The death of the mp3

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My interview in the UK’s Metro newspaper last week appears to have touched a raw nerve with many people. In that interview I claimed that mp3 downloads will be replaced by music at studio master quality. And it was this prediction that seems to have raised the most hostility.

This surprises me.

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It’s not like I predicted the demise of the toaster, suggesting we leave bread out in the sun to toast instead, or that the internet would be replaced by an elaborate network of paper cups attached by string.

Domestic internet connections have progressed from dial-up to broadband without complaint; it seems non-contentious that faster is better. But when it comes to music many seem to be invested in the paradoxical idea that worse is better. And apparently they are prepared to argue the matter quite forcefully.

I am not denying that there are powerful forces holding music back. Since 2007, iPods have had a maximum capacity of 160Gb: enough for 40,000 watered-down songs. In Apple's own words, that amounts to a lifetime's entertainment. But remember, that is a lifetime of low quality entertainment. Now, I don't know about you, but I have strong feelings about my own lifetime, and I feel I deserve more. Apple could easily increase the capacity of their iPods, but 6 years of silence on this matter suggests they are not that bothered.

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Thankfully, however, there are already signs that music quality for the common download is set to improve. There are a number of initiatives that suggest that the industry is on the move.

While Spotify's audio stream is currently capped at 320kbps, the maximum bit rate mp3 can offer, it is rumoured that it intends to move to CD quality. And as Jimmy Iovine considers how to compete with Spotify with his Daisy project, music quality is certain to form some part of his challenge. This upward pressure will undoubtedly hasten the demise of mp3 for streaming services.

Furthermore, the major record labels are beginning to recover their voice. Admittedly, they rarely distribute music at studio master quality. And when they do it is a highly restricted selection from their back catalogue, which they sell through the likes of LinnRecords.com. Clearly, they have been on the back foot since they handed Apple a monopoly for paid-downloads on their mp3 catalogues in 2003. But as the saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Thumbnail image for Neil Young's Pono music player

The Majors are discussing and evaluating fresh outlets, and whenever they do, improved music quality is always part of the package. Warner Music Group’s alliance with Neil Young’s Pono initiative intends to establish studio master quality 24-bit downloads as a mainstream proposition: something we have been championing at Linn since 2007. Neil Young’s hope is that a focus on music quality will appeal to music lovers and challenge Apple’s hegemony. And while I fear that Pono might confuse music consumers by creating a new audio format that can only be listened to on Pono equipment, the spirit is clear. Add to this the desire of both Amazon and Google to challenge iTunes (via Kindle Store and Google Play), and it’s even more apparent that the landscape is shifting.

The death of mp3 is hardly a prediction at all. It’s already dying. High quality music is on its way and it will arrive sooner than you think.

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I have a theory that the success of a new (or different) technology is dependent on a number of factors. Either it has to be a radical change (e.g CRT -> flatscreen TV), or if not it has to benefit the consumer in more than one significant way over the technology it replaces. For instance things like Minidisc did not provide a radical change and also did not provide more than one significant benefit.

This is a very approximate theory as you can tell (!) but to me SM does not in itself provide a large enough set of advantages over MP3 at the moment to enable a shift. This is not going to be a rapid change but a very gradual one, if at all. The problem to me is that at least one more benefit is required for tipping point to be reached. The name 'Studio Master' promises a new recording, one taken from the master - but I feel this is misleading. What we're getting in most cases is a recording not much different from that available on MP3.

So with SM it's quite simple - there are not many ways in which it advances over MP3. It's better quality (though most people won't notice with an MP3 320 -> SM), or the recordings themselves have to be better as well, otherwise is there much point apart to die-hard audiophiles?

French distributor Qobuz has been offering CD and Studio quality downloads for several years now. Where I can, I buy from the artist direct on Bandcamp, or through labels like Linn or Hyperion. However that only represents a small fraction of the repertoire I seek.

The problem is that the publishers continue to micromanage the geography of where digital purchases may be made, so if your IP or credit-card address is not in France then many releases will simply not be available. On the other hand a huge amount of British music is simply not available via download in France (without a proxy) because the publishers are extremely parochial in where they list product on services like iTunes and Spotify.

Being from Australia and living overseas quite frequently, I get an even poorer deal by not being able to buy Australian music overseas and not much European music when I'm home, unless I basically stick to very mainstream repertoire. Australia also has metered internet downloads, so buying high quality music will cost a great deal more per album on top of the iTunes "you are not Americans" tax already paid.

Quality AND distribution issues need to be tackled at the same time. Moving a few miles here or there shouldn't fundamentally change the music catalogue you have available. Artists and label use social media heavily to promote their product, but fail to demonstrate the joined up thinking that would tell them that they're advertising to a global audience but only selling to a fraction of those interested in buying.

These are interesting comments to a thought provoking post.

I doubt mp3's are dead, though. Not yet. There are many factors to consider about digital music and the files involved. One's internet connection speed definitely plays a part.

People will cling to what is familiar for a long time. Many may resent an implication that the collections they have invested in are less than cool.

Sound distribution has been lousy for a long time but like HD in video it will catch on at some rate. Slowly is fine with me as long as I have access to the good stuff and a community to relate to.

Frankly, many people just can't hear the difference between higher and lower resolutions due to hearing limitations. Many folks have damaged hearing and just live with it.

Somehow auditory perception gets interpreted differently than visual. The camera industry was forced to change to hi res almost instantly as the technology rapidly advanced. High res audio is quite available and acceptance is just slower.

Some who can hear better resolution just don't care. Not so much with visual resolution. People really jones on beautiful images. Maybe hearing is more likely to get damaged than vision.

Then there is the psychological factor. How long can you listen to Andrea Bocelli in high resolution before the tears start to stream? I can make maybe 5 minutes before the kleenex comes out and I'm a big, strong guy. This may indicate how likely a person is to accept or resist sound improvement, actually.

Sound is inherently harder to block than vision and sound seems more emotional while vision is more rational. Maybe folks show more and different kinds of resistance to sound because it's just harder to block. You can look away or pull a shade if someone in the street is making a racket but the sound will still drive you nuts. Like low res MP3's do.

However, despite all the inertia, there is a clear market for higher quality audio sources. May it thrive and grow forever, become easier to access, and continue to get less costly.

I am afraid that even most DJs (who ought to know better) are sticking with compressed music files too!

I conducted a survey last year on a DJ forum:
http://www.forum.mobilediscodirectory.co.uk/showthread.php?34843-What-is-your-Standard-Audio-Quality&highlight=24bit

I use 16bit from the Broadchart database and would leap at the chance to play 24bit files... I wish you could make the HDtracks.com tracks available through Linn in the UK.

I admire Neil Young's efforts but he is misguided. You need a proper playout system to really appreciate the quality of Studio masters not some handheld unit.

Lee Live
http://www.lee-live.com/

To me the biggest problem is compromise. People nowadays are too eager to compromise. We will sacrifice quality over convenience and music is, unfortunately, no different.

We want everything right here, right now and this is what has made MP3s and other similar formats so popular.

Just as a side note, so a 160Gb iPod will hold about 40,000 tracks of music. Will you ever listen to all of these? How about settling for say 1,000 or so track at really high quality. Oh, I forget, then we need to keep on moving new music to our player. Ghee, I guess we should just settle for poor quality instead...

I have to agree that the issue of distribution channels need to be sorted out. I am a South African living in Vietnam with UK based bank accounts. I also spend about 40% or more of my year travelling (largely around Asia). Buying music is a nightmare. If my IP address is not "blacklisted" then I can only buy music on the UK/USA/whatever catalogue (depending on the label), sometimes my credit card is not accepted because my mailing address is in Vietnam and my card is issued by a bank in the UK (credit card fraud is a serious business you know...).

Nonetheless, I moved from MP3s to FLAC about three years ago and can (with some pride) say that I have no MP3s, don't need them and don't want them. I buy studio master quality as far as I can.

MP3 as a format may not be dead, but I do believe it is dying. With decreasing costs of storage and increasing internet connection speeds, there is no longer a need for it. Apple (ugggh) may have been one of the "driving" forces behind compressed audio formats, but I believe it is time to move along.

Proprietary formats (ala Neil Young's pono system) are not, in my opinion, the answer. Open formats which allow people the freedom to select their playback systems, are.

This is an interesting article; I agree with a lot of these comments.

However, I think this article misses out one of the most important issues that negatively affects the audio quality of all digital formats: Overuse of dynamic-range compression during mastering (i.e. the 'loudness wars'). For those unfamiliar, this is a good explanation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ

Focussing on MP3 vs lossless vs Hi-Res is almost pointless when a huge amount of music being released sounds like crap because it's mastered to use only the last 3dB of dynamic range of the format.

One last point: Jimmy Iovine couldn't care less about audio quality. To me, this is evident simply by looking at the Dr Dre Beats headphones, especially the ones produced once Iovine's company dropped Monster as the designers/engineers.

Is anyone still wasting time with MP3s? FLAC for me. My smartphone has a large selection of fine recordings, downloads from Linn plus many of my Vinyl recordings (to FLAC via Audacity).

While I empathise with your wish to see a move to higher quality digital music formats, I do wonder if a more pragmatic approach would be helpful. I think Linn is missing a trick in not catering for those of us whose primary form of music consumption is on mobile devices.

It seems to me that portable MP3 players, particularly Apple's iPods and iPhones, have risen from nowhere to near-ubiquity in a very short period of time - you only have to take a ride on the London Underground during rush hour to see how many people are adorned with those distinctive, flimsy white cables - perhaps a rethink of that system of music playback would be in order? Could Linn, for example, create a new earbud design with a superior speaker system at an affordable price?

My travels on the Tube have also made me aware that there's a significant minority of listeners who have swapped earbuds for headphones - the 'Beats by Dr Dre' design seems popular. So how about some Linn headphones, optimised for mobile listening, and obtainable at a competitive price from high-street retailers? A challenge to the received wisdom that hi-fi quality sound is only affordable to those with bottomless bank accounts is long overdue, in my opinion.

And what of the software design of Itunes itself? It famously doesn't read FLAC files natively and, although there are FLAC player apps in the Apple Store, user reviews suggest thay are unstable, to say the least. Perhaps a Linn FLAC player app, with a desktop interface too, would be a way to help redress the balance and make the move from MP3 to FLAC a little easier for us 'umble punters? When all's said and done, it seems that it's the end user who will decide the outcome of these 'format wars' and if there's no comparable alternative to Apple's existing solution, then it's hard to see how a change to better quality music-on-the-move can happen any time soon.

Yes I think higher resolution is the future, or more importantly the resolution in which the recording was made. Some recording companies have tried to fool us with up-sampling of lower resolution recordings.

However, I don't think we will get affordable prices from Linn, they have always over charged. Look at the price difference going from 44.1/16 bit to 44.1/24 bit, nearly double the price, it's not worth it, I'd pay maybe a maximum of 3 dollars extra, not 11 dollars. This huge price differential also makes it more attractive for companies to try and fool us by up-sampling, they think "we can double our return if we just up the resolution by padding in 8 extra bits to the original 16 bits and call it 24 bit".

Good luck Gilad, your company produces good quality hardware, and so does Apple, however if you could come near to replicating Apples hardware prices combined with higher resolution music you could be the next Apple, but with better quality music. It is time for a paradigm shift, only if you could make your products more affordable, get the young while their hearing is at it's most sensitive.

Two years ago, I invested in a Drobo external hard drive bay. The bay can fit four external hard drives. When I bought the package, external drives were commonly being sold in 1TB sizes, one year later they were bring sold in 2TB sizes. You get the point. I now have 7TB of hard drive space. I still love stereo and have a top of the line system run by very good Quad equipment. I realized that much of the music that I had downloaded from certain sites such as emusic.com came in inferior formats. If I listened to the 150 to 190 bitrate stuff against the same recording on CD, the difference was obvious. No smoke and mirrors here, the difference was clear.

Because I have been an ipod user, I had transferred all of my CD based music to the Drobo in 128 bitrate format!! Before long, I had to reupload all of my CD based music in lossless format. I now download from Linn and a few other high quality sites and from iTunes (when necessary). I am also back to buying CDs and copying their content to the Drobo. I have the space and frankly, I am determined to have the have the quality too. If mp3 depended on me, it would be dead by now.

I don't think that I'm the only person seeking quality first these days. With hard drive space as cheap as it is - why not? And oh yes, of the 7TB on the Drobo, less than 2.5TB taken up with 30,000 tracks of music and almost 700 TV shows. If I ever get into a space crunch, the TV shows are going first. These days, my 40,000 song capacity iPod contains far less than half of that quantity of tracks in lossless format - hey, it still never runs out of music!

To some degree, I agree with the premis of the article. The extent to which I disagree is that there will always be an incredibly huge number of people for whom, the feeling of "being there" in an Elvin Jones or Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment recording is secondary. If you play your music through a Bose Sound thing or through those tiny tinny earbuds quality is never going to matter.

Could not agree with you more, getting very fed up with paying for HD music only to find that its no better than MP3.
I have downloaded Audacity and one can check the waveform of the music file in case one was doubting their ears. Most of the linn downloads have been good but one has to be careful i have stopped purchasing from some sites as i have been bitten too many times.
When will this LOUDNESS war crap stop, sooner rather than later i hope!

I agree completely with the author's views on the coming demise of mp3. It was only ever an interim format designed in a time of low bandwidth and limited storage capacity.

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