[This is a slightly edited version of my recent piece for DJBroadcast.fm...]
Consider this: a “high-quality” 320kbps MP3 file represents 22% of the quality of a WAV file.
As a crude comparison, that’s like watching a 240p video on YouTube through a full-HD TV compared to watching it at 1080p. What’s the point of buying expensive audio equipment - speakers, headphones, club soundsystems or otherwise - to listen to music through if the music you are listening to on it is a low-grade facsimile of what its supposed to sound like?
One step forward, two steps backwards
The regression of sound quality from CD to MP3 - or indeed from vinyl to MP3 (or vinyl to CD, some might argue) - is a rarity in technological terms. In pretty much every other form of consumer technology - mobile phones, TVs, gaming consoles - the overarching trajectory is one of improving quality of experience. As music made its transition from a mostly physical product to a mostly digital one, the limitations of the early internet and computing technology of the era meant that convenience was chosen in favour of quality. Low bandwidth, low speeds, expensive hard disk storage; they all made MP3s a logical choice.
And while Apple and co. made the right choice in jumping on the digital music bandwagon as soon as they felt they had a viable business model in place, it plunged us into a nomansland which will be looked back on as a curious blip in the timeline of audio quality. Now that most of us have decent internet connections and 500GB hard drives come as standard on laptops, why are most of us still choosing the convenient option? Do you really need ALL of those 10,000 MP3s you’ve got on there anyway?
Spot the difference
There are those who say “barely anyone can tell the difference” between an MP3 and a WAV when played side-by-side. But as Tony Andrews said in his TED Talk last year: “you pick all of this stuff up - whether you are conscious of it or not.” As well as a loss of low level harmonic content (subtleties that enrich the frequency range of a track and give it “character and charm”, as he says) of up to -30dB, there’s a loss of dynamics due to the vastly more compressed nature of MP3s compared to WAV. You might not notice it, but you will both feel it and subconsciously hear it.
“A soundsystem is only as good as its chain of events”, Andrews noted in that talk, and that’s about as succinct as you can get. The average club soundsystem has come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade. Mixers, CDJs and DJ software soundcards have all improved their audio quality - yet the average quality of the source material we’re putting through this expensive equipment has fallen.
Speaking with Tony now, he continues to echo those thoughts he expressed so passionately during his lecture. What’s his riposte to those who think you can’t tell the difference between an MP3 and a WAV? “This of course may be true for some people. However, it is more likely that the audio chain on which the comparisons have been made is flawed in some way and can be anything from the loudspeakers to the file player and this is masking the difference. I would say that it is hard not to notice the difference in bass impact. DJs have a duty of care to their audiences and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want their bass to have less impact than it could have. Would consumers prefer real cheese or processed cheese?”
Do DJs care?
Forward-thinking DJ promo companies have been offering up WAV files to their DJs for a long time now, but it’s not the same case across the board. Some labels refuse to supply their promo teams with WAVs, worrying more about filesharing of these premium files than supplying their product at the highest quality possible. Some complain about server space, and that the percentage of DJs who ask for WAVs doesn’t justify the extra cost. “Most labels are still super paranoid about piracy and so sending out WAV packages is still considered a bit of a no no” says Adam Carter of Exclusive Promo, a company that services DJ promos for some of the biggest labels in house and techno. “To fully load up our delivery system with WAVs would take more time and server space and so on.“
The stats for DJs asking for WAVs is, perhaps, surprisingly low. Hype PR’s Jamie Russell puts it at “probably less than 5% of people on my lists” while Carter says “it’s still relatively small. I offer WAVs as 'available on request' and at the moment we do have a regular core of DJs that do request them. I also have a group of guys who I send regular personal emails listing some of our releases in WAV packages. Mainly guys who I know play mainly vinyl only sets and the ones such as Francois K who are particularly into their 'sound quality'.”
Neither of them are particularly concerned with DJs choosing over MP3s. “Not at all,” says Russell. “It takes a very trained ear to notice the difference between a WAV and 320. I struggle to notice to be perfectly honest.” Carter says he’d rather hear people playing better quality formats, but isn’t overly fussed. “These guys are the professionals so they are in a far better position to know what they need and want. Many mention that the files take up too much room on the computers that they are travelling with, and the opinions are all so different on sound quality too, still. Some don't want to download such big files initially because they are grabbing and listening to so much music at one time. So they take the MP3s and may come back for the better quality files.”
The wider picture
Beats By Dre might be pulling the wool over people’s eyes in a big way and duping impressionable consumers out of their hard-earned cash; but at least the mainstream are buying into the idea of superior audio quality - even if they’re not getting what they paid for. Hopefully it’s signalling a return to people investing more in audio equipment after years spent in the iPod earphone and laptop speaker doldrums. Beatport recently launched a drive to get their fans to upgrade their existing MP3s to WAVs at a discounted price - obviously a financially-driven campaign, but at least one that extolled the virtues of higher quality formats to some degrees.
Last year saw iTunes launch their Mastered For iTunes initiative to promote better audio quality - but disappointingly this was not a new, higher quality format, but instead a toolset and workflow for mastering engineers to create their masters in the best way possible to get the most out of Apple’s AAC format (a superior quality format to MP3s but still heavily compressed). Opinion is divided as to whether following their guidelines really offers the CD-like quality Apple are touting in Mastered For, but some engineers say that it’s given a significant improvement. A step in the right direction, yes, but with a 63% market share of digital music, they have both a responsibility and the capability to lead the way in making a much higher quality of music prevalent amongst mainstream consumers - in the same way that all digital DJ download stores (and some other non-dance stores) have been doing for year. If Beatport, Juno et al can offer them - why can’t Apple?
We’re in a frustrating time for audio quality. The capabilities are there for us to enjoy music at a higher quality than ever before, and to experience the music as close to the real thing as we’ve ever been able to. But we’re not there yet. There’s an incredible exciting future for how good audio quality can become in clubs, on personal stereos, on home stereos and everywhere else. The sooner we get out of this period of convenience and cheapness, the better.
“Digital audio formats already exist which are of sufficient resolution to give superb results” Tony Andrews tells us when we ask him about the future of audio formats. “The real problem is that there is insufficient choice of music at anything above CD quality. The future is more music being produced in higher quality formats.” Evidently, the true pioneers of audio quality aren’t even looking at WAV vs MP3 - they’re looking way beyond that to an even higher sound quality. If there's even a small chance that WAVs could provide a superior listening experience, why wouldn't you embrace that possibility?