Bitrate is simply the amount of data in a track processed each second, measured in kilobits. MP3s purchased on iTunes are 256 kilobits per second. The higher the bitrate, the more information is stored in an audio file. At around 300 Mb per album, ‘lossless’ CD quality audio files (FLAC or ALAC) contain close to three times as much data as a rip of that same album, compressed as ‘lossy’ MP3 or AAC files.
Lossless vs lossy?
Compressing audio files to a third of their size (and a third of the bitrate) means some data is lost. Audio compression is a tradeoff between file storage and sound quality, inspired by research in psychoacoustics, the study of how humans perceive sound. If it is impossible for people to perceive all of the information produced by CD-quality audio, why encode all of it, especially when file storage is at a premium?
The lower bitrate of lossy files has its own advantages: because they contain so much less data for each second of audio, lossy files are easier to stream without buffering.
Headphone quality helps
The higher quality your headphones, the more a high bitrate matters. Lossy files are more noticeable when quality speaker components can produce high dynamic ranges and subtle sonic details. The parts of the audio that are lost to compression are quieter content in frequencies that we are less sensitive to, and quieter sounds that are masked by louder ones in nearby frequency bands. High and low end details, and the ends of reverb and percussive attack are flattened with compression. Low quality headphones won’t be able to replicate these details anyway, but with well-designed speakers, lossless files can make a real difference.
Does bitrate matter?
Yes, and no. Some types of lo-fi, scuzzy and distorted music won’t sound too different either way, where other forms of composition with detailed pitch effects and sound placement will. Some people notice the effects of compression more than others. You can test your own sensitivity to compression here and on MP£ornot.com.
Ultimately, whether you want to invest in high bitrate, lossless audio files is up to you, but with the right headphones, it can greatly enhance your listening experience.
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