immerse myself in the most pristine reproduction then I would have the opportunity to do that also. The only offering I've seen that's near this is the Beatles USB Apple, all the main albums in FLAC in 44.1kHz 24bit (not the utmost available but still) at £200, roughly 93p per track, which is on a par with some of iTunes' offerings of a poorer quality.

    Thankfully, in my case the white iPod buds decided their own fate, by not fitting in my ear.

  • @Rambodeish – Occasionally I'm noticing certain labels (or artists that release on Bandcamp – which offers alot of format options for DLs) will release MORE via a digital format than you could get otherwise, which was the point i was trying to get at but never made it to in my last comment haha:

    (@Peter) Bandwidth is plentiful and the internet is quite capable; if anything an internet distribution model that really takes advantage of the medium will be raising the standards for which you can experience any kind of music. I believe the format of the long-play will continue to contort, wonderfully as artists that already make the bulk of their material on computers to start building whole releases. The mp3 standard, though wonderful in its right, is a stepping stone to where the musical medium is heading.

    I hope kids a few generation from now can just get a laser beamed into their eyes and experience more than most live shows can give you now, both audibly and visually.

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  • pob

    Interesting post.

    One thing to put into the equation is the recording technique and how the compression (analogue-type or algorithms) will influence the perception.
    I work with stereo mostly, in the 2-mic sense of the word. Compressions, either analogue or algorithmic/lossy have a great influence on the depth perception. The two treatments are very different and what they affect is technically different too. Lossy compression may not change the audible sound, but it can affect the more subtle elements that are involved in stereophonic perception.
    Analogue compression disrupts the balance between the different frequencies and wrecks the depth of the sound as well.
    This is less true for multitrack recorded music with close micing, mixing and postprocessing.
    Not all types of music, sounds and recording techniques give the same impression through these processes.

    Personally I find compressed music, of either breed again, more tiring to listen to than uncompressed music. I find it harder to concentrate with compressed music than uncompressed. There's an impression that me music is lacking some sort of air/space. I like to listen to music, but when it's compressed I usually feel like turning it off.

    One question regarding listening habits is why people need to listen to music constantly, most of the time just to cover silence or any background noise.

    A couple of years ago I made some French speaking, young, art students listen to a Glenn Gould documentary (The Idea of North) it had been ages they hadn't stopped doing something while listening. It could have even been a new experience for some. Quite a few felt bored and unable to concentrate on listening.

  • jamieh

    Couple things –
    The D/A in a current Apple product ( Iphone 3GS or Ipod Touch) is a very good sounding part – the compression (dynamic or lossy) is the limiting factor. MacBooks sound great.

    I totally disagree with the premise that audio quality for the consumer is good enough – tho not for the reasons in the NYTimes article – the take-out is correct. But the AAC doesn't sound anything like the 96/24 original. and neither does the CD, and the CD is harder to get than ever before, so yeah, the best audio quality is still out of reach because of lowest-common denominator needs like download convenience and portability. Pray for 96/24 HD downloads – I saw Gorillaz at Coachella and I know what their live synths sound like through a great digital Midas board and L Acoustics playback at high volume 96/24 and the ITunes download is pale by comparison.

    Comparing to a transistor radio is silly.

    One thing I agree on – an 256 mp3 is a helluva lot better than a cassette or a VHS tape. So the average consumer has a whole lot better portable fidelity than we did with Walkman.

    Want to bitch about something? Sirius radio is so compressed it sounds like ass.

    Last point – dynamic range in mastering is on the rebound – wait for the new LCD Soundsystem – TONS of real dynamic range.

  • Hmm

    Audio quality is nice, but FFS there's a point of diminishing returns. When I put in a CD and play it on my stereo, I'm listening to the music, not the speakers. Shut your mouth and dance! 90% of the people who think compressed audio is atrociously inferior to uncompressed couldn't tell the difference in a double-blind test.

    As for the quality of video:

    Your blog has a new subscriber. 😀

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  • Producer

    When I began making records we knew that the majority of our listeners would enjoy our work on vinyl played through some sort of reasonable quality system. A minority would buy the cassette version only and a larger percentage would buy both. But MOST would get to hear our art the way we intended.

    When CD's arrived those percentages shifted in favour of the new formatt but as music makers we still knew that the MAJORITY of our listeners would continue to enjoy our work through a signal path of reasonable quality and thus all those hours of sweating over the details of the production would actually be heard and STILL make a difference.

    Today we, as makers of music, can no longer have any such peace of mind that the listener's experience of our work is going to, in any way, resemble what we intended.

    That is the sad, unavoidable, undisputable reality for our industry. We, the artists, have completely lost control of how our art is presented and that, to me, is the real heart of the problem. All the science in the world will not convince me or many, many other Producers, Mix engineers, Recording engineers, Mastering engineers and, most importantly, many, many musicians that the present plethora of new formatts available are in any way acceptable alternatives to where we have come from.

    Mp3 does not deliver an equally enjoyable experience as CD or Vinyl. Bottom line. Screw the science. Until we sort the mess out, make Hi-Res audio readily available again, we are short changing ourselves and our listeners. And our listeners WILL allow us to educate them but right now we have abdicated this responsibilty to Apple Corp. Suckers!

  • kj

    this is a good taking down of the NYT article but again, kirn seems hellbent on defending digital EVERYTHING at all costs. i would much prefer to read an article from someone who doesn't have quite so clear-cut of an agenda. but it's his blog, so what do i really expect right? i get that…btw, costley is right about the "loudness wars" and mastering and it brings up an interesting point to me that kirn seems to ignore and that is just because you CAN do something with technology, SHOULD you do that? the "loudness wars" is a PERFECT example of that…

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  • William Norman

    Why no mention of the advent of Hi-Fi audio track in the section about VHS?

  • Greg

    Every "Myth" stated here is still a fact. The article did not disprove anything, only saying "Lord of the rings sounds good". MP3 and AAC still sound worse than CD, a 28 year old format now.

  • Music Lover

    This article was nothing more than a group hug for MP3 users. The article disproved nothing. MP3s do not match CD quality, period, end of story.

  • Bill Z

    I'd probably agree with 85-90% of this article. I've read scores of articles addressing the loudness wars, but don't remember more than couple placing the blame on iPods. It is a major issue in my book and I place all blame with artists. They usually aren't audiophiles and many suffer from tinnitus. When comparing a dynamic mastering to a limited brickwalled version, the latter is almost always chosen as sounding "hotter".

    The main topic I would strongly counter is the statement "But at a certain point [in lossy encoding], you no longer perceive anything missing". That is true for me with my current system and 99.9x% of the population, but on a high end system it is easy for me to correctly discriminate between a high bit-rate MP3 source and a lossless source.

    The market has driven the quality of music to where it is today. The masses have always treated their purchases as disposable except in the late 80s when the choice to buy a CD carried a surcharge.

  • Maarten Aerts

    Nice reading, the comments too!

    When the first CD's were being tested, i didn't like it. You could hear all the unwanted background noises like traffic outside the studio (classical music), noisy amplifiers (the rest) etc.
    Then they came in final production, and i got a Chuck Berry recording.
    50's recordings, prehistoric.
    They were always cheap ultra low quality vinylalbums, and now there was this cheap CD.
    It sounded better as my own studio albums released on LP, let alone on cassette. Shocking. Dynamics, placing of the musicians, different amplifiers….
    No need to say all of my (amateur) musician-friends bought those expensive but amazing machines within a few months. (musicians and

    That's when we realized that good audio depended on the entire chain of : musicians, soundengineers, studio-(and its equipment), than the media it was cut, taped or burned on. Radio was always really low quality anyway.

    On my own Denon hifi system with specially designed speakers, i can hear the difference between mp3 and real audio very well, also the difference between the George Martin and the latest Beatles boxsets. (Thank you guys) On the really high-end audiosystem of a friend of mine (read a years wages) it is very clear you should not use mp3…
    (Afterwards can't listen to my own set for a few days for that matter-sound to bad all of a sudden 🙂 )

    Don't worry, i can also really enjoy a 1911 recording of Beethoven, or anything what is musically good but not hifi…

    And of course, an ipod, walkman, minidisc, were intended to use while you were doing something else.

    The iphone earbuds: if you need better sound you have to pay more. I'v not yet found cheaper earbuds that sound better.
    Luckily ($$) my kids are at the age (15-20) they don't care about soundquality, as long as it's their own music. (And that is also the answer to why young people don't care about mp3-128 or 350 –remember your own puberty!)

  • The iPod is not the cause of the loudness war, which accelerated in the 1990s. But when your music player is portable, you often want the music to mask the sounds around you. If a large part of the market is listening in cars or noisy cafes, additional compression may be useful. However, the players are perfectly capable of doing their own compression; there's no need to master to the lowest common denominator and squash the music for everyone.

    My recent AES paper discussed this in more detail. It's not available yet on the AES website, but a video based on the slide presentation is at .

  • Jeffrey Wagy

    The notion that an MP3, wma, or any other form of compressed digital audio is as good as a CD is beyond absurd. Anybody with any listening experience can tell the difference on even a decent system. Conversely the quality of high bit-rate digital audio (24/96 or higher) is immediately evident on even the poorest of systems. Of course if your recording exhibits only 6dB of dynamic range this is a moot point…

  • photohounds

    Like most people who actually listen to music, rather than have it to accompany some other activity, I can easily distinguish the compressed aac/m3s mp3 (etc) formats from the real thing.

    All you have to do is concentrate on what you're hearing and it jumps out at you, usually within seconds.

    Compression and bandwidth limitation, no matter how cleverly executed do squeeze 'life' out of music, but they can make playback equipment much cheaper and in some cases more practical.
    Having stuck up my hand for real quality, and having all my CDs on HDD in a full quality format or FLAC compression at worst, I often yearn for a car player that can variably compress the music to get over road noise!

    But … is it possible that the best quality is not always the most appropriate quality and ARE there times when a little 'squish' means you get to hear the music over something else?
    In my opinion yes.

    The carping comments above, referring to the Hi Fi "experience" in the article, may be more about a matter of taste or unfamilarity with really good sound or a reluctance to partake in it.
    To 'busy' maybe? If you don't listen to music with IT as your primary focus you will never hear a differece.
    In that case there IS no difference between compressed formats and quality audio – TO YOU and you don't NEED a quality sound system.

    Similarly with camera equipment, many smartphone users are completely happy with their pictures.
    It is they who must be happy with the result, not me!

  • photohounds

    To follow up for those interested … this link represents a researched and annotated dissertation on this subject. Excessive compression is like all caps text – I like this discussion in the text. Read here –

  • François Wizzu Marchand

    Exceptional article. Sensible sound standing out of the Internet noise. Pun intended of course. Kudos!

  • François Wizzu Marchand

    Exceptional article. Sensible sound standing out of the Internet noise. Pun intended of course. Kudos!

  • François Wizzu Marchand

    Exceptional article. Sensible sound standing out of the Internet noise. Pun intended of course. Kudos!