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Why your favorite artists' recordings could have terrible sound quality

There are so many really dreadful sounding recordings coming out, the Audiophiliac ponders the reasons why.

I get a lot of emails asking about the sound quality of recordings. The hard part is determining what "good" sound sounds like. To my ears the majority of new music sounds nasty, but it's not just me. Google "Loudness Wars" and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Sound quality is highly subjective, but one thing's for sure, no one sets out to make a bad sounding recording. Same for remastered recordings: No engineer would intentionally make a recording sound worse, but they will make one that sounds different than the original since today's listeners are likely to use mobile devices as their primary music players. A newly remastered album will probably be louder, so the music's natural soft-to-loud dynamic contrasts will be lost. There's a good reason for that: a loud recording will sound "better" than a quieter (less compressed) one played over a smartphone's speakers, computer speakers, in a car, plane, train or bus. That's why music is now more compressed than it was when a higher percentage of music buyers listened at home. Adele's new "25" album might sound fine on free ear buds, but it's unlistenable over my NAD Viso HP50 headphones. What's going on?


Does new music hurt your ears?

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The sound quality of a recording is largely determined by the engineers who originally recorded and mixed it. Their decisions about the choice of studio, microphones, processing and editing are key. The sound then might be further compromised or improved in mastering, as well as by the limitations of the release format. So there's no way a music consumer can know in advance if a MP3, FLAC, CD or LP is the best sounding version of the music. Generally speaking, for older music the original release formats are truest to the musicians' intent.

I have found over the years that the sound quality of most bands' recordings can be pretty consistent from one album to the next. If you like it, that's great. But if you don't, chances are small that a remastered, or new high-res file, will change your opinion. The recording's innate quality -- whether good or bad -- will usually shine through. High-resolution versions of average or poor recordings won't substantially improve their sound or make them great, they have to be great to start with.

I would never claim LPs always sound better than CDs, or the other way around, or that high-resolution files are always better sounding than standard or even low-res files. Those are just release formats. The recording's sound quality is key, and a great one can sound great as a MP3, FLAC, CD or LP. A poor recording will still sound poor as a MP3, FLAC, CD or LP.

Share your experiences as well as your thoughts on bad and good sound quality in the Comments section below.