Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to witness the beginning of the end of MP3 domination as we know it. Yes, it was surprising to me, too… at last count, I had 3,763 songs in the MP3 format across my MP3 players, iPod and computers. But, alas, the end is near. As new technologies emerge and storage capacities become larger and more affordable, the writing is on the wall for compressed audio. More on our better-sounding future after the Continue jump.
A Matter of Memory
When a 256MB MP3 player was state of the art, MP3 made sense. You needed to get music files compressed small enough to be able to get a reasonable variety on a player — enough to offer more than a standard CD. But as we move into the terabyte era and Blu-ray discs start to feature lossless audio formats, why compress the crap out of your music? Don't you want the very best for your audio files? Doesn't your music deserve the very best?
The Blu-ray format can store 50 gigabytes (new optical discs with up to 400GB are in the works, though they're not technically Blu-ray). That's 50GB of video, audio or data. Thanks to the extra space, movie producers no longer have to use the compressed audio formats of Dolby Digital and DTS, which are ubiquitous on DVD. Yeah, in case you didn't know, as sweet as those 5.1-channel DVD soundtracks are, they're "lossy" — some of the original audio content is thrown away, never to be seen again. Buh-bye.
No Big Loss for Soundtracks
But Hollywood has seen the light and is putting lossless audio formats on Blu-ray. The HD video contained on a Blu-ray Disc is still massively compressed (in a lossy kind of way). How massively? It would take about 21 Blu-ray discs to store an uncompressed two-hour film. The soundtracks are actually getting a pretty good deal, since their compression is at least lossless. DTS-HD Master Audio is a lossless format that's a bit-for-bit match of the original audio track, and Dolby TrueHD is also a 100% lossless coding technology. Of course, these formats are still compressed — they save space compared to WAV files — but the compression doesn't affect audio quality.
It should be asked that if compression technology is so good that even massively compressed video can be called high-def and looks awesome on a big screen, is audio compression really a bad thing if no one thinks anyone can hear the difference? Maybe not, but it's kind of beside the point. Lossless audio files are still tiny compared to video files, so since the amount of storage needed is so small, why not? In general, as storage size increases, compression should decrease.
If Hollywood has seen the light, it makes sense that the music industry should as well. A standard audio CD has about a measly 700MB of data. That means you could store about 70 CDs on a single Blu-ray disc. Uncompressed. Every single bit, not just the bits the MP3 codec designers thought you wanted.
The latest iPod has 160GB storage. 160 GIG! The Archos 504 has that, too. Its specs state it can store up to 80,000 songs. Why don't any of these stats state that you can store better-sounding songs? Instead of 80,000 songs, why not 8,000 that sound really good and are the original quality? The average MP3 encoder tosses out 90% of the original audio. A 10 MB WAV file becomes an 854.2 KB MP3 file encoded at 128 kpbs. That’s a huge reduction. As storage capacities increase, so should compression bit rates, but most files out there are at the same level of quality they were at 10 years ago.
Lossless Music, Everybody Wins
It's true that over the average pair of earbuds, most people can't hear the difference between MP3 and original uncompressed files. However, more and more home systems are coming out that are "iPod-ready" or have iPod docks. This means you're listening to your compressed audio on your killer home system, which will make the flaws more obvious. Even headphone technology is getting better and better, and the reduced quality of compression is going to get more and more apparent.
iTunes rips all your music into AAC format (a compression technique that's superior to MP3) at 128 kbps by default. Apple could do a huge service for the ears of the world by either raising that de facto standard or at the very least doing a better job of making their customers aware that they can (and should) change it on their own.
Obviously, most people are of the opinion that increased storage capacity means they can store more music. But something tells me not everybody wants to put the equivalent of a radio station's music collection on their iPods. So why can't it also mean better-quality music? The capacities are there — soon enough we'll all be trotting around with terabytes in our pockets. For the sake of our children's listening, isn’t it time to send MP3 packing?