How Good Can It Sound?

Stereophile magazine has published an article on iTunes. Most of it is yet another rehash of new features of iTunes 4.5. However the most interesting point is that the New York branch of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) is gathering this month to discuss the impact of portable digital audio players like the iPod using compressed audio files on the sound of music.

It is an important topic. When we do the final mix for films, we go to a dub stage that looks like a theater with most of the seats pulled out and an enormous mix board in the middle of the room. The speakers on these stages sound far better than the ones in most movie theaters. When it comes time to do the DVD mix, sometimes near field speakers are placed on the stage. These might be Genelecs or Audix or some other high end speaker that sounds much better than your home theater setup. The point is we try to get the best sounding mix out of the best sounding speakers. And when we go from movie theater to home theater we try to accurately reproduce the ideal listening environment.

Another way to think of it is that you know a hundred dollar pair of headphones is going to sound a lot better than a ten dollar pair. When you’re working with sound, whether it’s music or films, you want it sound the best it can under the best possible situation. (And therefore it should sound as good as possible under less than ideal situations.)

But iTunes and iPods and the like present a different problem. We are no longer just talking about monitoring through different headphones or speakers. We are talking about reducing the quality of the sound before it even gets played back. By it’s very nature, a compressed sound file is better at playing back certain frequencies, and worse at others. In my own personal observations, high frequency transients like the harmonics from cymbals are the first things to get thrown out in MP3s. So if you know that a lot of your listeners are going to be listening to MP3s versus CDs, do you start reducing those high end frequencies in your mix?

It’s definitely something to think about and should be an interesting discussion.