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Compressed Audio

Date: 1st September 2013

Compressed Audio

Throwing away the part of the music that makes it live and breathe, that tells you how and why the performer chose to play it this way, will never achieve that aim.I can remember my frustration when listening to Radio 3 in the car, particularly at motorway speeds, when bursts of music would be punctuated by long, inexplicable silences. I quickly realised, when the piece was a familiar one, that the silences were in fact simply the quiet passages and, because of the level of background noise in the car, I just couldn’t hear them. Stations like Classic FM, which used compression, suffered fewer problems in this department. What they were doing was compressing the dynamic range of the music, so the difference in volume between the quietest and loudest parts of a piece were squeezed closer together. This makes the quieter parts more easily audible in a noisy environment, while simultaneously reducing the level of the loudest bits. This also has the secondary effect of making the music sound a little louder, overall, because the quieter bits are louder but the loudest bits are still a bit louder than the rest of the music, so you’re less likely to notice their reduction in level. So the station sounds livelier when you’re skipping across the channels in search of something to listen to.

So, compression can serve a genuinely useful purpose. Compressed Radio 3 would be more accessible to me when driving in the car, or working in a noisy environment. The problem comes when I then want to listen to Radio 3 on my hifi system, in the comfort and quietness of my own home. Then, compression is a problem. It robs the music of its subtlety. The musicians use a great deal of skill and talent, not only in hitting the right note at the right time, but also in getting the loudness of the note just so. By making their quietest notes louder, and their loudest notes quieter, compression strips away many of the inflections and nuances which a musician brings to his or her performance. It’s like watching TV with the contrast turned right down. If the room is filled with cigarette smoke, analogous to the background din in my car, you might not notice, but if it isn’t, the picture is dull, lifeless and uninteresting. You may still hear the music, but you don’t appreciate the performance.

MP3 is a popular means of accessing music these days, by discarding some of the data which relates to the differences in loudness of a music signal, it makes the file smaller and lets the user get more music into the limited capacity of a portable music player. That’s fine, up to a point, but if that’s the only way you listen to your music, it also conditions the listener into thinking that the sound of a compressed music file is the way it should be. Remember, a compressed file may well be superficially attractive, in the way that a compressed music radio station might stand out from the crowd because it sounds subjectively that little bit louder. But using those same compressed music files as your primary music source at home, perhaps through a docking station, the music sounds anodyne and lacks that compelling, attention grabbing, urgency that makes music such a life-enhancing event. Sadly, some CDs, particularly pop music, are now compressed during mastering to make them superficially attractive to buyers. The problem is, they lack the capacity to rise above that superficiality and give the listener a genuinely satisfying experience.

If you’ve found this website, you may be interested in the best possible music reproduction. Throwing away the part of the music that makes it live and breathe, that tells you how and why the performer chose to play it this way, will never achieve that aim. Perhaps more importantly, some people may never get to realise just how life affirming great musical performances can be, or may never appreciate how much of that experience can be reproduced by a genuinely good hifi system.