The MP3 Effect

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Jim of Seattle
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The MP3 Effect

Post by Jim of Seattle »

I couldn't find an appropriate place to put this topic (didn't there used to be a "General Music" area? anyway...) So I know this isn't the place for it, but here goes...

MP3's are a compressed file type that trades a small degradation in sound quality in favor of an enormous file storage savings. Despite the loss in sound quality, the fact that MP3s are roughly 10% the size of lossless WAV files means that the world over, MP3s are the de facto standard for digital recordings. While there are audiophiles who bemoan what they feel is a significant reduction in sound quality, they are in the minority, and I would guess that all but the most die-hard of them even use MP3's themselves primarily.

But this post isn't about MP3s per se. It's about a larger systemic phenomenon than spans far more than music, which I'll call the MP3 Effect.

The MP3 Effect is when the quality of certain aspects of a thing is compromised as a trade-off for some other aspects being greatly improved. With MP3's, sound quality is compromised in favor of storage savings. Here are some other examples of the MP3s of other domains off the top of my head:

* A movie with beautiful cinematography watched on a phone
* Fluorescent lights
* Stouffer's lasagna
* $5 wine
* Silk plants
* Amazon

All these are examples of something which is acknowledged to be inferior to what is considered "the real thing", yet are consumed in great quantities nevertheless, to a degree that the "real thing" may be considered unnecessarily fancy or fussy, because we have forgotten how to appreciate the qualities lost in favor of the qualities gained. Fluorescent lights are ubiquitous, and their light is way less attractive than most other types of light, yet ubiquitous they remain, we all put up with it, and most of the time don't notice. With Amazon, we have lost the serendipity of discovery when shopping, the marriage of the act of the purchase with the thing itself, the value that is added to a thing when there is some friction in the process of acquisition - but we can also get that pretty bowl with a twitch, and so who wouldn't?

Yet I wonder if perhaps the cumulative effect of these many compromises doesn't cause us to experience a somehow significantly lesser world all up. Stouffer's is ALMOST as good, a silk plant is ALMOST as pretty, etc., so aren't we splitting hairs here? The fact we can get all these things so easily in the first place surely makes us the kings of history, right? Yet, though eating Stouffer's lasagna next to a silk plant under fluorescent lighting while watching 2001 on a 5-inch screen may feel like we have it all, perhaps what we really have is merely a simulacrum of "it all". Stouffer's is pretty good still, silk plants are indistinguishable unless you're paying attention, Kubrick's storytelling still comes through on a small screen, so though we all still believe it would be better watching 2001 on a big 4K screen eating mom's lasagna next to a healthy dieffenbachia by the glow of sunset, who has time, money and patience for all that? So we are content with the MP3s of them.

If I task myself with finding examples that contradict this, things in which cheaper, more convenient, "easier" versions of something simply won't do for the majority of us, any I come up with inevitably fall into the "aficionado" category. Only audiophiles care about MP3 quality, only foodies disdain frozen food, only green thumbs care that the plant is fake, etc. The people who care about these quality differences are the "fringe", the "geeks". And while most everything has its fringe geeks who care deeply about the highest quality of Thing A, it's never across the board. A cinephile insisting on watching movies in the most pristine environment may do so in a room with a $59 oriental rug they got at Target, which his next door neighbor wouldn't be caught dead owning, and who disdains anyone who doesn't appreciate the clearly superior $800 rug of the same size, but who is watching a Transformers sequel on their laptop, while another neighbor is watching their crap movie on a laptop on a cheap rug, eating a dinner which took an hour to painstakingly create with their own hands using only organic, farm-fresh ingredients, accompanied by wine that goes for $50 a bottle.

When I ask myself, what's my fringe geek thing, in which middling quality is simply unacceptable, the only thing I can really come up with is music, and even at that, it's not so much audio quality or production or even performance, but composition. Songwriting, lyric writing, arrangement, those are my $800 rugs. But I understand they are not everyone else's. Sitting here as I am under fluorescent lightning on plastic furniture eating Triscuits and powdered lemonade, I could hear Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" via MP3 on cheap earbuds and be utterly transported by its genius. And if I swap all those MP3s for the real deals (artisan crackers by candlelight and a top-flight sound system) but am listening to Nickelback -- nothing.

So maybe the truth is we seek the WAV files in life where we will appreciate them, and put up with MP3 versions of everything else, and while we don't really have it all, we mostly don't care.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by ujnhunter »

Stouffer's lasagna is the bomb. I'd never even consider watching anything worth watching on a phone or tablet, UHD 4K Blu-ray on the big screen or bust my friend (F Streaming). I can't *really* tell the difference between 320kbps MP3 and FLAC/WAV files so I'm totally content with MP3.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by Jim of Seattle »

Stouffer's lasagna is quite delicious. It's also got about 65000 times as much sodium and plastic particles and sugar.

I can watch something worth watching on a phone if the reason it's worth watching is the screenplay.

I can't even tell the difference between 320kbps and 192kbps. Or, well, if I can I don't care.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by Pigfarmer Jr »

An MP3 version of something is better than nothing, most of the time.

Also, the whole Neil Young "huge difference" between MP3 and whatever that bullshit was he was hawking was 128kbps mp3s. With 320 (or even 192 or whatever) it's much harder to tell the difference. If you're riding in the car then the road noise is worse than the degradation of sound quality from a 320 kbps mp3 for most songs.

Your final line from the OP nails it. The things I care about, I spend more money on. The things I don't care (as much) about I can do with lesser quality. Hell, half the time you can't tell the difference. It's a waste to spend 300 bucks on a bottle of wine for some people. They simply can't tell you what is great about it. Now maybe the $5 wine box is an obvious inferior product, but there are plenty of 30 dollar bottles of wine that are okay... if you don't know much about wine.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by fluffy »

IMO, if you're listening hard enough to your music to tell the difference between high-bitrate mp3 and FLAC etc., you're paying too much attention to the minutiae and not actually enjoying the music.

128kbps CBR mp3 sounds like ass and can really take me out of the thing but like, as long as I'm not hearing artifacting, I don't give a fuck about the "transient smearing" or whatever else the audiophiles claim they can hear.

mp3 does have an actual problem in that if you're trying to layer multiple ones on top of each other (for remixing etc.) then the artifacting compounds pretty quickly, so, uh, don't do that.

For other things, yeah, it's pretty easy to get caught up in snobbery and wanting "perfection" when really, sometimes good is good enough. I'm a bit of a snob for coffee but only because I like the flavor and can't handle much caffeine so I'm extremely picky about my decaf, and have taken to roasting my own, which ends up being way cheaper anyway (and tastes way better than anything I've found that costs less than like $30/pound) but for a lot of folks, all they want from coffee is Hot Brown, and that's totally valid.

Photography is another thing people get really weird about. Yeah you could spend $3000 on a DSLR and then lament that you don't have it with you when that amazing photo op happens, or you can use the phone that's already in your pocket and get a shot that's going to be just as good like 95% of the time anyway.

Or music gear. Do you need that $5000 Stratocaster? Or is that $150 Squier good enough? I recently downgraded from a $1200 MIDI controller to a $500 digital piano because the $1200 controller's software stopped being supported and the $500 digital piano feels better to play. And I'm having a way better time in the studio as a result.

A $25 gourmet hamburger can be a really nice experience but sometimes you just want a Big Mac.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by ujnhunter »

Homemade lasagna is what's for dinner tonight... I'll have to put this to the test... perhaps it's the "plastic particles" that I really like. If we're talking 128kbps MP3, then yeah... screw that. I haven't listened to 128kbps MP3 on purpose in almost 30 (?) years though, back when .RA Real Audio was something on the internet. Ever since 320kbps CBR was a thing... that's all I've ever done or considered. FLAC is obviously a must when collaborating online however... don't ever pass MP3s back and forth, please.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by HeuristicsInc »

In photography - The DSLR doesn't have digital zoom and that makes a lot of difference. That why most of my cellphone shots are not good.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by Jim of Seattle »

HeuristicsInc wrote:
Thu Jan 11, 2024 12:50 pm
In photography - The DSLR doesn't have digital zoom and that makes a lot of difference. That why most of my cellphone shots are not good.
I thought this might happen, where people would chime in with their thing they are fine with the MP3 version of, followed by someone saying that no, that's the $59 Target rug.

Vinyl is something that has turned into a niche fringe geek thing, even though it may sound better. I don't wonder that analog camera technology is the same.

In both cases, I wonder how we would feel if the sequence of the technologies was reversed, that we had MP3's first, and THEN WAVs, or digital photography before physical film.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by fluffy »

Jim of Seattle wrote:
Thu Jan 11, 2024 4:03 pm
Vinyl is something that has turned into a niche fringe geek thing, even though it may sound better. I don't wonder that analog camera technology is the same.
Vinyl doesn't sound "better" in any objective sense, but it's a very different experience of active listening which is very easy to crave. Plus the imperfections and the little differences that happen on each listen makes it feel a bit more alive.
Jim of Seattle wrote:
Thu Jan 11, 2024 4:03 pm
In both cases, I wonder how we would feel if the sequence of the technologies was reversed, that we had MP3's first, and THEN WAVs, or digital photography before physical film.
We actually did have lossy compressed audio formats before .wav caught on, but they were a bit ahead of their time, and even in the early days of MP3 those were still too big for most people to keep on their hard drives. They just happened to have enough staying power at a time when consumer-grade storage suddenly got affordable enough for it to work out in general.

I was a very early adopter of mp3s and I still had to pick and choose which albums I had at the ready because I could only really spare like 100-200MB for them.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by ujnhunter »

I bet if I looked hard enough, I could find some Hard Floppy (how is that a thing?) Disks with some 1990's .MP3 files on them somewhere...
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by fluffy »

8” disks were floppy disks because they were, well, very floppy, being a semi-rigid casing around a mylar disc.

5.25” disks were compact versions of 8” disks and were still a semi-rigid casing around a mylar disc.

3.5” disks were a harder case but the disc inside was still mylar and floppy.

When mp3 first came around the big objection people had to them was that there was no way to fit a whole song on a single floppy, and I was team tracker module, because you could fit entire symphonies in that space. I was bad at predicting storage and networking trends.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

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fluffy wrote:
Fri Jan 12, 2024 11:35 am
I was bad at predicting storage and networking trends.
I would not have predicted that in 2024 that my WAN and LAN speeds would match. I did not expect that Gigabit Ethernet would still be with us. I would have expected, by now, to treat it with the same disdain normally reserved for "Fast Ethernet".
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by AJOwens »

Your point about how we balance our highest expectations with practical considerations raises the philosophical question of compromise, which informs Nietzsche's lament for the Last Man, T.S. Eliot's lament for J. Alfred Prufrock, and to an alarming extent, the MAGA aspects of contemporary U.S. politics. It also has connections with the study of "mediatization," or the subtle effects that our media have on culture and society, a lively field that I know about because my daughter is doing a Ph.D. in that area. If I had much more to say about it, I'd write a post for my blog, but I thought I'd at least respond to the thrust of your meditation without getting caught up in particular cases.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

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Jim of Seattle wrote:
Thu Jan 11, 2024 4:03 pm
HeuristicsInc wrote:
Thu Jan 11, 2024 12:50 pm
In photography - The DSLR doesn't have digital zoom and that makes a lot of difference. That why most of my cellphone shots are not good.
I thought this might happen, where people would chime in with their thing they are fine with the MP3 version of, followed by someone saying that no, that's the $59 Target rug.

Vinyl is something that has turned into a niche fringe geek thing, even though it may sound better. I don't wonder that analog camera technology is the same.

In both cases, I wonder how we would feel if the sequence of the technologies was reversed, that we had MP3's first, and THEN WAVs, or digital photography before physical film.
first i got annoyed that you were saying i didn't have the right to say it's good to have a camera with an optical zoom on it, or the obvious good thing of having a zoomed photo that's not all blurry. but then i realized that somehow you thought i was talking about film? the D in DSLR stands for Digital.
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Re: The MP3 Effect

Post by fluffy »

Chumpy wrote:
Thu Jan 18, 2024 1:34 pm
fluffy wrote:
Fri Jan 12, 2024 11:35 am
I was bad at predicting storage and networking trends.
I would not have predicted that in 2024 that my WAN and LAN speeds would match. I did not expect that Gigabit Ethernet would still be with us. I would have expected, by now, to treat it with the same disdain normally reserved for "Fast Ethernet".
I am eternally annoyed that my NAS only has a gigabit connection. Although that's fast enough for everything I do with it anyway. But it's still annoying.
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