CD and Phone Music: What is better?

These days when you are moving in our streets be it in Zolozolo, Chibabvi, Area 23 or Kawale, Chilomoni or Nkolokosa you find that there is sometimes a lot of sound clash where phones that have facilities to play and store MP3 or whatever MP is there are playing competitively.

When you are travelling within these locations in public transport even long intercity journeys you find that everyone has a head set on, drowned into a choice of music loaded into their phones or iPods.

But are we aware how poor in quality the sound that we are listening to from our phones and iPods is, as compared to the music that was recorded and stored in compact disks (CDs)?

This week I want to bore you with some technical stuff about how these things work although I am going to do it through the knowledge of a few gurus that I researched on.

The process of ensuring that this music really does pack into your phone or iPod storage is called digital compression; it allows your phones or iPods to carry hundreds of songs. This is the process that allows a song to go from being a very big sound file in its natural state to a very small file in your phone or iPod; this makes you unbelievably carry your entire record library in your pocket.

The talk with boys these days, no, girls as well, is how big, in bytes, their phones or iPods are; because this goes with telling one’s status. What it means is that the bigger the byte storage, the more the music the owner will boast carrying.

But some experts say when you over compress your music into your gadgetry you remain with poor quality where the sound of a snare drum with a very sharp attack, now sounds more like somebody padding on a piece of leather or something like that. An auditory perception professor in the department psychology at the University of Minnesota Dr. Andrew Oxenham has his specialty in how our brains and ears interact. He also started out as a recording engineer.

Blogger Robert Siegel asked him to explain digital compression where he said its challenge is to maintain the quality of a CD, but to stuff it into a much smaller space. Prof. Oxenham says: “Let’s think about how digital recording works.

You start out with a very smooth sound wave and we’re trying to store that in digital form. So we’re really trying to reproduce a smooth curve [with] these square blocks, which are the digital numbers [the 1s and 0s that are used to encode sound digitally].

“Now, the only way you can make square blocks look like a smooth curve is by using very, very small blocks so it ends up looking as if it’s smooth. Now using lots and lots of blocks means lots of storage, so we end up using [fewer] bigger blocks. Which means we end up not representing that curve very smoothly at all.”

He further says the difference between the smooth curve and the rough edges you end up with in the digital recording, you can think of as noise because that is perceived as noise; It’s perceived as an error, something that wasn’t there in the original recording. The trick is to take the noise — which is the loss of fidelity — and just make it so you can’t hear it anymore.”

Such noise that we carry in our phones and iPod which we mistaken for music are disturbed to become what is now called “masking.” Siegel thinks it this way: You’re having a conversation in a quiet room, and you can hear every word, every mouth noise, and every stomach rumble.

But if you were having that same conversation outside on a busy street, you’d get the gist of what was said, but you’d probably miss a few words.

The traffic noise would mask them. Prof. Oxenham says the loud parts of the music are in this case giving the coding system a lot of leeway to code things not quite as accurately as it would have to, because the ear is being stimulated so much by the loud sound it won’t pick up very small variations produced by the coding errors. In other words, he says the loud parts of a recording are used to “mask,” or hide that noise produced by the rough-edged squares of those digital 1s and 0s.

The Professor however says there are really different levels of MP3 coding where sometimes you can go from much less data — which people can hear the difference — to higher levels of coding which take up more space on your MP3 player but sound better and are basically indistinguishable from a CD. He says he would argue that under proper listening conditions — if it’s really indistinguishable from the CD as far as the ear is concerned — then one can really have not lost anything perceptually.

Then Prof. Oxenham says he likes the convenience of portable MP3 players, but ultimately, he prefers going to concerts, which means if we go to bands where Lucius Banda or the Blacks are playing, we get the raw full undiluted sound.


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