You have probably heard of Jay Z backed high-quality music streaming platform and Spotify rival called Tidal. The sales pitch is that Tidal will stream lossless audio to consumers for $20 a month or Spotify standard 320kbps for $10 per month.
The thing is, high bitrate audio for the general consumer is pointless. I am not an extreme audiophile nor an audio expert, but I do like listening to music through nice headphones and speakers. And to be quite honest, even through expensive headphones I cannot tell the difference between a 320kbps MP3 or a lossless FLAC file.
I, too, used to think that FLAC audio resulted in a better listening experience. Taking up to 400mb of space at a time for one CD compared to 80mb for 320kbps meant longer download time, needing to use a player that can handle FLAC, taking up more hard drive space and needing to convert to a compatible format if I wanted to listen to the album on an iPod/iPhone or other music player (or in my car). I am aware of other lossless audio formats, but honestly, FLAC is the standard lossless format.
Unlike the small minority of audiophiles who think they can hear the difference, the reality is you can’t. You hear what you think you should hear. You hear what the packaging for your new Hifiman HE 6 headphones you just spend $1200 tell you that you should hear. You justify your expensive purchases by convincing yourself that you can hear the difference.
You can definitely tell the difference between a $50 pair of headphones and a $1000 pair of headphones. A lot of people probably could. Listening to a 320kbps MP3 and Flac file of the same track on the same pair of headphones, you probably won’t notice a lot (especially if it is a modern produced track).
Listening to a file at 128kbps however would definitely be noticeable as the fidelity would be so low cymbals would sound like glass, instruments muddled and it would sound atrocious (even through iPhone earphones).
Now take into consideration that the general consumer and even prosumer (someone who thinks spending $50 more will get them something better) probably thinks $500 for a pair of headphones is too expensive.
Also consider most people are perfectly happy listening to music through their iPhone earphones, smartphone speaker which lacks fidelity and car radios with stock car speakers that are bass heavy and also lack fidelity.
The more that people think something is worth, the more people will pay. The average consumer will make purchases based on perceived value and marketing. The average consumer wants to make a statement, that’s why the iPhone sells so well.
Only a small subset who fall outside of the average consumer category and into the professional category will make informed choices about what they buy.
A perfect example of prosumer audio products are the Beats headphone line. A pair of Beats Studio headphones will set you back $400 AUD. The pro version of Beats will set you back $500 AUD. However, as great as the marketing of the headphones is, the quality is anything but worth the price tag. Head over to your favourite audio website, blog or forum and ask them what they think of Beats by Dre.
The benefits of lossless audio are great for archiving purposes. If you want to preserve an audio recording at the best possible sound quality as the producer and mixing engineer intended you would store it as a lossless audio file.
If you wanted to listen to One Direction’s new album on your iPhone purchased from iTunes, lossless audio would just be a waste of space. Honestly, when the dynamics and detail are missing in the final product, what is the benefit?
The Loudness War
While I am not saying the lossless audio is irrelevant nor am I saying that it doesn’t sound better, the sad reality is modern music is broken. If you have heard of the term “loudness war” then you might be familiar with the practice of increasing the loudness of an album to the point where it loses all of its dynamics.
Because of this “loudness war” practice in which producers, labels and audio engineers are stripping away the details from modern music no matter how high the bitrate is of the audio you are listening too, it will not sound any better. A lossless streaming platform that has the likes of popular artists such as Beyonce means you’re streaming distorted garbage noise.
This link showcases some average decibel levels from various artists, more worringly is Katy Perry is louder than Megadeth and Avril Lavigne is louder than Metallica (probably not Death Magnetic though).
Loudness War winner: Metallica’s Death Magnetic
Nothing sums up the sad state of modern music than Metallica’s 2008 release Death Magnetic. Single-handedly considered one of the worse examples of compression and loudness war albums. Opening up any of the tracks in a waveform editor will yield a completely brick-walled result. Seriously, check out this article showing the waveforms.
A great example of how poorly mixed Death Magnetic is listen to the track, “The Day That Never Comes” from the 3:45 mark. Believe it or not the track gets worse around the 4:00 mark. You can actually hear how distorted the track is, literally there is distortion when the guitar chugs.
Do people think that listening to Death Magnetic through Tidal in lossless format will result in a better sounding album? No. The point is modern music is broken. While Death Magnetic is an extreme example, other artists are not too far off the brick-wall levels that Death Magnetic hit.
We haven’t seen another album take the crown off of Metallica (hopefully we don’t). Maybe when Metallica release their new album in 2016 they’ll just release an album of white noise. The waveforms will be completely solid like a long rectangle.
Lossless quality is real
I would like to clarify that lossless audio is definitely better. In situations where the source audio is decent not to mention the audio equipment being used to play back the audio is also equally decent, there are aural indicators of better sounding audio as a result of lossless audio.
The biggest clue of sound quality is percussion. While vocalists can use effects and guitarists can turn up the gain on their amplifiers and use pedals to modify their sound making it sound better, a drummer has limited options in modifying and tweaking their sound. If you want to hear the sound quality of a nicely mixed track, pay attention to the cymbals and snare drum especially.
However, even with these clues to help identify high-fidelity audio, most people still probably will not be able to hear the difference. You need an ear for this sort of thing and as I admitted at the beginning, not even I can really tell the difference between 320kbps and lossless.
While I am a big fan of high fidelity music, it’s sad to say that a streaming platform comprised of mostly modern music will not give the consumer any added benefit by offering lossless audio.
If you are listening to lossless (non-remastered) versions of The Beatles, Led Zepelin or even late 80’s/early 90’s artists like Nirvana then lossless is definitely a decent advantage.
In the modern music landscape, lossless is no more of an advantage than a car manufacture claiming that their red cars are faster than their competitors who don’t sell primarily red cars. Until music is fixed at the source, lossless is good for nothing more than preserving and archiving the shitty music for future generations to vomit over in disgust.