Maximum PC Tests Audio Bit Rates With Surprising Results

Illustration for article titled Maximum PC Tests Audio Bit Rates With Surprising Results

Do audio bit rates matter? With iTunes enhanced-bitrate music coming in a month, we were hoping for a vast improvement. But can anyone tell the difference between a music track encoded at 320kbit/sec, 160kbit/sec and oh, lord, that holy grail of audiophile nirvana, the uncompressed wav? Our friends at Maximum PC decided to put audio compression to the test, enlisting four people to listen music first in uncompressed form, and then encoded with a variable bit rate at 320kbit/sec and the lowly 160kbit/sec. It was easy for everyone to tell the difference, right? Right?

It's downright humiliating, in fact, that in many cases, we were unable to tell the difference between an uncompressed track and one encoded at 160Kb/s, the bit rate most of us considered the absolute minimum acceptable for even portable players.

Most of the time, even a golden-eared audiophile couldn't tell the difference between uncompressed and highly compressed audio. These results are roughly similar to the Slate Explainer we referenced a couple of weeks ago. A useful fact is that the compressed files were hard to detect because they were encoded using a variable bit rate, which makes a huge difference in complex musical passages that might suffer from compression. What a revealing test, and a great read!

Do Higher MP3 Bit Rates Pay Off? [Maximum PC]

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DISCUSSION

I am a bit of an audiophile, I have a set of Shure e5c monitors (headphones) and I can pick up the differences between 160 and 320, but it is harder with VBR, than constant. Now when approaching 192 and 256, that distinctions become much harder to find, and most people wouldn't be able to tell a difference. I also have a great set of speakers (Klipsch RF-83) as my main Home Theater and audio listening. Sure they aren't the $10,000 each true audiophile speakers, but they reproduce audio at an unbelievable level. They are powered by individual amps, and a nice pre-amp. I have my HTPC (SoundBlaster X-FI as well) connected to the pre-amp with both RCA cables and digital connections. Listening to MP3's on this system are very similar to the Shure headphones. Listening to songs I know, and have heard in lossless compression, You can pick up the subtle differences between them.

So the system is something that you need to look at when comparing, and the sampling, please 4 people. They should have had a blind test with over 100 (possibly more), and have everyone from Audiophiles to people who work in loud workzones. Come on Maximum PC, we expect more.

Now I think the biggest thing to consider is that many people don't care. Many aren't audiophiles, and they just want to listen to some music while relaxing, or just for enjoyment, so to them, as long as it sounds "good" they don't care. The same goes for video. People have accepted the poor quality of online videos, bittorrent handheld copies of "new releases" and aren't worried about quality. These are the same type of people who say, as long as it's decent... The true videophile and audiophile are the ones concerned, and want the better quality.

I still purchase the CDs, so I can get the best quality audio. I rip directly to lossless compression, and have them ready to listen on my HTPC, iPod, and can stream through a few other players in my house, but I prefer my main listening position, right in the middle of my Home Theater setup, or through the Shure e5c montiors. Quality is important to me, and even if my untrained ears can't pick up all the subtle deal on the first 100 plays of the song, when I do notice something in the music I miss, it makes me happy I had lossless compression.