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How the FLAC do I tell MP3s from lossless audio?

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward

The article is so nontechnical it hurts.

Anyway, as everyone have already said, the actual moving parts of audio system (headphones and speakers) alter (or butcher) the sound significantly more than high-bitrate compression, clock jitter and other scarecrows of “Hi-Fi” crowd combined. The same goes for recording process and studio mixing. As a wild guess, 9 out of 10 people in the world listen to music on a hardware that masks any difference in quality. And no matter what losslessly lossless 4800 KHz 1600 bits/sample 100% authorized version of “Death Magnetic” you get, it would still be a pathetic joke compared to (oooh-pirated, oooh-lossy) Guitar Hero version.

The reasons for lossy and lossless compression are different. Lossy compression provides a wide range of possibilities to sacrifice some quality when bandwidth (or storage space, as they are the same from certain point of view) is scarce, from “very small piece of sound data that still can be deciphered as human voice” to “artifacts mostly unnoticeable by most of the listeners while still being x times smaller”. Depending on situation, you aim for some point at this range. Lossless compression just aims to save original data (and maybe save some space by not wasting it on millions of zeros, while we are at it). It's just a transparent functionality so you don't have to put every track in the ZIP file and unpack it manually all the time.

Because storage space is mostly cheap in most situations at the moment, people tend to miss the fact that lossy compression is not about providing the absolute best quality, it's about balance between quality and size. If you think about that, 320 kbps CBR MP3s are just the same overblown abomination as “100% quality” JPEG images. Moreover, MPEG-1/2 Audio algorithm itself is more than 20 years old, newer ones are better.

As for the question in the headline, there are audio samples that produce noticeable MP3 artifacts even when encoded on 320 kbps, you can take them and tell the difference. They are no secret and probably would be on a first page of a relevant google search. In general everyday use, bitrate requirements differ between genres and complexity of music. For example, for some parts of some metal tracks (when blast beat, fast shredding on distorted guitars, synths chorus and vocal are combined) 256 kbps is just a little bit not enough — at least that's what I hear on the blind test on consumer equipment that is far from perfect.

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