Here's What You Don't Hear When Music is Compressed

One way to end the MP3 vs uncompressed audio format, 'does it sound better' debate would be to hear the elements from a song which are lost during compression... and here's a video showing just that.  

The emergence of “high-quality” media players in recent months, like the PonoPlayer, has sparked a debate about whether we notice the difference between compressed formats like mp3 vs uncompressed ones like WAV. While MP3 and other compressed audio files formats have made it possible to more easily download, share and store and take more music with us on our portable devices, there are elements and often frequency bands that are lost during the compression process. 

While the quality of compressed vs uncompressed music could be viewed as a subjective part of our listening experience, Ryan Maguire, a Ph.D. student in Composition and Computer Technologies at the University of Virginia Center for Computer Music, was interested in investigating exactly what parts of a song get excluded during the compression process. And he's found a way to allow us to hear what we're not hearing! 

In this fascinating video from his website, Ryan has created an audio file of all the sounds that were discarded once the song “Tom's Diner” by Suzanne Vega was digitally compressed:

In an interview with, Ryan explains more about these “lost” sounds: “What are these lost sounds? Are they sounds which human ears can not hear in their original context due to universal perceptual limitations or are they simply encoding detritus,” he asks. “It is commonly accepted that MP3s create audible artifacts such as pre-echo, but what does the music which this codec deletes sound like? In the work presented here, techniques are considered and developed to recover these lost sounds, the ghosts in the MP3, and reformulate these sounds as art.”

As many professional producers and musicians will probably agree, it's as interesting to hear what is left out than what is actually transmitted through a song. But, questions remain on how seriously compressed formats have affected/ruined our listening experience, and whether being able to listen to a song as the producer meant it to be heard is applicable when the audio file format is just one element that affects sound quality… yes, iPod/iPhone headphones I'm staring straight at you…


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Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More


The original work presented by Ryan Maguire in "The Ghost in the MP3" discusses the information lost in a very specific compression process (LAME MP3 encoder @128kbps).
Rounik Sethi makes this a "compressed vs uncompressed music" discussion, but what he really should've written is "lossy-compressed" vs uncompressed (or non-lossy-compressed).
Reproduction of audio compressed with non-loss compression is identical to the uncompressed original.

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