4 Ways MP3 Music Files Will Hurt Your Headphone Listening Experience

Treat Your Ears to Higher Resolution Audio Formats

If you enjoy MP3 digital music files, you may wonder, "How on earth are they killing my listening experience?" The fact is, you don't know what you don't know. If you've only ever listened to MP3 downloads on your phone or computer, you may think they sound pretty good. Listen to those same files on hi-fi gear, and you may feel differently. Better yet, listen to a high-resolution file on hi-fi gear, and you may never listen to MP3s again.

So, how are MP3s going to make for a less satisfying headphone listening experience?

1) MP3s may not stay true to the original recording.

Audiophiles put a high value on fidelity. They want a recording to sound as close to the original as possible. MP3 downloads may contain sound artifacts that don't jive with the original recording. These unwanted sounds are known as compression artifacts, and they can range from hissing to ringing. Unless your music contains snakes or bells, those probably aren't sounds you want to hear.

2) MP3s may sound muddy.

Mud may be good for pigs and facial masques, but it's not a quality you want in your music. Muddled sound lacks definition, detail, and clarity. Instruments may blend together, details may be obscured, and vocals may not be as crisp. And really, where's the pleasure in listening to music if sounds are running into each other, if details aren't audible?

3) MP3s may sound bright or thin.

Some MP3 files may sound bright, which means the treble is too prominent. Instruments such as cymbals and horns as well as higher-range vocals can sound piercing or fatiguing. There can also be a tinny or metallic sheen to the sound. Meanwhile, MP3 files may lack a robust bass response, which can music sound thin or weak.

4) MP3s may sound flat.

It takes more than a catchy melody for music to sound good. We want our music to have depth and dimension. We want it to move us on an emotional level. Unfortunately, compressed audio files can sound flat or two-dimensional. MP3s have had some of their auditory information stripped away — things that lie outside of our hearing range. But part of music's experience lies in what we feel rather than hear. We still experience energy and emotion in our music that comes from beyond the range of our hearing capacity.

What is an MP3?

MP3, which stands for MPEG Audio Layer III, is a type of compressed audio file.

If you didn’t immediately know about MP3s after they were released in 1993, you most certainly knew after the first iPod MP3 player came out in 2001. Apple did not invent the MP3 player (nor did they invent the MP3), but they certainly marketed it into an international phenomenal offering "1,000 songs in your pocket." All of those songs that fit onto your iPod? They were MP3 files, and because they were compressed, your iPod could hold a lot of them.

MP3 files had many advantages in the burgeoning age of file downloading and sharing. Smaller file sizes meant you could download are share MP3s quickly, and fit a lot of them on your music player or hard drive.

Now, there are two types of compressed files: lossy and lossless. MP3s are known as lossy compressed files, because some of the source’s original data is lost during the compression and because the compression is irreversible. This is in contrast to lossless compressed files, such as FLAC. MP3 files can be up to 10 times smaller than lossless formats.

So how is it decided which parts of the file will be compressed? Compression takes out parts of the audio that are considered to be inaudible to the human ear. Our ears are capable of hearing frequencies between 20Hz and 20kHz. The compression process eliminates frequencies at the highest and lowest ends that we have a hard time hearing. The higher the compression, however, the lower the audio quality.

Fun Facts

Who invented the MP3?

Karlheinz Brandenburg. The official name is MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III. MPEG stands for Moving Pictures Experts Group, an international collaboration of engineers founded in 1988.

Who made the first MP3 player?

In 1997 Tomislav Uzelac, a developer at Advanced Multimedia Products, created the AMP MP3 Playback Engine; this was the first MP3 player. Two college students, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev, took the AMP engine and added a Windows interface. They called it Winamp.

Who made the first portable MP3 player?

A company called Saehan Information Systems introduced the first portable MP3 player in 1998. Called the MPMan F10, it was sold in Asia until it was licensed for North American distribution by Eiger Labs, which renamed it the EigerMan F10.

Does This Mean You Shouldn't Listen to MP3s?

If you are listening to MP3 files on your phone, car stereo, you are not likely to notice a downgrade in audio quality. It is when you listen to an MP3 file with hi-fi audio gear that the loss in fidelity will become apparent. You will be aware that something has been lost, that you're not getting the full experience from your music.

Let's say you're listening to music on a DAP (digital audio player) such as the SP2000 from Astell&Kern. The SP2000 supports a variety of file formats, from high-resolution FLAC and WAV to MP3. Listening to an MP3 file on a higher-end, revealing player is going to reveal sonic inadequacies. This is going to be a case of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

The SP2000 supports:

WAV* - lossless uncompressed
AIFF* - lossless uncompressed
FLAC* - lossless compressed
ALAC* - lossless compressed
APE - lossless compressed
DFF - lossless compressed
DSF - lossless compressed
WMA - lossy compressed (there is an uncompressed version available)
MP3 - lossy compressed
OGG - lossy compressed
AAC - lossy compressed
MQA* - lossy compressed
*high resolution

FLAC files, for instance, are lossless compressed files that yield better-than-CD-quality sound. They are also up to 50% smaller than lossless files that are not compressed, such as WAV and AIFF files. With hard drive storage less expensive than it used to be, the need for space-saving file formats has lessened. And if you're into streaming, subscription services like TIDAL, Qobuz, and Apple Music offer lossless audio formats.

The bottom line? If "good enough" audio quality isn't good enough for you, you'll want to break up with MP3s. Just tell them, "It's not you, it's me."

High-Resolution Portable Digital Audio Players

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