Monday, May 09, 2005

Classical Music World Inches Into MP3s

It's official. The UK's Philharmonia orchestra known for its exacting world-class standards does its first webcast and MP3 downloads at 320 kbps, with hanky hovering daintily however near their noses:

"The subjective quality of MP3s depends on a number of variables," says Faulkner. "The compression rate, the particular engine which was used for the encoding, then of course we have the variabilities of different PC/soundcard combinations. Most soundcards within PCs are a bit iffy from an audiophile point of view, especially in terms of noise-floor and subtlety. If I were planning to listen critically to such a download, I would probably drag the MP3 into SoundForge or Nero and then burn a conventional CD carefully from the 'exploded' decompressed version."

Though his pristine audio files were compressed and processed, Faulkner feels that the Philharmonia has made a bold move by using such high data rates (320bkps) for the audio as well as for the video streaming. "It is great for people in the New World with fast broadband. We are lucky to get 500k broadband speeds here in the UK, and many people still have 28.8k dial-up. Still, they are right to look to the future, also to stick to their guns about trying to get decent quality. Most classical downloads here are 128k if you are very lucky."

But in the end, Faulkner sums up his experience thus: "The whole business of how data compression impacts on pure sound sources is a topic of its own. MP3 is to music as JPEG is to graphics. Give them a chance with TLC and low compression rates, and they do a decent job. Set the autopilot to maximum compression to make the files as portable and fast as possible, and they are unrecognizable for those of us with high expectations."


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