According to recent figures, today’s generation of young music fans are moving away from downloads in favour of streaming; figures compiled by the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) shows music streaming services grew by 65% in 2014, while revenue from music downloads in the UK declined by 15%. It’s clear that the internet has had a noticeable impact on our lifestyle and, in particular, how we listen to music. As music records have evolved over the years, from vinyl, to CD, to MP3, what impact has this had on audio quality? And, perhaps more pertinent, does it really matter?
Vinyl – outdated or retro?
For the 90s child, it seems vinyl and high end audio technology has largely become associated with DJs and audiophiles, but even the best DJs’ music is ultimately compressed into MP3 files for quick and easy consumer download.
According to the stats from the Official Chart Company, it seems there’s still a hunger for real high quality audio, with sales of vinyl records hitting an 18 year high last year. More than one million vinyl records were sold in the UK by November in 2014 - the first time the milestone has been achieved since 1996.
While vinyl is experiencing resurgence, it’s still the super-compressed MP3 files that continue to dominate. Vinyl may still be regarded as the Holy Grail of audio, but it comes with its own disadvantages, mainly its bulk, fragility and inconvenience, which are the very reasons MP3 became so popular.
The case for digital
With instant access to our favourite artists, and more music than ever before available just a click away, is there any wonder that internet streaming services are the first port of call? The importance of ownership is being displaced in the industry by accessibility, a point which TechRadar’s Duncan Geere explored recently. The trend towards streaming has been growing and shows no sign of stopping, but it also means that today’s generation of music listeners are more accustomed to listening to compressed MP3 files via YouTube, smartphones or even straight from their laptops.
Quality Vs Quantity
Currently, when recordings are compressed into a convenient file format, i.e. for streaming and downloads, some of the clarity and resolution of the recording is lost. Not only is the track compressed in size (and information) to make it fit onto an MP3 file, an audio technique called “amplitude compression” is often used to squeeze more volume out of the recordings. Unfortunately, this often removes the dynamics from the track and causes what’s called “audio clutter”. The songs aren’t actually louder - just dynamically flatter; the loud parts and the quiet parts have the difference between them reduced so the average amplitude is increased, which makes the overall volume of a track appear higher.
How technology is reminding people how music should be heard
Audio engineers across the world are developing an alternative way to deliver music as it was meant to be heard and the way the artist originally intended. High end audio is essentially about the ability to reproduce the fidelity of the original artist’s recording.
There have been a few signs, which have sparked hope that true quality audio may be set to stage a comeback. For example, Meridian Audio’s MQA, which promises to deliver studio quality “high res” audio via everyday speakers and headphones, with a downloadable and fully compatible file. Potentially, this could mean that the everyday music fan would not only have easier access to better quality audio, but that high res quality could become the norm. Instead of the music industry making everything both smaller (for download convenience) and louder (to compete in the mass market) the real differentiator will be quality.