Fidelity and Philosophy

This is Part Four (and the conclusion, finally) of a post on the journey of my music listening from high-fidelity to mobile phone earbuds and back again.  You should probably go back and read Part 1 , Part 2, and Part 3. Or not.  If you’ve stuck with me through four parts, thank you.  I hope you learned something … I certainly did (which, of course, is one of the reasons I write).

AGPTEKAs of Father’s Day, I was the proud owner of an AGPTEK H3 HIFI High Resolution Lossless Digital Audio Player and a pair of 1MORE Triple Driver In Ear Headphones.   Anxious to try them out, I installed a 128 gB mini-sd card and loaded my music collection, mostly stock MP3 files.  As I mentioned in Part 3, high-resolution  audio should be regarded as a marketing term.  Case in point: my player can’t play in high-resolution unless the music files are … and MP3 files are not.  Still, the difference from my phone and basic earbuds was striking.  Acoustic guitars were crisper and clearer, drum beats were sharper and orchestral passages didn’t sound as muddy.    Since the source was my MP3 files, the improvement in the sound he heard is due to high-quality electronics in the music player and the quality earbuds, not so-called high resolution or even better file formats.  But it does speak to the improvement in fidelity that better equipment can provide.

The question was whether the higher bitrate MP3 digital formats  … or one of the lossless formats … would make additional improvements I could hear.  I took two CD tracks, a favorite smooth jazz track by Earl Klugh, Maybe Tonight and a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by the Cleveland Orchestra, Loren Maazel conducting, and ripped them to my laptop computerwav in wav format, which is lossless.   I also ripped them to 128 Kbps MP3, 320 kBps Mp3, variable bitrate MP3 and FLAC (lossless).  The two tracks provide a mix of music, from acoustic guitars and bass to solo piano and fortissimo orchestral passages.   After careful listening, I would say that the CD sounds very slightly better than the 128 kBps MP3 but I could not distinguish between the CD and any of the other formats.    This little experiment pretty much convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to hear any difference in true high resolution files but I got to test that hypothesis courtesy of Sony’s HR Music site.   I downloaded their 24 bit / 92 kBps music sample here,  something called Sample_BeeMoved_96kHz24bit, full of the kind of sonic fireworks you’d want to demonstrate your audio player.  I admit, when I played it back through my new earbuds, it was impressive sounding.  Then I used NCH Software’s Express Rip to rip the sample to 320 kBps MP3, and … hello … that was also impressive … and indistinguishable (to me) from the Hi-Res track.   So, here’s what I’ve concluded from my experiment:

  • I love my new player and earbuds !!
  • I will be recording my music using variable rate MP3 format from now on.
  • I may be selectively rerecording some of the MP3 music already in my library, primarily music ripped from CDs with MP3 at lower bit rates.
  • I will not be investing in any high-resolution audio files.
  • A little gem I found in writing this:  If your rip a CD to an MP3, the later rip that file, the quality of the file is degraded, that is, the losses compound.  If you use ripped files to archive your music collection, this is a primary reason for using lossless formats.

I admit my conclusions are subjective but the results are for me, not science.  The fact that they are what I expected does make it is possible confirmation bias influenced me.   You know … confirmation bias, choosing evidence to support what you believe.  If I wanted to be certain, I would perform a randomized ABX test, which is a kind of blind test that avoids confirmation bias.  You should draw your own conclusions based on what you listen to and what you hear.   I will tell you that in a well-conducted randomized blind test, listeners could not distinguish high-resolution music above chance (guessing).  See Why do Audiophiles hate ABX Testing?

And now that philosophy I’ve been promising.  As I scientist, I am inclined to believe that technology should make things better and in a lot of ways, it has.  But as technology advances at a faster and faster rate we can get caught up in simply keeping up without noticing if it has actually made things better.   Aftertechnology years of trying to improve the fidelity of my music listening, I went backwards in the pursuit of portability.   Now, to me at least, cynical music providers are trying to get us to spend money on a technology providing so called improvements that virtually no one can hear.  Mobile devices that show such potential for improving communication lead us head long into texting instead of talking, bring a new generation that don’t communicate well face to face, writing in bursts in 20 or 30 poorly spelled, unpunctuated words while they wander around like zombies, staring at their screens.   Social media has made us more anti-social by providing a platform for divisive criticism of others and for unfounded pseudo-facts masquerading as news.   Perhaps is is time for us to stop accepting technology blindly, to say No to things that make our quality of life worse, not better.  And to things that don’t do anything.

Meanwhile, did I say I love my new music player and ear buds?

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