Let’s premiere our techie part of the site and start with a really interesting topic, at least for me: Why is mp3 bashed so much?
Several times I’ve been indulged into this conversation when I see people going low on storage and the main culprit being them downloading only lossless formats (most frequently flacs). Of course, there is no doubt that any lossless format is superior to the compression counterpart, but is the mp3 suffix such a bad thing nowadays, and if yes, why?
I come with a semi-audiophile background and the stance on whether people can actually spot any difference between an mp3 and a lossless format of the same track is very divided. Some claim that very fine and extra details can be spotted on the lossless format, and lots of DJs and artists tell me that when playing the tracks in a club and on a big system the difference is immediately noticeable, especially in the bass segment.
This is interesting tho as the .mp3 compression works at the high-end part of the spectrum, meaning that it cuts off anything above a certain KHz range all depending on the kbps rate quality the mp3 is converted to. A variety of bitrates exist, from 64kbps upto 320kbps but I believe that anything above 192kbps can be considered good enough for casual listening.
…anything above 192kbps can be considered good enough for casual listening.
If mp3s are inferior to their lossless counterpart in a club, I really cannot say. What I can say tho is that the biggest reason mp3s or any other comparable compression format fails to deliver in the music-oriented people is because of the various of decoders and sources of those files themselves.
🏴☠️ First: Illegal mp3s
The first culprit is this. Illegal mp3s are often misleading, using low quality converters and even upscaling the bitrate thus faking the actual quality. What this means is perhaps you have a 128kbps mp3 converted again into 320kbps, and you ending up with a garbage sounding compressed file.
Many users experience this when they think they’re downloading 320kbps mp3 with online converters from YouTube. Even if you upload a video with the highest mp3 quality possible on YouTube, they will downscale it to 192kbps, I believe. So when downloading 320kbps with these converters, it’s true that the file you’re downloading is in fact 320kbps, but if YouTube limit is 192kbps then there is 128kbps of blank emptiness consuming space, and giving zero in quality.
The best solution is of course not to pirate and get the music from artists themselves. On Bandcamp you have an option to download a lossless file and converted files that consume less space that are done professionally within their servers.
If, let’s say, a piece of musical content is not available for purchase, or you just have lossless files of it (CD/etc), you can use a quality decoder. I use XLD on my system, and these are the settings that I use to get the best sounding mp3 file.
With a quality converted mp3 file, its almost impossible for me to hear the difference in most of the releases I have. On some I can say that there is some spaciness and details more with a lossless format, but that is only when I’m listening with my monitors and beefier amp. On most of the gear there is none of a difference whatsoever, and even that difference I’m claiming to hear may be just placebo effect, or mp3 decoder not being able to perfectly do its job in that particular case.
But does all this fuss connected with mp3s mean that they’re crap and we should all go lossless? Well, not really. My suggestion is for you to download lossless and then try converting the mp3s by your own with a respectable decoder such as XLD or any open-source Windows counterpart. Do not pay for those crappy converter tools online, the best ones are open source and free.
Second: How do I spot bad mp3s?
The main proof is the spectrum viewer, you can load any suspicious sounding mp3 into a spectrum analyzer tool, and if it doesn’t go up to 20KHz then something fishy is going on. In the case above you can click on the “Bad 320kbps mp3” to see only that the spectrum cuts at around 16KHz which is equivalent to 128kbps.