Kevin Hunt: Why Is Music Stuck At Low-Rez In World Of Hi-Rez Video?

What happened to the career trajectory of audio and video, for decades members of the same club? When quality counts, video is the superstar.

Television shoppers only want the best, so they look for a 1080p set. (Watch out, new Ultra HD televisions are on the way.) But at a viewing distance of 9 feet from a 42-inch screen, the human eye cannot tell the difference between 1080p and 720p — the extra lines of resolution, and the extra money, are wasted.

But people insist on the highest resolution. The 480p DVD evolved into 1080p Blu-ray. Music, meanwhile, remains stuck in another era, the late 20th century, and the early days of digital music downloads. In those days, agonizingly slow dial-up speeds made downloading a music CD's uncompressed files impractical. It took hours.

That led to the MP3, created by the Moving Picture Experts Group, or MPEG, an international collection of experts that established standards for audio-video compression and transmission. The MP3 made sense then. An MP3 encoded at 128 kilobits per second was a fraction of an uncompressed CD (1,411 kilobits per second), allowing faster downloads. It also took up less hard drive space. An 8-gigabyte portable music player holds maybe 15 albums of uncompressed music files but close to 150 using low-bit-rate MP3 encoding.

For-sale MP3 files  were encrypted, too, essential to music-industry licensing, making them harder to copy illegally. (The CD was unencrypted.)

More than a decade later, high-definition video is available at the iTunes Store or at Netflix, Vudu and other streaming services. Yet CD-quality downloads, never mind higher-def music, is unavailable at iTunes or or any other major music seller.

While video downloads have gone high-def, the most notable advance in music downloads is the iTunes Store's switch from 128 kbps AAC files to 256 kbps AAC files — Apple's version of the MP3 — essentially moving to a 5.5-to-1 compression ratio from 11-to-1. That's an improvement, but still a long way from the original music.

Maybe it doesn't make a difference. People listen to music on iPhones, smartphones, iPads and tablets using headphones on noisy subways, in busy offices or relaxing while scanning the Internet, where quality doesn't count.

The MP3 and other variations, like Apple's AAC, are known as lossy music files — data is lost when creating the file. The audio least detectable to the human ear is removed first. Even when the file is decompressed, the data remains missing.

Compressed music files don't have to be data losers. Another type, called lossless, compresses the file but does not discard data. An Apple Lossless file (FLAC is another lossless format) uses about 5 megabytes of disk space per minute of recorded music. A 60-minute CD stored in the Apple Lossless format would take up about 300 megabytes, maybe half the space of uncompressed files.

Many people can't tell the difference from a 256 AAC download from the iTunes Store. Some can, but need more expensive audio equipment. See if you can tell the difference. Rip a song off a CD into iTunes as both an AAC (lossy) and Apple Lossless file. (More formal "double-blind" testing is available with free utilities like ABXTester at the Mac App Store.)

Some people, depending on the HDTV, can't tell the difference between 1080p and 720p video. Some can't tell the difference between 1080p and 480p. But anyone can get high-res television.

Space and speed no longer fit the audio equation. Hard drive space is less than $100 for a 1-terrabyte (1,000-gigabyte) external drive. High-speed broadband has replaced dial-up Internet connections. For portable use, iTunes software can automatically convert lossless or uncompressed files to a smaller, compressed format to fit more songs.

No technological, or practical, reason prevents music downloads from matching sound quality available in the home since the 1990s. The music industry doesn't want it. As with video, though, people deserve the option.

Lossy Music Files

Compressed to store music in a smaller file, up to 90 percent smaller than the original

Data lost: Yes

Examples: MP3, AAC

Lossless Music Files

Compressed to store music in a smaller file, up to 50 percent smaller than the original.

Data lost: No

Examples: Apple Lossless, FLAC

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