Music File Differences

This post is information about the types of music files we all use for listening on our portable music players, phones, tablets and stereos. Fasten your propeller hats.

Does the kind of music file we listen to really make a difference?

It depends. Ok, now that we’ve settled that issue we can all go back to surfing the internet and texting each other.

Depends on what? I hear you asking (in my head). Well, since you asked, here goes:

If you only listen to music with earbuds or earpods then skip the rest of this. It won’t matter to you at all what kind of music file you listen to. Why is that? The fidelity of an earbud or earpod simply isn’t high enough to be able to hear the differences in sound quality of an MP3 file vs an AAC, FLAC or ALAC file. However, if you use cheap headphones or listen through an inexpensive stereo/speaker set up, you well likely be able to tell some differences and you should keep reading. If you listen through a really good set of headphones or a really nice stereo, you will be able to notice significant differences in the sound coming from different files. Here is a list of the audio components which make the biggest differences in what you hear, in order, from most difference to least difference:

Headphones/speakers >> music file type >> amplifier >> DAC

I’ll discuss the range and types of headphones, speakers, amplifiers and DACs in future posts.  In this post, we’ll look at the differences in music file types.

Kinds of Music Files

The popular and most used music file types are those ending in:  MP3, M4a and FLAC. File types that are more esoteric and which we will not discuss now, are: APE, Ogg Vorbis, AIFF and WAV

MP3 – This is the most well known and most popular music file type. It has been around for a very long time. This file type was designed for the purpose of reducing the size of music files, and it does that very well. In the beginning of digital music players, the storage size was very small and expensive, so in order to be able to listen to more than a handful of songs, engineers came up with this type of file. It is important to keep in mind that the goal was to reduce file size. Sound quality was a secondary concern. There have been improvements to the algorithms used for creating MP3 files over ensuing years which has helped the sound quality a bit. We now find ourselves in an era where storage for digital files is dirt cheap. Much, much higher capacity digital music players now exist for very reasonable prices. Many people even use their phones as digital music players. Since storage capacity has increased dramatically, file size is no longer as important as it used to be and the audio engineering people have shifted their focus into making files with the best sound possible in a reduced file size. There are now higher resolution MP3 files being made. However, there has been a shift and many who listen to digital music have moved on from MP3 files to other types with better sound quality. You may have heard of Neil Young’s Pono, which will be the subject of another post in the future.

So how do you tell the quality of an MP3 (or any other music file)? Generally, you can right click on a file and select Properties. You should have a tab for Audio Properties which should show you the Sample Rate and Sample Size along with the Bit Rate. This information also usually shows up in the display of the music software on your computer. The following three things are the key and in every case, higher numbers are better. A CD has a Sample Rate of 44.1 Khz and a Sample Size of 16 bit, with a Bit Rate of 1411 kbps. Those are the best numbers you will see except for Pono and other types of High Resolution (i.e. expensive) digital files. Those files will be the subject of a future post also.

Just so you have an idea of what sounds good vs bad: Sample Sizes of anything less than 16 bit will sound squashed and have no variance in volume. In general, only spoken word files should have Sample Sizes of less than 16 bits. There are also high resolution audio files (ALAC and FLAC) that can be 24 bit. Most audiophiles find it extremely difficult to hear any improvement in sound quality between a 16 bit or a 24 bit file from the same master. Music should never have anything below 16 bit. The other number we use to judge the audio quality is the Bit Rate. A Bit Rate of less than 128 kbps is bad and anything at or above 256 kbps is good. For best, we need to move to another file type.

M4a – Things get more complicated now. When Apple came out with iTunes and the iPod, their goal was to make money selling music. To accomplish this they chose to use a better type of audio file than the MP3 called AAC (Advanced Audio Codec). They also developed a proprietary lossless audio file type called ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). AAC did a better job of compressing the audio into a smaller size with higher audio quality than the MP3 format did at the time. The difference between AAC and MP3 is twofold: Apple popularized the AAC file format and AAC files were mostly played on Apple products and in iTunes and not on other brands of portable music players. Secondly, the AAC files sounded better than MP3’s of the same size.

ALAC is different than either MP3s or AAC. It is a Lossless file format. It’s the audio equivalent of a Zip file. It accomplishes something wondrous:  it reduces the size of a music file by approximately half, but it does not remove any of the audio at all in the process. In other words, the player can decompress this smaller file and end up with an exact copy of the original uncompressed music. It is completely transparent. No changes happen to the music. This is pretty significant. Apple’s ALAC files were originally proprietary and could only be played in iTunes and on Apple products.  A few years ago, Apple released this file type to the public and now any music player or software program can play these files. The ALAC files are bigger than AAC files, but they are about half the size of the original uncompressed music file and sound exactly like the original music file did. I use ALAC files when i rip the audio from my own CDs because it gives me the very best sound possible and makes the files smaller all at the same time.  FLAC files (see below) also accomplish this same thing, but Apple stubbornly refuses to support FLAC files natively on their products.

Now, here’s the confusing part: M4a is not a file type, but is a file cabinet inside of which can be any kind or type of an AAC or ALAC file. All you can know when you see a file ending in M4a is that it is some kind of AAC or ALAC file. If you right click on the file and choose Properties and select the Audio Properties tab, it should show you the actual file type as well as its Bit Rate. (You can also see this in most music software programs). ALAC files all have Bit Rates of 1411 kbps and AAC files have the same kinds of Bit rates as MP3s with the same advice, you want something 256 kbps or higher for good quality, though for any size, an AAC file will sound better than an equivalent size of MP3 file.

FLAC – is an independently developed Open Source file format. It does exactly the same thing as an ALAC file and was developed because originally ALAC was proprietary to Apple and people wanted a Lossless file format that anyone could use. It is absolutely transparent just like an ALAC or Zip file. The music remains unchanged.  Almost all non-Apple music players will play FLAC files, but Apple products can not play them natively (Apple can be stubborn). ALAC files can be played on any Apple player as well as almost all other players. For that reason, ALAC is the most flexible way to go if you want the very best sounding music files that can be played on almost anything.

Recommendations:

My preferred file format is ALAC which i usually rip from my CD’s using dbPoweramp software. ITunes sells their files as 256 kbps AAC files which i occasionally use if i can’t buy a CD (not every album ever issued is available on CD) or if i just want a particular single song. Amazon sells 256 kbps MP3 files which i no longer buy because they do not sound quite as good as Apple’s AAC files. There are also other companies which sell music files online in higher resolution formats.  HDTracks.com sells extremely high resolution files up to 24/192 as well as ALAC files. Pono also sells extremely high resolution files.  It is the general opinion of the audiophile community that for 95% of people, there is no audible difference between a standard 16/44 ALAC or FLAC file and an extremely high resolution file (and the high resolution files cost substantially more). So unless you have invested more than $10,000 on your audio equipment and have golden ears, you can safely forget about anything other than MP3, M4a and FLAC files.

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About John

Well, here i go!John

I grew up in upstate (central) NY in a small town called Oneida.  Winters were cold with lots of snow, which was pretty awesome for kids, but not so much for grown ups.  Fall was the prettiest time of year with beautiful rolling hills covered in brightly colored trees,  Summers were hot, but not as humid as I’ve come to experience while living in the south.  I grew up in the 60’s and went through High School and College in the 70’s.  I got married in 1980 while living in SC and we then moved around the country living in NC, TN, KS and CA before finally landing in FL about 10 years ago.  Along the way my wife and i had 2 sons.  For most of my career i was an administrator for various Churches and Christian Schools.

I was born with a pretty rare congenital eye problem known originally as Congenital Fibrosis and now acronized into CFEOM type 1.  Basically, I have no muscles to move my eyeballs or my eyelids either up or down.  My eyeballs are set to look out of the very bottom under my slightly opened eyelids (you can see this in the picture above).  This means that in order to see straight ahead, I have to tilt my head up, or else i end up looking at my feet.  This is pretty hard on my neck and now that i’m approaching 60 i have continuous pain in my neck and constant headaches.  To complicate things, because my eyelids are also unable to open or close, they do not close fully at night, which allows my eyes to dry out.  Dry eyes are not only uncomfortable (scratchy, burning, etc) but it also makes them prone to infection.  I’ve had many infections and a few times they ended up creating ulcers on my corneas.  I no longer can see out of my right eye and the vision in my left eye is uncorrected at 20/400 and corrected via a special contact lens to 20/70.  I had to give up driving about 5 years ago as my vision deteriorated further.

My brain is shouting at me that i am dumping TMI, but some of these things may come up in the future.

I went to college to study Broadcast Engineering (very much like electrical engineering) with an emphasis on sound mixing equipment, powerful transmitters and antenna propagation.  I minored in Math taking not only a lot of Calculus, but also differential equations and matrix Algebra.  I bring this up to show my Geek cred.  I have always enjoyed techy and sciencey stuff.  After i graduated, i went to grad school and earned an MBA.  My goal was to start and manage a Christian Radio Station.  The FCC had other ideas and they completely froze the issuance of licenses for new radio stations.  I then met my future wife and together we felt God calling us to be missionaries with Trans World Radio. While raising money for support and preparing to leave for their location in Guam, my eye problems flared up and became much worse.  The doctors told me I should not leave the country because future complications could cause me to lose my vision entirely.  That began my transition into working as an administrator for several churches and Christian Schools around the country.  About 8 years ago, my vision started once again to get worse and i also developed several other health issues, so i applied for and eventually got disability status from the Social Security Administration.

That brings things close to the present.

What am i doing with my life now, your ask?  (You asked, right?)  I have several passions.  Chief among them is studying God’s Word.  I’ve been teaching Adult Christian Education classes (also known as Adult Sunday School) since the early 80’s and i have always enjoyed it very much.  My greatest joy now is in teaching an Adult CE class at my church.  I love the study and the preparation and most of all the interaction during the class.  In addition, i am an avid reader and i’m passionate about music.  What kind of music?  I am very eclectic in my musical tastes.  I like Oldies (50’s and early 60’s), Classic rock (late 60’s through 70’s) lots of singer/songwriter stuff (James Taylor, Carol King, Paul Simon).  I also enjoy jazz, classical, folk, blues and old time country (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, etc).  I don’t care much for modern country, Rap or Hip-Hop.

So what will i be posting about?

I’ll be rambling about biblical things that cross my mind through my studying and reading.  I’ll talk about some music stuff.  I’ll also talk about tech things (except phones) and also audio equipment like headphones, amplifiers, etc.  I hope you will find this interesting.  More importantly, i hope you will participate by adding comments and discussing agreements and disagreements with me and others who participate.

Disclaimer:

Nothing i say should ever be construed to represent the views of my wife, my church or my friends.  I am a pretty independent minded guy and as i have matured, i’ve discovered that i don’t easily fit into any camp or under any label.  There are a number of things i am not.

Politically, i am a moderate.  I used to be a republican, but they seem to have gone so far off to the right that i now consider myself a moderate.

Theologically, i am, in broad strokes, an evangelical.  I am not an Arminian, nor a Calvinist, nor a Dispensationalist, Egalitarian or Complimentarian.  My moderate inclinations have made me uncomfortable with the extremes of each of those positions.

In short, i don’t like labels.  I think a lot.  I ponder.  I wonder.  I question.  I try and understand many positions.

I believe that God did not write for us a book of doctrine or systematic theology.  He wrote for us a book which speaks of God’s relationship with man and man’s relationship with God and with his fellow man.  The key is relationship.  It seems that every time man sets up a system of theology, it ends up trying to force scripture to say things it doesn’t actually say.  My proclivity to not fit into a nice pigeon hole tends to make some of what i believe and will write about controversial.  That’s why i named my blog Unapologetically John.

So as i often tell my Adult CE class, “Fasten your seat belts and hang on!”

A comment is passing:  i do not capitalize the word i unless it begins a sentence.  This is deliberate, not a mistake.  I can’t think of any legitimate reason why this word is capitalized and it seems prideful to me.  We never capitalize me or us or you or he or she, so why i?

 

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