Music Quality and You

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Music Quality and You

Post by Shemuel on 2011-05-08, 21:24

This is a talk about music from my own viewpoint. Here I will adhere closely to reliable sources and not just spew out just anything that anyone has said. If anything is alleged - I have not done it myself - then I will say.

Music Quality
The quality (i.e. bitrate) of music that people listen to is extremely important in getting your full enjoyment of music. When bitrate is reduced, song filesize is reduced. however, the texture of the sound you listen to is reduced also. iTunes songs have a very low bitrate of 128kbps (technical note: allegedly equivalent to 160kbps due to the filetype used, AAC). "Why is this?", you may ask. Well, it is because Apple (who owns both iTunes and iPods, kids) want their iPod MP3 players to seem really big in terms of storage ("Whoa, this iPod can hold loads of songs") and saving money in bandwidth when people download the songs.
n.b. Pirated music usually has low bitrate, although can be any bitrate possible.
If you are an adherent to downloading your music, I advise that you look for sources with higher bitrates. Amazon now uses 256kbs, and is generally cheaper than iTunes. Quite often the individual artists' sites will have options to download higher quality music, and you possibly be channelling less of your money to the record companies, more to the artists.
However, what I do, and I suggest you do if you want higher quality music, is buy CDs
The Advantages of CDs
CDs have a bitrate of 1411kbps, over eleven times higher bitrate than iTunes downloads. There is the question of how much you benefit from that increase in bitrate - obviously you won't think your music is eleven times better. However, most people without hearing damage will hear a very significant difference.
Other advantages - CDs count as off-computer storage, so if your computer crashes you wont have to buy all your music all over again. CDs also look nice, have the cover art and sometimes contain very interesting inner leaflets (Johnny Cash - Unchained)
Disadvantages - Can be more expensive
n.b. Ear damage is possible, especially if you go to many loud concerts. You tend to not be able to hear higher sound frequencies and quieter sounds.
OK, CDs are good - but I can't keep swapping them in my CD drive
Yeah, now you can rip the music off them so you can use them like any other digital music file. But DO NOT use the usual low bitrate filetype, that defeats the point of a CD.

(please note, I will later be talking about which music player to use. But If you're resolute with your choice, you can do this:)
- In iTunes, go to 'Edit'→'Preferences'→'General'. Under CD settings, click on 'Import Settings' and instead of AAC, choose Apple Lossless Audio Codec, and 'Use error correction when ripping Audio CDs'. This will apply to CDs you rip from now on.
- In WMP, 'Organize'→'Options'→'Rip Music'. Choose Windows Media Audio Lossless.
- In foobar, go find out yourself. If you can already work foobar, this is easy.

Depending on your choice and the size of your MP3 player, unfortunately you may have to reduce your bitrate, or transcode to another filetype. Personally, I convert to AAC for my iPod because my shuffle is only 2GB, having an average size of 5MB per song. If you have a huge iPod capacity, you can use ALAC still, and some non-apple MP3 players can use FLAC, but that's generally not practical for most people. My advice is to get the highest bitrate you can without greatly compromising the number of songs available to listen to.

I'm not going to tell you how to do this, because my iPod has already been entirely cleared out by iTunes' sync. But here is a guide to some codecs and bitrates:
Lossless (Unlike other codecs, the quality is not reduced by compression)
FLAC: can be ~1000kbps, with all the bitrate of a CD, due to a mathematical equation. The best for accuracy and compression among the lossless codecs
ALAC: similar to FLAC, takes up a bit more space, no correction for mistakes in ripping, but can work on iPods (allegedly)
APE: Non-standard tagging and other confusing aspects. Not good for a beginner
WMAL (Windows Media Audio Lossless): Not as good as the other two on all fronts
Lossy (Loses quality when compressed)
MP3: The famous one. Up to 320kbps. Standard. Not so good at lower bitrates, though.
AAC (Apple Audio Codec): In theory 320kbps, but not so good at higher bitrates.
WMA: Not so good
OGG: Open-source, amazing at lower bitrates, use this as your codec for lower bitrates if you can. Unfortunately, very few MP3 players allow you to use it.

Music Player
Now I'm going to be biased here, because I really love foobar. But I'll try my best to be impartial Smile Mac users, I don't know for you, but it sounds like iTunes is almost your only option.

iTunes- has everything you could possibly want, and more. Far too much more. Ping, Genius, store, etc really can slow down a computer. And you can't get rid of them! The bits you don't like you have to live with. Especially annoying is their iPod support. Syncing an MP3 player is bloody annoying, Apple trying their best to stop people from stealing music by just killing anything not DRM that they can. I have been reminded of that today.
Songbird - works on Mac and Windows, with support with MP3 players. Similar to iTunes in appearance and does FLAC. However, it had functionality problems when I used it.
Windows Media Player - Fine, but far too basic, nowhere near as much customisation as most other players.
Winamp - Alright, modular to a (rather limited) extent, but resource-intensive.
MediaMonkey - Fugly, but functional. Very limited in modification. Does FLAC.
Foobar - My personal choice. It is modular, fully customisable, has a small footprint on your CPU/memory, and deals with FLAC. It has a multitude of unique features.

Foobar is great in many ways, perhaps most of all by how modular it is. Upon download and from the website, you can choose a multitude of components to add to the player, full list here, with the abilities varying from- actually, see for yourself. the number and variety is astonishing.
One thing I like is ReplayGain - it scans your songs and adjusts them so they are all of similar volume - no need to keep putting your volume up and down when the song changes. Peaks and troughs of the music is preserved, so it's not distorted in any way. This is done in a non-permanent way, so if you don't want to use it any more, it can be stopped/removed.
I believe foobar is also the only music player that has a coverflow option like iTunes, and is certainly the only one that can be made to look exactly like you want - more customisable visually than skins.
Oh, and all codecs you can think of are playable, and iPod support is there.

FLAC
Wikipedia - Foobar
The basics of setting up foobar
Foobar help forums
FLAC with foobar
iPod with foobar

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Re: Music Quality and You

Post by Philly Homer on 2011-05-08, 22:44

I love FLAC files, minus the fact that they are so large due to no compression. If I (hypothetically) go and download music, I search for files that have higher bit rates because they sound better on my diePod. 320 and 256 are what I'd be after most of the time.

Also, didn't know about Foobar! I'll be getting this real soon then, yes?
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Re: Music Quality and You

Post by Darkwing on 2011-05-09, 00:27

I'll be completely honest (and it maybe my hearing is shot and I don't know it) but I can't distinguish any difference between a 192kbps song and one from a CD, well, I do use the .aiff format a lot with a higher sampling rate or whatever (48.00khz as opposed to the standard 41.00khz or something like that, brain's currently shot from work), but I rarely use the 128kbps

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Re: Music Quality and You

Post by Shemuel on 2011-05-09, 08:44

Well, FLAC has compression, just it's still so bloody huge. And yeah, I convert to 200kbps for my shuffle, but I can tell the difference.
I never deal with kHz, most of that is standardised and if I choose that option for my speakers the CPU usage jumps up.

Foobar is great, but be prepared to put hours and hours of work into it if you use it. it's not for everyone.

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Re: Music Quality and You

Post by Darkwing on 2011-05-09, 12:52

Yeah, probably the reason I deal with the khz side of things has to do with me doing video editing and whatnot

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