Digital Audio Compression – a little more insight

For those who don’t work in the field, digital audio coding, and the associated practice of compression, can be mysterious and confusing.  For now i want to avoid the rat’s-hole of high definition and simply assume that most music – whether you think its great or awful, is recorded in CD quality.  By the way, CD quality can be pretty darn good, although it often is not.  but that’s the fault of recording, mastering etc.

The basics of CD quality are that it is:

— 2 channels

— 44,100 samples per second

— 16 bits per sample (meaning 2 to the 16th power shades of musical gray, or about 64000)

Multiply all this out and you have 1.411 Mbps plus overhead in “RAW” format, no compression.

As audiophiles, many of us have a low opinion of compression. We have heard 128 kbps MP3s on our iPods and pronounced them unacceptable.  That is true, but it’s also misleading.  Why?

  1. Its more than 10:1 compression!  That’s a lot.
  2. most of us hear these on poor quality internal DACs and amplifiers, via the analog jack.

But let’s get back to compression.  First, there are two kinds of compression, lossless and lossy. Lossless does not change the digital data one “bit”.  A good example is a ZIP file which makes your excel spreadsheet (or whatever) smaller but preserves all data.  This is done by mathematics that eliminates redundancy (like stings of zeros) or other methods of coding the data – without removing anyLossy formats on the other hand, DO remove information, and therefore musical accuracy. Some algorithms are better than others; MP4 (AAC) is about twice as efficient as MP3 for example.

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) are the dominant lossless systems. Each can compress CD audio “about” 2:1, or to ~ 768 kbps.  It depends on how much redundancy exists int he the music and may be larger or smaller – after all it LOSSLESS – not driven to some arbitrary design speed.  When the process is reversed you have CD audio, no more, no less.  It should be sonically transparent. Although some claim to be able to hear it, this is unlikely. Most probably they are hearing something else, or imagining a difference. I cannot hear the difference on a VERY revealing system.

AAC (m4a or MP4) and MP3 dominate lossy compression.  Each can operate at many speeds, from 96 kbps (total, both channels) to 384 kbps or in special circumstances even more.  MP3, by far the worse, is most often used because it is the “least common denominator” — supported by everything.  We lose.  The important thing to realize is that there is a HUGE difference between 128 kbps MP3 and 384 kbps MP3 in terms of quality.  At 384 its only 2:1 compression beyond what can be achieved with ALAC or FLAC.  And i have heard great recordings in m4a at 384 kbps sound superb – try “Ripple” on for size if you doubt me, but do it on a great digital system (i played it on iTunes, MacBook Pro, BitPerfect (a $10 app), USB, galvanically isolated USB, re clocked to nano-second jitter, into a franken-DAC that began life as a MSB Full Nelson, with 96 kbps up-sampling.

I am not arguing that compression is desirable in high end – only that it needs to be understood in a broader context.  In fact, i plan another blog in which I’ll share some findings when i was working with the JPEG and MPEG standards groups (when employed by Bell Communications Research Inc., aka “Bellcore”) and related projects in the late 1980s and early 1990s – with some really surprising results.

In short, i find the poor recording and mastering practices evident especially in many rock/pop recordings, and more than a few classical recordings, to be far more detrimental and nasty sounding than relatively might AAC compression. Ditto the effects of jitter on the digital signal (see my existing blog on the evils of jitter).

Digital is complex. It is frustrating.  And yet it is misunderstood, and very early in its development.  I believe it has huge potential if we clear away the confusion and focus on finding solutions to the real problems.  So rip your stuff lossless. If you have to compress, dig into the expert settings (they are there in everything from iTunes up) and rip at least at the highest speed setting. Hard drives are cheap – enjoy the music.


CEO Sonogy Research, LLC

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