Ask LH: Does Bitrate Really Make A Difference In My Music?

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.

Hey Angry,

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!

Cheers, Lifehacker

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.


Comments

    Witson gives an example of a 300mb album being compressed down to 100mb, reducing its size by 67%. I've ripped my entire CD collection using WMA lossless format, for an average compression of about 50%, so the example given achieves an extra compression of only 17%, which hardly seems worth it, given the other disadvantages cited for using a lossy format.
    It's been my impression that the default iTunes format achieves a compression of about 80%. I buy from iTunes because of the convenience of being able to purchase single tracks, but if they were available in a lossless format, I would opt for that option, if only the ability to convert the tracks to different formats in the future without serial loss of data.

      Hi Chris,
      I'm fairly sure whitson was claiming that the album was 300mb after being compressed to flac, rather than before. That holds with the lossless compression of 50%, since a full album is about 600-700mb before any compression.

      As a result, choosing a 300mb flac rip over a 100mb mp3 rip is using three times the space you otherwise would.

      Really, I'm just glad I'm no longer downloading 96kb mp3's from napster over dialup. Things have improved a lot since then.

    I agree with the conclusions of this article - I can hear the difference between a high-bitrate lossy (>256kb/s)file and its lossless compatriot, when using an external DAC (soundcard) and stereo system. The former looses some subtly but still isn't bad.

    I personally store everything in ALAC format - simply so I can get recommendations from the iTunes store. But transcoding takes time so I used dbpoweramp to batch convert my library to 256kbps mp3 for easy sync with my phone.

    Final point: if you want true bit-perfect audio from a windows computer you should use a program like foobar2000 or mediamonkey and a WASAPI plugin, as windows directsound (used by default by iTunes, WMP etc.) messes with the sound a bit. ITunes on a Mac doesn't have this problem.

    You also need to consider age difference! teenagers are going to have a a far better hearing range than say middle aged people, provided they haven't already made themselves deaf from listening to music too loud!!
    I personally like to rip music at a high bitrate for initial storage, and farm it out to my MP3 or whatever at a bitrate that is more suited to it's capacity or spec..

    A good way explain it is comparing it to video files. A low quality video will have a low frame rate, be less clear and jittery. You'll still have the basic image however you won't get the same experience as a video at a higher quality.

    Compressed audio files aren't as clear, the algorithm behind them cuts out parts of the song to make them smaller size wise.

    A good test to try is get your favorite CD, rip one of the songs once as a 256kbps mp3 and then rip it again as a WAV file. Listen to the two files and you'll notice the difference in most genres of music.

    As a DJ I use WAV files. mp3, even at 320kbps can be noticeable at higher volumes and it can really ruin an experience.

    I’m gonna admit, I didn’t bother reading the whole article; simply because my mind is pretty much already made up on the matter.

    In a perfect world, lossless music formats like FLAC is the logical and obvious choice, however in real world circumstances I find it to be be more effort than its worth.

    For starters MP3 is pretty much universally supported. ANY device that supports digital music supports MP3. I don’t want to have to deal with having duplicated music across multiple formats just so I can listen to it on my laptop, my HTPC, my phone or in my car.

    Secondly, I don’t personally recognise a huge amount of loss in the music I listen to, when comparing a high bitrate MP3 to lossless audio. I appreciate that there is some level of difference between the two, but I find it negligible.

    I don’t have an environment conducive to lossless audio. If I’m listening to music in the car, there’s ambient road and traffic noise. If I’m listening on headphones, there is always some level of ambient environmental noise. If listening at home, no doubt there’s other noises echoing down the hallway from the kids’ rooms, or they’re in the lounge-room making their own noise. None of these affects my ability to enjoy music, but all affect the ability to identify some finer details that only lossless would be able to deliver.

    Finally, I don’t have audiophile level quality equipment or speakers. I don’t necessarily find my audio equipment substandard, but I’m not naive enough to think that they do my music full justice.

    As I said, lossless is great and all, but in real world circumstances, I don’t find it necessary.

      +1 - I listen to my music either in the car, at work with headphones (open headphone, so I can hear my phone ring or if someone talks to me) or when travelling. All the environments have large amounts of ambient noise, and none use high-end audio equipment. When I first started to convert my CDs to mp3, I tried various bitrates and finally settled on 160kb/s as the threshold where I personally couldn't tell the difference and have stuck with it ever since. I find 320kb/s overkill.

    As an 18 year old I have to agree with pretty much all the points in this article.

    With my $50 sony earplugs attached to my phone nothing sounds spectacular, but I think I can hear the difference between low- and high-bitrate dongs, though I've never done side by side comparisons of the same song.

    In my car, which I like to think has a pretty high quality setup (I didn't just go and buy 10 subwoofers, I spent a grand or two on speakers and a good head unit and equaliser and the subs are yet to be installed) I can definitely hear the difference between 320KB & FLAC. Also for shits and giggles I got a 128KB version of one of the songs I tested and it sounded horrid. Like Steve above I'm glad it's not 2003 any more and we're not limited to 96 or 128KB tracks from Kazaa.

    Maybe when I get older I'll lose my sensitivity and it'll become harder for me to distinguish between lossless and compressed files?

    What about Live performance (eg. DJs etc) i assume they wouldnt use Lossless? but also wouldnt want to use anything lower than 320?

      Lossless wherever possible over 320. You wanna know the deal? Listen on a big, decent system.
      On the other hand, anyone who says you can't tell the difference between lossy and lossless on even the shittiest pair of earbuds is seriously cloth-eared.
      That 'Krffshh ss s ssfff' noise? That's used to be cymbals. The 'Fwwughf' thing? Kick drum.

    If you want to compare music samples in different compression rate, try this link:
    https://sites.google.com/site/losslessvslossymusic/
    In my opinion, it's not that easy to notice a difference !

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