Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Music, Google Music, and nearly all major music streaming services have one thing in common: They compress their music streams in ways that affect and remove the details of the original recordings.
Worse yet, they often require artists and distributors to compress the audio ourselves, so that they never even receive the pure original recordings in the first place.
I could say, “trust me — the difference between 128kbps MP3 and 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV is quite noticeable”, but that’s just an anecdote. (We should always seek more than anecdotes before believing something much at all…) You can verify this for yourself by acquiring an original album: vinyl, CD, WAV, or AIFF, or my favorite: FLAC (FLAC is an open-source lossless compression format that lets you control the amount of compression, in exchange for making the file take longer to open). Even a cassette is likely to reveal more high-end detail than can be transmitted in the lossy, 128-kbps MP3 compression used by most streaming services and platforms. Play the “real” album, then listen to it on YouTube or Spotify. If your ears don’t reveal any difference, congratulations! You can probably get by on streaming, and thank you for your service.
When I hear the comparison between, for example, a 16-bit 44.1kHz FLAC (or WAV) file, against a given YouTube video, the difference is usually obvious.
If I were to contribute to a consortium or think tank about audio formats, I would promote using CD quality as a bare minimum for acceptable “compression or loss” in the 2020’s. I mean, come on.
It’s increasingly rare to find original studio recordings that are anything below 16-bit, 44.1kHz in quality. Worst case, these days, is that only an MP3 of a song is left, leaving us with an inferior copy of our original work, unforgiving as it may be. The standard for CD quality audio must have been thought-out for a while, because it does stand the test of time in its first 50 years or so. It still sounds good, and CD’s are still very enjoyable and reliable ways to listen to experience an album. The plastic pollution aspect of it bothers me more each time I get a box full of various flavors of plastic garbage, but that’s an entire other blog post.
Okay, so I’ve presented a problem, and praised FLAC along with the standards of “CD-quality music.” What’s my point? My point is sort of a public service announcement (PSA): If you’re paying for music that’s not at least CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1kHz), you’re getting ripped off. This is coming from someone who gets paid royalties for streams on YouTube, Spotify, etc. Even with that being true, I don’t support the idea of paying for “lossy” music. I also don’t want people hearing my music in a compressed way that ruins the details of shimmering guitar chords, for example.
The issue of sound quality mentioned above, is why I buy most of my music on Bandcamp or directly from artists/record labels. I’m also guilty of paying $35 for a tape on Discogs, just to fill out the missing pieces in the Blood Incantation collection, for example. Bandcamp purchases almost always include the digital version, in CD-quality or higher. This has helped me upgrade my music collection beyond anything previously attainable.
Side note: Bandcamp uses the best possible compression for their 128kbps streaming. Plex also does this well, when the source files are lossless. Have a listen to the clarity and punch of a Bandcamp stream, but keep in mind, the original recordings are clearer yet:
I’ll do another post later about how I purchase music on Bandcamp (or elsewhere in a physical format), then quickly add it to my personal digital collection for streaming over my home network. Stay tuned.