New Yorker: Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood on the Sound Quality of MP3s


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From several months ago but still worth a read. The magazine’s music critic Sasha Frere-Jones interviews Greenwood on the quality limitations of today’s dominant music delivery format.

“I’d feel frustrated if we couldn’t release CDs as a band, but then, it only costs us a slight shaving of sound quality to get to the convenience of the MP3. It’s like putting up with tape hiss on a cassette. I was happy using cassettes when I was fifteen, but I’m sure they were sneered at in their day by audiophiles. If I’m on a train, with headphones, MP3s are great. At home, I prefer CD or vinyl, partly because they sound a little better in a quiet room and partly because they’re finite in length and separate things, unlike the endless days and days of music stored on my laptop.”

Though he’s talking specifically about the esoteric world of high-fidelity sound, Greenwood is effectively casting a critical eye on the whole idea of high definition.

“I find this sound quality stuff both fascinating and ridiculous. It’s like the pixel resolution of digital cameras: higher numbers are better, but that discussion always pushes the actual photography to one side, somehow.”

The essence of his argument is dead on: superior fidelity and resolution is terrific but overrated in comparison to convenience. As a parallel example, I couldn’t be happier with my HD-TV and I wouldn’t mind owning a Blu-Ray player one day when the prices are more reasonable. Meanwhile, I’m consuming tons of not particularly high-resolution content via streaming media. It’s the convenience of media formats that matters so much more. And you could re-interpret the idea of convenience as a format’s interface — if it’s easy to use, if it provides affordances commensurate to the needs of real users in actual use cases, then it will win over higher resolution. Actually, it’s the content that really matters.

  1. Reminds of this xkcd.

    If you added up my monthly usage, I spend a lot more time on YouTube and Hulu than I do watching things on my TV in HD. Like they say, content is king.

    I think audio quality is thought about differently because the recording itself is always a souvenir of the real thing. Whether you have a CD, vinyl or MP3 download of In Rainbows, it’s just a memento of all those hours the band spent locked away in a recording studio. There’s always room for improvement; you can always strive to get closer to the real thing and closer to what the artist intends you to hear. And if you haven’t heard it on YOUR_FORMAT_HERE, you haven’t heard it at all.

  2. Wired did a great article on just this point a few months back, called “The Good Enough Revolution.” Worth reading:


  3. Why not use a different audio format though? Why not WAV or some other lossless format which will more accurately recreate the original recording? MP3 is a poor substitute when so many other options exist.

    You do make a very interesting point though.

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