Stop playing cat and mouse. Go MP3.

by Volker Weber

Ryan Block writes:

Apple's been back and forth trying to shut down Hymn from working with iTunes purchased music for a while now — remember, they wrote software that strips the DRM code from ITMS-purchased music (like Real's Harmony, which bypasses FairPlay DRM with their own compatible version). Apparently Apple’s gone and broken it entirely (again) in iTunes 4.7.1, which means, of course, that it will be only a matter of time before it’s un-broken by the Hymn guys, and so on, and so forth.

I'd suggest, you don't fool around with the likes of Hymn and you also don't sit and wait until Apple opposes anything else on the DRMed music you just bought. Remember, Apple is the sole maker of software that plays the music you "own". If they see fit, you can play it on 5 computers and unlimited iPods as well burn it to CD, that's fine. What do you do, when they change their mind?

Convert your music to MP3. Now! Once you have done that, you are free to play your music on any device, any time, and you can safely upgrade your software, sell your computer, whatever. It will be yours. Just like your CDs.


But you lose some of the quality. Re-encoding from MPEG-4 AAC to MP3 does mean a loss of quality, and even if you can't hear this loss, you know about it. It's a psychology thing.

With that in mind, PCM -> AAC -> MP3 is no longer a good alternative to buying CDs (with their full PCM quality).

Nico Kaiser, 2005-01-13

If you can't hear the loss, you probably won't miss the music much if you avoid the issue altogether. MP3 is better than nothing, but not much.

Stan Rogers, 2005-01-13

Stan, we have done double blind tests with MP3s of different bitrates and CD. They have been published in c't. You would be surprised to see the results.

Volker Weber, 2005-01-13

The test is actually online however only in german.

Volker Weber, 2005-01-13

I did some tests ripping audio at 128, 160 & 196KBPS in MP3 format - playing them all through my HIFI (iPod and CD player as source) it was pretty obvious which sounded better in respect to iPod vs CD - the CD by a big margin - however I could not hear any difference between the bitrates from the iPod...

I took it a step further and converted the MP3s back to WAVs and burnt a CD with all of the different tracks - for the life of me I could not tell the difference between any of the tracks when played from my CD Player.

To me the biggest difference is the source _device_ - if it has a crappy output stage then your music will sound bad regardless - "lifeless" is how I sum up the iPod compared to my CD player.

Further tests showed that I could hear the difference if the bitrate dropped below 128KBPS.

Cloth ears? Maybe - but I still love music!

Colin Williams, 2005-01-14

Volker: If have imported music im MP3 and Apple lossless and compared it with original CD. If you use a headset you will notice no difference. But playing it on my receiver the difference is very big!! I prommise that I am able to hear the diffenrence.
People saying MP3 is "near CD" must have a poor music environment.

Wolfgang Schmidetzki, 2005-01-14

Interesting, but proof of little more than that people, in general, aren't listening for spacial clues (missing entirely, except as heavy-handed hard-left and hard-right in MP3/128) and are rarely aware of lower-level signals in music. Have you ever wondered why there is a market at all for mass-market audio? I'm not for one moment saying that top-of-the-line everything is required for reproduction, but there is a distict difference in quality between what people buy at department stores and even entry-level hifi (what one could reasonably assemble for less than $US 1000).

I'm not talking about the golden-ear esoterica of audiophilia -- if people cannot hear the complete lack of spacial information engendered by the elimination of higher frequencies and the greying-out of low-level information (both of which are key to MP3 lossy compression), then they are probably not not familiar with decent sound at all.

No, this isn't a lot of harrumphing -- I just blew 80GB of disc space going to lossless compression for my travelling tunes because I couldn't enjoy the same music in the same way from any of the lossy compression schemes I've tried (including bit rates higher than were tested in the report). Okay -- some people can't tell the difference, or don't find the difference meaningful to them. It doesn't mean there isn't one, or that there aren't a significant number of people who would have scored 100% correct in a similar test - given original source music containing any significant information in the masking threshold region, or with any stereo imaging detail. (I'll leave the all-bass-all-the-time techno stuff to people who can stomach it.)

Stan Rogers, 2005-01-14

Wolfgang, it only proves that your D/A converters are bad. If your sounds goes out the earphones jack of a notebook, I am not surprised.

Stan, you are obviously much better than all the people we tested with.

Volker Weber, 2005-01-14

This discussion reminds me a little bit of what your can experience when it comes to wines. There is one big fraction of people who will swear that you can buy good wine for less than 5 Euros. Some will wildly argue this fact and others (mostly experienced whine drinkers) will just smile. My experience is that my own capability to distinguish quality from crap grew with tasting several different types. I guess it is similar with music. If all you hear is the charts on the radio, you will come to the conclusion, that mp3s played on whatever device produce the same quality.

Thomas Nowak, 2005-01-14

Is there a better way to convert from AAC to MP3 than by writing them to CD and then ripping them again and deleting the AAC-protected tracks ?

Alex Boschmans, 2005-01-14

Yes. If the files are unprotected, you simply re-rip them in iTunes after setting your import preferences to MP3.

If the files are protected, use JHymn (Mac or PC). Works like a dream.

Ben Poole, 2005-01-14

@Wolfgang: Volker is right, in that there should be no difference between the original and a lossless copy provided that all else is equal. "All else" includes not just the D/A voltage accuracy, but things like jitter correction and interpolation schemes, which can affect the timing of signal components and the harmonic integrity of the signal. High-frequency components that are not related to the source audio waveforms may not be audible as distinct tones, but they are responsible for the generally uncomfortable feeling one would get after extended listening to the first-generation CD players.

@Colin: try the rip, encode, decode, burn cycle on something with significant spacial information. If you have an audiophile handy, "Jazz at the Pawnshop" would make a good test (competent, but ultimately uninteresting Nordic dixieland -- the only redeeming quality is that the recording is a live-to-stereo tour de force with unmatched ambient sound). For saner people with slightly better taste, "One of my turns" from Pink Floyd's "The Wall" has an introductory bit that can sound perfectly three-dimensional when reproduced well, but comes across as flat otherwise. Roger Waters' "Pros and Cons of Hitchiking" isn't likely to go down as one of the classics, but the pseudobinaural "live action" background parts are telling of a system (source-to-ear).

There are a lot of recordings that would make a difference if you knew what you were listening for, were listening through speakers rather than cans (even the best ear/head phones can't provide real stereo unless the recording is true binaural). There are also a lot of recordings that even AM radio during a thunderstorm couldn't do any real damage to. (Some particularly nasty mixes may actually be improved by removing extraneous HF -- the recording "engineers" who created these "masterpieces" know who they are and should be ashamed of themselves.)

Finally, Volker -- the one thing not mentioned in the online study (as far as my poor German and Babelfish will let me determine, at least), is what the test protocal was. The equipment was certainly adequate, and should have been far more revealing than the results indicate. Were listeners allowed to listen to a single source at length, or was the test based on short segments? Were listeners hearing familiar or unfamiliar sources? (Short-duration ABX tests with unfamiliar sources regularly prove that there is no difference between wildly different sources.) Were they in a position that would allow them to assess the stereo image (the "sweet spot", as they say), or were they merely allowed to hear some hifi noise from "somewhere over there"? All of these things make a real difference. Oh, were any of the listeners people who regularly listen to music as a primary activity; that is, were they inclined to sit and listen to music with eyes closed (at home or at live events), or were they people who merely have music turned on as a background to other activities? (People who don't notice subtleties won't notice subtleties.)

I'm not the sort of guy who is afraid to tell the Emperor that he's naked -- there is a lot of voodoo to be had in the hi-end audiophile world -- but there are things that I can hear plainly and clearly, and the difference between compressed and uncompressed audio (at least with 44.1KHz/16-bit as a starting point) is as clear to me as the difference between TIFF and JPEG. (And, at lower compression ratios, the analogy is very much on-point.)

Stan Rogers, 2005-01-14

How about FLAC support for iTunes? ;-)
I found several forum-posts talking about it, but could not make out any QT codec package which would support FLAC.

You wonder, why I mention FLAC?
There is program material you simply cannot encode with MP3 or AAC. The results just plainly suck. OGG Vorbis seems to perform a little bit better in these cases, but FLAC is the way to go, definitely. As examples I'd like to mention the album "One Every Street" by the Dire Straits and "Adventures in Black Sunshine" by Incognito. If you happen to encode them in AAC/256kbit or MP3/320kbit there is still enough regognizeable loss - even my mother notices the difference.


Karsten W. Rohrbach, 2005-01-16

Old archive pages

I explain difficult concepts in simple ways. For free, and for money. Clue procurement and bullshit detection.


Paypal vowe