Tuesday, July 06, 2004

iTunes selling low sound quality MP3s?

Everyone knows that the MP3 file type popularized music downloading and CD ripping because it is a compressed version of the original, meaning you can fit lots of them on your harddrive or download them quickly. Compression is a fact of life when it comes to music being used on a computer, because of current bandwidth and harddrive limitations. This doesn't bother most people, certainly when you rip a CD you can set the program that is doing the ripping to record the songs at a bit rate that is high enough that the average listener can't tell the difference between the CD and the MP3. However, if you buy the MP3s from iTunes it may be so low quality that the difference is audible.

Customers [of iTunes] are led to believe that they are getting a CD in all respects except the trouble of going to the mall. The iTunes store does not warn about the permanence of its method of compression; once freeze-dried, there is no way to reconstitute the music into CD quality for playing through a good stereo.

Ah, for simpler times, when we never had reason to look up the bit rate at which music is digitally sampled for CD's: 1,378 kilobits per second. The bit rate for iTunes, 128, is so low that when played side by side against the original, the difference is audible not only to audio enthusiasts, but also to mortals with ordinary hearing. Wes Phillips, contributing editor at Stereophile, says "128 is like an eight-track," and he describes the combination of iPod and iTunes as "buying a 21st-century device to live in the 1970's."

So, if you plan to use the music you buy from iTunes on your home stereo instead of the tinny earbuds you get with the iPod, it may well sound like crap. Tech Law Advisor thinks this sounds like the litigation over the PC harddrive size claims, that it is nitpicky and ridiculous. I have to disagree, I play my music on various systems, and although I'm no audiophile, if I buy MP3s from iTunes then I want ones that sound decent at least. Bringing a lawsuit over this would probably be frivolous though. I have never purchased from iTunes, if you have let me know what you think of the sound quality.

NYT article here. Via Tech Law Advisor.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Erm, there is a difference between sounding shit, and being acoustically transparent. Transparent of course means you can't tell the difference between it and the original.

AAC at 128 is pretty listenable. It sounds better than MP3 at the same bit rate on virtually every sample too.

Sounding shit is when the music sounds so different, and so distorted, and so rough that it disrupts the listening experience.

iTunes songs might not sound IDENTICAL to the originals, but they are more than GOOD ENOUGH to be enjoyable. And your most likely going to have to 1) Compare it with the original 2) Know what you are listening for and 3) Listen to the encoding not the music (much like listening to the equipment your using, rather than whats coming out of it.) Personally I dont expect every MP3 I play for errors so I can lambast their source for distributing an inferior product at every oportunity. However I am probably not representitve of the average joe consumer with his sub $500 stereo, or even worse computer speakers, who of course knows exactly what terms like fluttering and wow (yes i am aware thats a tape term) and high frequency cut off and even frequency response are.

This post makes you look stupid, why? Because you haven't actually attempted to inform yourself on the topic. 5 minutes with Google will tell you that 128 AAC is perfectly acceptable for general music listening purposes. Use your brain.

7/08/2004 2:19 PM  
Blogger CRC said...

The vast majority of people who get songs from iTunes get and use MP3s (as most people use PCs and not Apples). The MP3s are apparently very low quality. This comes from the New York Times, which I trust more than an anonymous commentor.

Inform myself on the topic? I can find half a dozen sites (including iTunes) right now that would say that an MP3 or an ACC file at 128 is adequate for most listening.

What I'm saying is this: if I'm paying as much for music as it costs on iTunes (which is ofen similar to the price of buying the CD) I want better quality music than 128.

7/08/2004 5:33 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Well, one other arguement I'd like to offer on the subject:

When you buy tracks from iTunes, you can listen to a 30-second preview. The 30-second preview is using the exact same compression as the downloaded file, and therefore shouldn't you be able to decide when previewing it if you want to spend 99 cents on that type of sound quality or not? Why complain about the final sound quality of something you're buying if you were offered a preview of it in the first place?

Personally, I don't think I would buy from the iTunes Music Store (even if it were available in Canada) just because I wouldn't own a physical copy of music that I've paid for, and that irks me. Although I suppose it's much better than some services out there that take all of your music back when you cancel your subscription.

7/17/2004 3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an iTunes user. because for one im getting an iPod MINI, and two, its a nice interface to organize ur music. im a Windows XP PC user by the way. also a tech professional.

first of all when u purchase a song on iTunes its only 99 cents per track and 9.99 for a standard album. when u download a song. u get it in the M4P format. which is a protected mpeg format. which will only play in iTunes. if u want it on ur iPod u have a choice of either encoding it to AAC or MP3. u all know that when converting audio. you will lose some quality. now the nice part about AAC is that you get more or less the same quality of an mp3 at a 128 bitrate but with a bit more clarity and smaller file size. I say if ur trying to find a hard to find song or album and its on iTunes , then its worth the purchase.

I live in a small town, so im quite limited to the music available to me at a retail store. so i use iTunes. if u want to give a shot, u can for FREE. by using PAYPAL as ur way of payment. and u get 5 free song credits. with those 5 free song credits u should download 5 songs wether u own the original CD or an MP3 of it already. u should do a comparison thru the PC. see how that pans out. then burn ur purchased music with iTunes to a CD (yes iTunes is a burning rom as well) and start comparing from the original CD to ur iTunes CD.

I mean compared to other legal downloading websites. iTunes is a good media player with a built in store.

i do agree though, in that for a 128 bit rate that 99 cents per song is just not very fair. they should at least give u a choice of like 65 cents for 128 and 99 cents for the highest possible bitrate.


1/15/2005 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have been using itunes for a while now and find the concept of it great. My main concern is that the sound level seems to be a lot lower than all MP3 downloads etc. Currently I am having to burn the tracks to CD, rip them and then use Wavelab to normalise them to make them a similar level to all my other music. It's so annoyingm as I really like the idea of listening and downloading stuff. The quality of the downloads (appart from the above) I am fairly happy with. It's not great, but it's compressed so you can't complain. Anyone else have trouble with this or is it just me? Part of me thinks Apple have done it so you only download their stuff and get an ipod.

7/02/2007 12:18 PM  
Anonymous jc said...

"Part of me thinks Apple have done it so you only download their stuff and get an ipod."

No kidding!

8/16/2007 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm profoundly hard of hearing and I can tell the difference between a song bought from iTunes and one from just about anywhere else, like YouTube.

ITunes sound quality is so bad that at first I thought I was buying completely different songs than what I thought, or from the wrong albums, or remixes. It took me a while and a bit of googling before I figured out about the encoding and bit rates and now I'm just sitting here, stumped, trying to figure out why HEARING people are buying this stuff.

How can anyone say this stuff is "good enough"? Don't you want the best version of a song when you listen to it? Amazing.

10/08/2007 1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i tunes sound quality is good and clear. Easily compares to a CD.

12/10/2007 1:58 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Easily compares to a CD? That's laughable. The bit rate of CD audio files is more than 10 times highger than AAC files. I can't imagine that anyone couldn't hear the difference.

I suppose that the AAC and MP3 formats are good and clear enough for play on an iPod, but that's about it. I've played them through my car and home stereos and the bass is muddy and the treble muffled. I'm sticking with CDs for now.

1/20/2008 5:25 PM  
Anonymous s. m. said...

I didn't know that 128 bitrate was so much lower than CD. What is the CD bitrate?

I have iTunes and I'm dissapointed with it. Its not immediately apparent when listening to it but after a while it becomes clear that the mp3s (or m4as ? I assume basically the same) lack a certain warmth and fullness that one would get from a CD. Basically, theres something missing. Its not really noticable consciously to me but whatever part of me usually responds to music feels unsatisfied and this results in irritation.

Niel Young gave an interview a while back where he was concerned that CDs don't even give the same analog quality as records and that we were loosing frequencies that the body naturally responds to in music. Well, CDs sound fine to me but the same effect happens when I go from CD to iTunes.

I don't get this effect when using .ogg format files. So I recommend 2 things: only buy from iTunes when you need a rare song, and instead buy CDs and rip them to .ogg format or a higher bitrate mp3 (if you need to play them on iPod). There are also online music stores that offer higher bitrate downloads.

There are also codecs available that are 'lossless' ie exactly the same as a CD but with smaller file size than a CD, among them .flac.

iTunes has plugins to play all these formats.

9/20/2008 2:46 PM  

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