Which Music Format To Choose

I’m old enough to have bought, and listened to, music in a wide variety of formats over the years. I remember my parents playing their K-Tel compilation albums on an 8-track cartridge player in the family car. Talking of parental influence, I also recall listening to their old rock n roll & big band 78s – Glenn Miller, Joe Loss, Bill Haley, Frankie Vaughan, Alma Cogan & Tommy Steele to name but a few. My first actual purchase of music was Tiger Feet by MUD on 7” vinyl single played repeatedly on the mono Dansette record player in my bedroom (with “Mr. Bagatelle” on the B-side, oh yes… I remember it well!). Then came the cassette revolution. Christmas 1977 saw me get my first ever tape recorder, a Binatone. Anyone else remember placing the little condenser microphone in front of the record player speaker to tape their singles?

I suppose the next big step was the advent of the personal stereo – you could take your music with you anywhere you went in glorious stereophonic sound. Just remember to carry a BIC biro in your pocket to fast-forward/rewind without draining your batteries, obviously! Then, in the mid 1980s, came the compact disc. Such was the novelty of hearing music with absolute crystal clarity that I once walked the best part of a mile to a friends house to listen to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on this new format – I had the album on vinyl, but the thrill of hearing it on a good, expensive Hi-Fi (there was no such thing as a “cheap” CD system in 1985) with pin-sharp sound was worth a trek across town. Throughout the 1990s other formats came & went… DAT & mini-disk both spring to mind but, with the advent of the mp3, the actual physical medium the music was stored on (tape/disc/CD etc) became secondary to the way it was encoded digitally.

Where is all this going then? Well nowadays we are bombarded by musical formats galore including WMA, mp3, AAC, OGG, WAV & FLAC. I recently found myself in the market for a new mp3 player as my old Sony NWZ Walkman had finally died on me. The replacement I chose supports the FLAC format (Free Lossless Audio Codec), a digital music standard which has all the Hi-Fi buffs salivating over it’s supposedly vastly superior sound quality. Being curious, I downloaded Dire Straits’ “Alchemy” live album (once regarded as a benchmark test for audiophiles in the early days of laser discs & CDs) in this format and loaded it onto my new player. Using a pair of pro-quality studio headphones, I pressed “play” in eager anticipation of being blown away with a hitherto unknown level of clarity & dynamic response.

The reality of it was quite underwhelming, it has to be said. I genuinely could not hear what all the fuss was about. I compared the perceived sound quality of the FLAC version of the album to the 256K mp3 format of the album I’d been listening to for years. Not even the slightest difference in sound quality, to my ears at least. I then tried another, more recent, album – Snarky Puppy’s “GroundUP”. First in FLAC format, then 256K mp3. Finally I tried Gustav Holst’s “Planet Suite” in both formats – maybe the difference would be more apparent with the greater dynamic range found in orchestral music. Erm… no. Still not a jot of difference that I could hear.

I’m well aware that as we age, our hearing changes – a 19 year old can hear higher frequencies than a 50 year old. Being nearer the latter number in terms of age, I can only put my lack of distinction between the FLAC & mp3 formats down to this phenomenon. The point is, though, that I don’t perceive music as sounding any different to the way it did when I WAS nineteen. At no point when I’m listening to an album from my youth do I think “This just doesn’t sound as sharp as it did thirty years ago.” I still enjoy music in what (to me anyway) sounds like crisp, clear, full-range quality, even if that’s not what I’m actually hearing due to my ears not being what they used to be – the perception is still as good as it was in the “olden days”. Is this perhaps why it was mainly us youngsters who raved about CDs in the 80s? Could anyone over the age of 40 in 1986 not hear how much better a CD was compared to a cassette? Whatever the reason, it’s an easy choice for me when deciding which format to listen to. FLAC files take up massively more space than even the highest bit-rate mp3s, which to my muddy old ears sound exactly as good. Using FLAC would mean I could fit much less music on my new mp3 player for no perceived benefit. And I don’t have to buy my music collection all over again as I did when I made the transition from vinyl & cassette to compact disc. Getting old, it seems, does have it’s benefits!

Until next time, Have Fun!




John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist



  1. John, you make a good point, which I can fully relate to. At one point I decided to go digital as this suited best my lifestyle. I would have loved to jump onto the vinyl trend as I like the experience of the medium (best cover, the act of putting it on, etc.), but too cumbersome for me.

    Then the question of the format came up – FLAC, Apple Lossless, MP3, HiRes? In order not to lose quality, I have so far mostly used Apple Lossless, which is compatible with FLAC and is supported by my streaming device. But honestly, I can’t tell the difference between a 320k MP3 and a ALC either.

    And now the world tells me I have to go HiRes, buy a Pono player and a new streamer to listen to master tape quality sound.

    Not sure yet…

    • Yeah, a mate of mine has one of those Pono players & he let me have a listen to it. I listened to a couple of tracks from Neil Young’s “Harvest” album (well, it would be that album wouldn’t it?) and once again, the supposed improvement in quality was utterly lost on me.

      I haven’t tried ALC, but as my new mp3 player doesn’t support that format, I think I’ll just stay with my 256K mp3s. This format (to my ears) this gives as good a sound reproduction as my ears are able to discern. I occasionally use Spotify too, and took advantage of a deal they had for 3 months of premium subscription for just £0.99. I had 3 months worth of listening in the “high definition” which premium allows. Once again, my muddy old ears could not hear any difference either through headphones or the Hi-Fi.

      I guess that too many years of battering my eardrums with loud, onstage monitor mixes and just genearlly “turning it up to 11” have left my hearing unable to appreciate the benefits of higher resolution formats. Not that I care… as I said in the blog, I still perceive music as sounding as crisp, punchy & clear as it did when I listened with a young mans ears 🙂

      • Indeed, nothing to worry about as long as music is still fun for us. And cheaper anyway, just think all the upgrades in equipment necessary for that HiRes stuff…

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