Dear Lifehacker, I hear a lot of arguing about "lossless" and "lossy" music these days, but I'm having a hard time getting straight answers. Does bitrate really matter? Can most people tell the difference between high and low bitrate music files? Thanks, Angry Audiophile
Photo by Tess Watson.
We understand your frustration. While you may have some idea about what bitrate is, the "can audiophiles really tell the difference" argument has raged on for quite some time, and it's hard to get people to drop their egos and actually explain what these things mean and whether they really matter. Here's a bit of information on bitrate and how it applies to our practical music listening experience.
What Is Bitrate?
You've probably heard the term "bitrate" before, and you probably have a general idea of what it means, but just as a refresher, it's a good idea to get acquainted with its official definition so you know how all this stuff works. Bitrate refers to the number of bits — or the amount of data — that are processed over a certain amount of time. In audio, this usually means kilobytes per second. For example, the music you buy on iTunes is 256 kilobits per second, meaning there are 256 kilobits of data stored in every second of a song.
The higher the bitrate of a track, the more space it will take up on your computer. Generally, an audio CD will actually take up quite a bit of space, which is why it's become common practice to compress those files down so you can fit more on your hard drive (or iPod, or Dropbox or whatever). It is here where the argument over "lossless" and "lossy" audio comes in.
Lossless and Lossy Formats
When we say "lossless", we mean that we haven't really altered the original file. That is, we've ripped a track from a CD to our hard drive, but haven't compressed it to the point where we've lost any data. It is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the original CD track.
More often than not, however, you probably rip your music as "lossy". That is, you've taken a CD, ripped it to your hard drive, and compressed the tracks down so they don't take up as much space. A typical MP3 or AAC album takes up 100MB or so. That same album in lossless format, though — such as FLAC or ALAC (also known as Apple Lossless) would take up closer to 300MB, so it's become common practice to use lossy formats for faster downloading and more hard drive savings.
The problem is that when you compress a file to save space, you're deleting chunks of data. This is just like when you take a PNG screenshot of your computer screen, and compress it to a JPEG; your computer is taking the original data and "cheating" on certain parts of the image, making it mostly the same but with some loss of clarity and quality. Take this these two images as an example: the one on the right has clearly been compressed, and it's quality has diminished as a result. (You'll probably have to click the image for a closer look to see the differences).
Remember, of course, that you're still reaping the benefits of hard drive space with lossy music (which can make a big difference on a 32GB iPhone); it's just the tradeoff you make. However, there's a lot of argument as to whether most people can even hear the difference between high and low bitrate audio.
Does It Really Matter?
Since storage has become so cheap, listening to lossless audio is starting to become a more popular (and practical) practice. But is it worth the time, effort and space? I always hate answering questions this way, but unfortunately the answer is: it depends.
Part of the equation is the gear you use. If you're using a quality pair of headphones or speakers, you're privy to a large range of sound. As such, you're more likely to notice certain imperfections that come with compressing music into a lossy format. You may notice that a certain level of detail is missing in lossy formats; subtle background tracks might be more difficult to hear, the highs and lows won't be as dynamic, or you might just plain hear a bit of distortion. In these cases, you might be better off listening to lossless music.
If you're listening to your music with a pair of crappy earbuds on your iPod, however, you probably aren't going to notice a difference between a 256 kbps file and a 320 kbps file, let alone a 320 kbps file and a 1200 kbps file (lossless files ranging from 400 kbps to 1411 kbps). Remember when I showed you the image a few paragraphs up, and noted that you probably had to enlarge it to see the imperfections? Your earbuds are like the shrunken-down version of the image: they're going to make those imperfections much harder to notice, since they won't put out as big a range of sound.
The other part of the equation, of course, is your own ears. Some people may just not care enough, or may just not have the more attuned listening skills to tell the difference between two different bitrates. This is something you can develop over time, of course, but if you haven't yet, then it doesn't particularly matter what bitrate you use, does it? As with all things, go with what works best for you — and don't let anybody else tell you about your own ears.
Photo by Marcin Wichary.
Other Things to Consider
It's worth mentioning that these file types often have other baggage associated with them. For example, many portable devices and even some desktop players are not compatible with lossless audio, or at least certain types of it. iTunes, for example, can't play FLAC files, though it can play ALAC files (and transcode them on-the-fly to lossy versions for when you sync your iPod, so you aren't wasting that valuable space).
Similarly, most online music stores don't sell downloadable music in lossless format. Outlets like iTunes and Amazon MP3 sell their music as lossy MP3 or AAC files, which means that if you have an epic set of cans and want to listen to high-quality music, you'll want to buy it on CD instead of as MP3s.
It's also worth noting that lossless files are more futureproof, in the sense that you can always compress music down to a lossier format, but you can't take lossy files back to lossless unless you re-rip the CD entirely. This is, again, one of the fundamental issues with online music stores: if you've built up a huge library of iTunes music and one day decide that you'd like it in a higher bitrate, you'll have to buy it again, this time in CD form. You can't just put data back where it's been deleted.
Photo by Charlotte L.
All of this is merely scratching the surface of the audiophile's challenge. There is of course a lot more to talk about, like variable bitrate and coding efficiency, but this should provide a simple introduction for the uninitiated. As I said before, it all depends on you, your hearing, and the gear you have at your disposal, so give it a shot. Compare two tracks side by side, try out some different audio formats for awhile, and see what it does for you. At the very least, you'll have wasted 10 minutes and 300MB of space trying out that album in lossless for a little while — hardly the end of the world. Enjoy it!
P.S. Many of you undoubtedly have your own views on the subject, whether you're a bitrate-hungry audiophile or if you belong to the "if I can hear it, it works for me" philosophy. Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.