OK. What debate? For the vast majority of people, there's nothing contentious about the subject of digital audio file formats. On the one hand, we have MP3; popularly enshrined as the standard digital audio file format to the extent that it's become practically synonymous with downloaded music. Look at any mention of an iPod or Walkman in the mainstream media, and they'll still describe it as an MP3 Player, whether or not it's actually used to play MP3s. With DRM-Free MP3 the format of choice for download services from Amazon, Play and 7digital, it's a format on the rise, not on the wane. On the other hand, we have AAC. Whether you love Apple or hate Apple, AAC remains the default choice - and sometimes the only choice - for the millions who buy into the company's iPod line, its iTunes media player or its iTunes Online store.
If you take music and sound quality seriously, however, then audio formats and compression rates are things that probably matter to you. At TrustedReviews we regularly criticise DAPs and PMPs for their failure to support lossless formats like FLAC or WMA Lossless. We have readers who comment after a review that they wouldn't buy a specific player for exactly the same reason, or because it doesn't have the raw capacity to handle their library of FLAC or Apple Lossless tracks. There are still people who eschew digital downloads, buying albums on CD so that they can rip them themselves and ensure optimal quality (that would be me - ed). While I personally don't go that far, I can state that I've avoided buying tracks from certain online stores for the specific reason that the MP3 format tracks they sold were encoded at 256kbps and not 320kbps. To my mind, the extra quality was even worth paying a little extra cash for.
Recently, however, a few things have left us wondering whether we've been placing too much emphasis on the importance of lossless compression and specific file formats, particularly when it comes to purchasing music or listening to it on portable devices. First, like most people we've spent a lot of time using streaming services like Napster and Spotify. The former uses 256kbps MP3 files for download tracks and 128kbps MP3 files for streamed tracks, while the latter uses 160kbps OGG Vorbis (though premium users can upgrade to 320kbps). While high-end headphones or speakers can show up some deficiencies of the low bit-rate formats, we couldn't describe the sound coming out as appalling. In fact, it's usually 'good enough.' Secondly, a few people in the last six months or so - people who take their audio gear seriously and have spent thousands of pounds on Hi-Fi equipment - have admitted privately to us that 256kbps MP3 is easily good enough for serious listening, and that they struggle to hear much difference over 192kbps MP3 in many situations. This got us thinking: when we claim that we can tell the difference between a 320kbps MP3 and a FLAC encode, are we really hearing some substantial difference, or are we merely telling ourselves that one is better than another?
We decided it was time to find out...