Saturday

Old Ears And New Music Tech

As people get older, there is a slow and fairly predictable loss of hearing acuity; most boomers like myself would now not be able to hear some of the high frequencies they did in their youth. I'm not talking about becoming deaf, but just the natural change in hearing over the years.

In the last decade or so we have really embraced digital music - music that we play back through music players or streaming online, as opposed to cassette tapes, vinyl records, etc. We often refer to digital music as "MP3 files", referring to the .MP3 file format. There are actually several different file formats involved, such OGG, WAV and AAC for Apple devices.


The common digital music formats like MP3 and AAC are what are called "lossy" formats - this refers to the fact that when the source data (the music) is processed so we can play it, the file size is made much smaller so we can cram more tunes onto our devices. This compression does result in a loss of original information, although it's typically done in a way that is designed to be unobtrusive. 

There is a new trend surfacing in digital music where uncompressed music files are being offered as a more pure and unadulterated experience, and players and streaming services that support this are calling to the audiophiles among us. A well-known uncompressed audio file format is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which has actually been around for more than ten years.

The launch of Neil Young's "Pono" music player (a download service and a physical music player) raised some questions as to how much difference the mere mortals among us can hear between music played back from FLAC files, compared to MP3 or AAC files. While Young's fellow musicians were enthusiastic about the improvements, a good number of the reviews I read doubted most of us would hear the difference, at least under everyday conditions.

I have not tried the Pono service itself (and Jay Z also announced his higher fidelity streaming music project), but I have previously downloaded and listened to FLAC files and of course I have plenty of MP3 files.

While I have certainly heard crappy MP3 audio (where someone was compressed things too much or made some other faux pas), generally speaking a carefully-made MP3 file sounds essentially the same to me as the FLAC version. Any tiny differences I do hear are so small that it may be more the case that I expect to hear differences, rather than objectively perceiving them.

I guess my message is that unless you are an audiophile of longstanding and enjoy seeking out the best sound quality you can possibly get (and have the equipment to feed your passion), well-produced MP3 and AAC content will sound just fine under most conditions.

That goes double if you are an Old Goat like yours truly.

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