So there are a lot of critics of overcompressed sound and mp3s. They say that the music industry is feeding us overcompressed music to make it sound good on low end devices. Now I'm confused, if music needs to loose dynamics to sound good on low end devices, that means that it sounds bad without compression, right? So why is improving the sound bad?

With mp3s they say that the format leaves parts of the audio out, like less hearable frequencies. This may be subjective, but isn't this a good thing, since it forces the brain to fill in the missing pieces from the imagination? Personally I found some really nice sounds on youtube, but later after I got them in lossless format they didn't sound that nice anymore. It's sort of like music from old cassettes. Every time you listened to it it sounded different and that made it very addictive. Unlike digital music which sounds exactly the same every time

Example mp3 that sounds good:

it's 96 kbps or something low q. The lossless version of the track (from Wizzy Noise) sounds too clear and perfect, and it's just not as enjoyable as the low q mp3.

3 Answers 3


It is not bad but the critics will critique because they are ignoring reality. While it is easy to say "why dont they just release everything as lossless audio tracks in the highest quality we can" the reality is that devices like iPods have limited drive space and use D/A converters made for the masses not the pro style stuff that many critics use. That being said music is made to sound good as an MP3 because that is how the majority of people consume it. This is actually a very old idea that dates back to the early days of audio mixing. It is well documented that early audio engineers used to carry around "mono boxes" that were basically the same as an early AM radio speaker and amp. They would often listen to their mixes through these and make them sound good in this setting as that is how they were consumed in the end of the day.

But generally no, the music does not sound bad uncompressed but the industry is taking measures to make sure it sounds good when you hear it, frankly it does not matter what it sounds like when you hear it. Few people are listening to Taylor Swift using balanced tube amps and JM-Lab Grand Utopias so it does not need to sound good there.

In terms of the lossless sound you obtained, the quality will vary greatly depending on how you get it from the digital file to your ear. If you are using iPod earbuds and your computers internal sound card you may not hear what you want to.


SO you have mixed up a few things together in your question, the main ones being size compression and volume compression:

Lossless size compression (eg FLAC) will provide the best reproduction of the original, however there may be different originals. But if you have a version that is good, the lossless reproduction will be identical to it, so is going to be the best option , all other things being different.

Lossy (such as mp3) is only used because, as Dave says, bandwidth and storage have typically been expensive. This isn't true any more, so more and more people are using lossless formats.

mp3 compresses audio in a way that should have the least impact on the sound, and at high quality (360kb/s) is not bad - equivalent to CD quality in some cases. At lower bitrates, I wouldn't bother listening to any music as the jangling annoys me so much.

But this is not why old tapes sounded better - they were just recorded onto the tape in a very different way to modern mp3's. There was no sampling, the recording was analogue - so while it still wasn't perfect (as the recording added flavour) it was to some far superior to modern digital methods.

The compression being discussed in the loudness war, however, is not size compression, but volume compression, which reduces the dynamic range of a piece - simply put, it means you wouldn't get a concerto, for example with a quiet piece on a single flute followed by an epic timpani and brass section - it would all sound loud.

This sounds worse in almost every respect.

It sounds worse on small cheap devices, and on top end devices. It just feels and sounds louder.

  • Sorry I didn't mean that mp3 compression = sound compression (decreasing dynamic range). I'm well aware that they are 2 different things, but I was asking why are they both viewed as evil by music professionals. MP3 compression affects size but indirectly also affects the sounds (less audible freqs, which is not necessarily bad as I pointed out in my example)
    – wat
    Apr 6, 2015 at 18:57
  • They are disliked because they make music sound worse. I use flac for most of the music I really like, and if I have a small device I'll use the highest VBR mp3 quality, because it is almost painful to listen to the artifacts you get otherwise.
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 6, 2015 at 19:00
  • "It sounds worse on small cheap devices" - but this is the thing - it doesn't. That's the point of doing it, to make it sound better on cheap devices... On top end devices, everything sounds good :)
    – wat
    Apr 6, 2015 at 19:02
  • I disagree completely - it sounds much worse. It just sounds louder. If you like louder, then fair enough, our opinions will differ. To be fair, there is only so much you can do on an iPod or other cheap audio gear as they just don't have the capability to reproduce audio very well, but you can still make it sound at its best by using lossless reproductions. On top end devices, volume compression/removal of dynamic range ruins music, so getting away from it is a good idea.
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 6, 2015 at 19:08

People can listen to the same thing but will always hear different things. Some people like noise, some like pop, its all subjective in the end. So no one can really say that the Mp3 format "sounds" bad or that music sounds better compressed both in data or level.

Technical on the other hand, things can be good or bad. With Mp3 you lose a lot of what the song once was, so if "sound quality" in technical terms is equal to transparency then Mp3 is less good then lossless formats.

I think there are many reasons songs are compressed in level these days. One reason could be that a lot of people are using technically bad headphones that do not cut out the noise of our world very good. Another that people in general think louder is better, and the people who invest the money maybe knows this to. The reason to compress data on the other hand once was to get more songs into an Mp3 player, nowadays i don't see the point anymore.

For me personally sound quality is distortion free, dynamic and high resolution sound. I cant stand to listen to overcompressed radio channels or heavily compressed mp3s, but that's just me. I fully understand that others do like it. Thou many people probably don't get the opportunity to hear music in any other way then overcompressed through bad headphones these days. 20-30 years ago, getting a stereo was expensive, and high fidelity was more of a standard. These days all sorts of playback systems exist. And i believe the "critics" you mention have the intention to show people the other side of the coin, because they believe many are missing out how it could be.

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