Five ways to make digital music sing

Dissatisfied with the listening experience offered by today's cheap, one-off music downloads? Here are five suggestions for hearing music the way it's meant to be heard.

Neil Young says the tech industry doesn't care as much about music quality as it should.

Perhaps that's because the average iPod-toting iTunes customer doesn't give a second thought to whether the digital file of the latest single they just bought is uncompressed or lossless.

Young told a bunch of tech luminaries gathered for an industry conference as much on Wednesday: "People's understanding has been skewed by MP3s and convenience. It's important to get music out there...but not at the expense of quality."

He's not the only one who feels that way. Grammy-award-winning producer T-Bone Burnett (who says audio nowadays is so degraded it's akin to viewing "a Xerox of a Polaroid of a photograph of a painting") is spearheading CODE (ΧΟΔΕ), a new high-definition audio format distributed on a DVD.

CODE gives the music consumer options, by including many different formats, including 24-bit/96-kHz WAV files, uncompressed 16-bit/44.1kHz files, AAC, and MP3 on a single disc. What Burnett has done is show consumers that there are options, more than perhaps they are aware.

Young and Burnett are certainly vocal, but aren't the only people dissatisfied with the listening experience offered by today's cheap, one-off music downloads. So we checked in with our own resident audiophile, Steve Guttenberg, who writes at CNET Blog Network's Audiophiliac. Here are his suggestions for hearing music the way it's meant to be heard.

  • Listen. Well, sure, that's the point right? But Guttenberg means really listen, as in, don't have it playing in the background while you're filling in spreadsheets at work, or scrubbing your shower. Once you do, you'll actually notice how much is missing from a compressed MP3 file.

    "People who actually put on music and listen — whatever form it's in — they hear more because they're giving it their undivided attention," he said. "Once people really listen, they care about (sound quality) more. Whether you're listening to an iPod or $20,000 turntable, it doesn't really matter. But that's sort of the beginning of everything."

  • Download quality file formats. Now that you can get music players with 160GB of storage, file size isn't really a huge issue anymore. MP3 files are generally regarded as the lowest-quality music file since the audio uses a lossy compression process to make the files smaller, meaning some of the data is left out, like higher frequencies.

    Luckily there are alternatives: Apple lossless for iPods compresses the files, but losslessly (which means it sounds exactly like uncompressed, but is actually compressed, Guttenberg says); AAC, which is a lossy compression encoding process, but is generally accepted as better than MP3; or OGG, which is another lossy compressed file format, but is open source and is known for its higher fidelity. And then there are WAV files, which are completely uncompressed and sound exactly how they're "supposed to," according to Guttenberg.

  • Buy used CDs. Though CDs probably aren't Neil Young-approved, it's a vastly better quality experience than MP3s. Plus, it's kind of a deal, Guttenberg says. "It's cheaper than buying iTunes (songs) and certainly sounds a million times better."

  • Think outside the iPod. Though there's nothing wrong with Apple's portable music player, it's not the only device out there. Besides other brands of players, you could get super pro and go with a set of turntables. And you don't have to spend a tonne. There are USB-equipped turntables that go for cheaper than most iPods.

  • Listen to it live. If the other options still aren't getting it done, you can always go see your favourite act in person. But Rule No. 1 still applies: Actually listen. A lot of people "talk because they're used to music being in the background, they don't just shut up and listen to it."
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About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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