Over To You: Are 192 kbps MP3s Acceptable For Club Play?

Not sure of the quality of your MP3s? Run an experiment against an uncompressed format. Pic: mp3exp

Not sure of the quality of your MP3s? Run an experiment against an uncompressed format.
Pic from: mp3exp

Digital DJ Tips reader Christoph from Germany writes with a question that we are constantly asked by DJs switching to digital, or lucky enough to shortly be playing their first digital DJ sets in “real” clubs.

He says the following: “I have a little question to you. How will 192kbps songs sound on big speakers in clubs? I have tons of music, but only in 192. Will it sound very distorted or is it OK to run a gig with these songs?”

Digital DJ Tips says:

Our best practice advice is to only use 320kbps MP3s (or 256 kbps AACs, AAC files being Apple’s equivalent, which sound the same as 320kbps MP3s at 256kbps). This give you most of the benefits of compressed, music library-friendly formats (much smaller files than uncompressed, and metadata) while sounding indistinguisable from uncompressed audio in most people’s view.

As far as 192s go, no lesser a DJ/producer than Armin Van Buuren has stated he can’t hear any difference between 192s and WAV files, and frankly clubs are few and far between where their sound systems are so finely tuned and maintained that any tiny sound differences between 192, 256 and 320kbps MP3s and uncompressed audio will become deal-breakers. It’s only when you hit 160kbps and 128kbps that you can easily hear big differences.

As always, though, use your ears. Good headphones will help you get a feeling for how good or bad your 192s sound. Buy a couple of 320s or WAVs of the same tunes and do a straight comparison. And as with all digital music, always treat it on a case-by-case basis: If it sounds a bit ropey, then it definitely is – whatever the bitrate.

So, over to you. Do you DJ with 192kbps MP3s (or even lower)? Are you a “strictly 320″ person? Or do you swear you can hear the fifference between any type of compressed file and WAVs? Please share your experiences and advice in the comments.

Comments

  1. Bryan Singleton says:

    HI, IN MY EXPERIENCE YOU JUST HAVE TO TRUST YOUR EARS.I HAVE SOME 192 SONGS THAT SOUND BETTER THAN 320 FILES. THIS COULD JUST BE THAT SOME SONGS HAVE MORE BOTTOM OR BASS AND JUST PLAY LOADER THROUGH YOUR SPEAKERS,BUT DEFINITELY DO NOT GO UNDER 192,YOU WILL NOTICE REAL DETERIORATION IN QUALITY IF YOU GO UNDER 192.

    • aye aye captain capslock

      • LOLz

      • Sorry to throw a spanner in the works people. I am anal about the quality of the sound of the music I play. I use my own sound gear ranging from KV Audio to Yamaha. I use Dire Straits “sultans of Swing” for sound checks to ensure highs & lows are where they should be. I have tried/listened to both 128 thru 320 kbps. Unless I really listen hard it is difficult to detect the difference. Let’s face it most punters are usually deaf when their drunk…

  2. Zameer Hassim says:

    I can honestly sometimes hear slight differences, definitely. Just compare a freshly purchased mp3 or wav file from beatport/iTunes to the youtube rip of the song, which is usually in like 192 or 256. It’s a little more….sharp in 320. Although, 256 is pretty much the same, yeah..

  3. I have almost my entire collection of music on 320kbps because I can kind of hear a difference between 192 kbps and 320 kbps on my studio monitors. But in clubs it’s hardly noticeable. Unless you’re in a club with a top of the the line sound-system specifically built to ensure optimum sound quality in the room you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between uncompressed and compressed audio.

    Most of it lies in the sub though, mp3′s cut out most basses below 25 Hz since most people won’t hear them, but with a decent sub you will feel those frequencies, but most people these days only care for the 40Hz-100Hz basses, so no real need to for WAV.

    Use your ears, if it sounds good, it sounds good, easy as that.

  4. synthet1c says:

    be professional, only play 320kb quality audio from trusted sources, a track would have to be an old anthem that I cant get anywhere else and be amazing quality for me to use 192kb.

    • It ain’t that easy though. If you have an awesome track in 192, and you can’t seem to find it in better quality, would you just drop that song from your set?

      • No, personally I wouldn’t. I don’t believe in perfection over expression.

      • StygianSoul says:

        Many of my older tracks were ripped when hard drive space was still fairly limited, so they are typically 192 or occasionally 128. I can definitely hear the difference in the 128 tracks, and only play those if it is something I think will really set the crowd off. Unfortunately due to moving, theft, wear, etc, many of my cd’s are now missing, so I cannot re-rip them.

  5. In my experience I usually try to stay about 192 Kbps. One way to ensure I dont download bad quality files though is to create smart playlists that show all files with a bitrate under 192 Kbps this folder usually stays empty but if I ever see a song is in it, I know it should probably be deleted from my collection.

    • Another way to make sure you don’t download bad quality files is to actually BUY them from trusted shops…

      • Agree 100%.

      • Just to add…even when you buy off trusted sites make sure you check the file with your software as soon as you buy it. I recently bought tracks off AudioJelly & Beatport that had blatant recording errors and were so poorly mastered I couldn’t believe my ears ! At least both sites were really prompt and professional with dealing with the problem which is nice.

  6. Or just do what many other people do… get Adobe Soundbooth and apply a bit of corrective EQ, some mastering and bob’s your uncle!
    :D

    It’s easier than most people think!

    PS: Cubase works awesome too!

    • Will Marshall says:

      Yeah …. don’t do that.

      Unless you’ve got years of experience and a properly treated room, you’re not going to be able to improve on the mastering, and you’ll likely just ruin the track by fiddling with it ignorantly.

      There’s a reason why mastering engineers are expensive. It’s a very hard thing to do well.

      (Additionally, it’s not possible to correct for compression artifacts during mastering, and you should *never* master already-mastered audio, especially after it’s been lossily compressed)

      • I got 7 years experience, 3 albums of my own, recording lyrics and sequencing EDM for the past 5 years. and I can tell you most issues can be fixed with corrective EQing…

    • A tons of DJ’s that’s using 192k files or less are not able to use bass and gain on a Pioneer correctly (IF LEDS ARE IN THE RED ZONE, I’M SO GOOOOOOD), I can’t Imagine they’ll use DAW software and make mastering from themselves…

      And it’s probably crazy to think that you can restore “bits” with a mastering thing.
      192 or less tracks have lost “bits” so audio quality, why trying to restore them when a “raw” version can be bought ?

      Just a waste of time ^^

  7. sameoldsong says:

    192kbps is right at the border to transparency. some songs will be indistinguishable from the original, others will have audible compression artifacts.

    (on a side note: it is extremely important to do the comparison between lossy and original file in the form of an ABX double-blind test. otherwise, observation bias invalidates the results. in sighted tests, subjective likes and dislikes drives what people claim to hear.)

    as 192kbps is right on the border, i would use 256kbps AAC or 320kbps MP3 to be on the safe side. (note that AAC tends to be higher-quality at the same bitrate.)

    lastly, also note that it might be worth purchasing lossless music if you plan on doing lossy encoding eventually (e.g., to distribute an MP3 of your DJ set online.) doing multiple lossy encode/decode cycles will typically degrade the sound quality.

    • Totally agree. Ripped my CD collection at 128 initially and later discovered quality issues. Later did a test at 192 and it sounded great, and then ripped everything again. A little later I found several songs that really sounded bad. I just finished re-ripping to Apple Lossless to hopefully avoid any quality and re-ripping issues in the future. I’m also buying files in WAV where possible (and converting them to ALAC to open up album art and other ID3 tags), and keeping to 256 AAC only for songs that are in iTunes and not Beatport, Juno Download, or some other download site with higher quality, and for songs that I don’t want to purchase the whole album on CD. WAVs are worth the extra to me to ensure quality and flexibility in the future.

  8. sammsousa says:

    good one! had no ideia that 256 kbps from apple was the same as a 320 mp3 file!!!

  9. Dj Rob IV says:

    I have previously used low bitrates in clubs, but then it happened… I had to slow a song down substantially one night, and i had pitchlock enabled. The song that i mixed inn sounded horrible and chopped up. Disaster, the lack of quality really showed.

  10. I VERY VERY rarely play out any music that is below 320kbps.

    Using Serato (and I’m certain this applies to all DVS/virtual systems), I’ve noticed that if I’m playing a tune that is below 320kbps and have to timestretch/keylock (adjust tempo without changing pitch) to mix or just to mess around with, the lower bitrate songs seem to break up, stress out, and become very muddy when they’re pitched way up or way down.

    • @BartyKutz says:

      this is the best comment,

      low bitrate mp3s really start to sound like crap when you run them though DJ software’s keylock, tempo change, and other fx.

      • +1 on this comment. Try setting the pitch of a song about 10 BPM above the original pitch, and then use the button on your software that slowly transitions it back to the original BPM automatically. That’s when a 128kbps or 160kbps *really* sounds like crap, during the transition– even to someone who isn’t scrutinizing the sound quality. All kinds of distortion and artifacts.

  11. back with my macbook air’s small SSD i down converted all my music to 192 because i could not notice a difference needed space. i feel stupid, but still don’t hear a differance on most tracks even with Beringer MS40′s and Sony MDR-V6′S. From now on I accept 192 tracks, but don’t mess with down converting better quality tracks. 192 is indeed the bare minimum. I deff notice when its lower. 128 Is a joke, I don’t understand why people let you download there tracks on sound cloud on 128 only, its like a slap in the face.

    • futureglue says:

      The difference between 192 and 320 is sometimes not noticeable at first, but after, say, 30 minutes of 192k music you might feel like barfing. Just drives you crazy and disengages you from the music. Some experts say that’s why nobody listens to music anymore, it’s just a background to whatever ELSE they’re doing.

      High quality audio has better highs and better lows, better dynamics. I have most of my collection in lossless and yes I can hear the difference. And once you recognize those mp3 artifacts there’s no turning back.

      I have bought some pretty badly mastered tracks from beatport (dinky – take me) and that just sucks knowing that you paid the extra $ and it just sounds as trashy.

      There is hope though, as HDs & iPods get bigger, people are going to be more exposed to bigger, lossless music files. Once that happens, the MP3 might become the 8 track of this generation.

      (Having said that I also have some 128k killer old school sh*t that I might drop when everyone is too busy partying. In that case content comes first!)

  12. rattfink says:

    I totally agree with the article! 320 is my minimum I understand that the difference to 192 isn’t huge but I just find that the drops aren’t as grand and the lulls aren’t as pronounced if I’m running below 320. And since the builds drops lulls and cuts are a DJ’s best friend, I want them to be as powerful and crowd moving as humanly possible. That being said I have a lot of tracks that I don’t play anymore because they just weren’t mastered in the same era (think Van Helden’s early stuff) so I might definitely look into fixing them in something like Adobe or Ableton and try to get them up to snuff with what’s coming out these days.

  13. Will Marshall says:

    192 typically sounds shit on a large system. It’s not really about the quality of the PA so much as volume: but while 192kbps is pretty much borderline for most people at reasonable listening volumes, through your average club PA (very loud) it’s rather more audible.

    It’s not hard to use lossless or 320kbps MP3s, so do that.

    • sameoldsong says:

      can you elaborate? what compression artifacts can you identify when listening through a club PA which you cannot perceive at “reasonable” listening volumes?

      are you sure this is not a placebo effect (i.e., are your claims based on double-blind testing)?

      • Will Marshall says:

        Sizzling and smearing in the high end, most noticeably. It’s not hugely audible, but it makes audio somewhat more fatiguing, and I expect it would make a big difference over a long set.

        I have bothered to double-blind this one, although relatively informally. Automated random A/B switching in Ableton using legato clip transitions across WAV, 320kbps and 192kbps (lame encoded) renders of the same handful of tracks over a club PA.

        WAV and 320 were indistinguishable, transitions to 192 were noticeable.

  14. Nebulo Nebuloid says:

    Well, I’m not a DJ/producer or anything like that, but IMHO with the lossless formats you can go louder without distortion. So if you can’t hear the difference between lossy and lossless in matter of sound quality, you might hear a difference when playing tracks at high volume – even in your headphones.

    But hey, a guy in a club after 5 bears looking for some fine chick to dance with will definitely don’t give a … about kbps. :D

  15. Something to remember is it all depends on the source of the sound. If you are ripping from CD it will be a faithful copy, but if it’s a radio rip or that great chestnut of “reencoding at a higher bitrate” it will sound like bum…

  16. DJ Majestic says:

    When I first acquired my digital library (from different sources) I did notice that some tracks were better than others. After plenty of research and a lot of testing of the same track at different kbps, here are my findings: For the best sound quality I use MP3 Gain set at 95db. Doing this leveled out my entire library to play clearly and at the same level regardless of the kbps. Now just to complete the library I also use Mixmeister BPM Analyzer & 1st MP3 Tag Editor.

    P.S. I also went up another local DJ who sweared by 320, we played the same set. His system vs. mine. I blew him away.
    Hint – (my) 3-way speakers vs. (his) 2-way. Maybe Digital DJ Tips will cover this in a future article.

    • it’s not just about voloume and keeping everything the same level, its about hearing the detail in the sound, that’s why the producer busted his gut adding those small details, little bleeps here, crackles there, low level delay and reverb.

      There is not enough emphasis on quality with this Digital DJ forum, It’s all about getting as much music for as cheap and as easy way as possible. My mum always said you don’t get nothing for nothing and it’s totally true in this case. You will never catch any of the Top flight DJs that all the readers of this blog aspire to be playing anything less than a 320, if they really like the tracks they acquire a WAV from the label, that’s how Freerange/Delusions of Grandeur work, and I’m sure many others too.

      Pay for quality, play Quality, be quality.

      • Steady on there fella. If you think we’re fly-by-night, I have to counter that we’re simply pragmatic and practical. We put a LOT of stock in quality so maybe you should read a few more articles before making such sweeping generalisations.

      • Jay Danger says:

        “Pay for quality, play Quality, be quality.”

        I Agree…..

  17. While I know the facts about compression, and use 320kbps wherever possible, I think there is a tendency to become distracted from the music by the “quality” issue. I often play bootlegs and remixes which may be less than 320, and have never had any complaints – the only comments are usually asking what the tracks are and where they can be found.I did purge my collection of all low-bitrate tracks last year, and have really missed a few tracks which used to be staples of my set but can’t be replaced.
    As a comparison, I have been to several unforgettable live gigs where the sound quality was far from perfect!
    As with everything, we need to apply a little common sense and also trust our ears.

  18. Keep it simple – Trust your ears.
    (test it with the PA of your resident club…before your gig)

  19. Since I only started. Buying tunes to dj with last year I went straight for aiff and wav format. With my home set up I can hear the difference between 320 and uncompressed when the same track is played side by side, as a comparison. It becomes more difficult to tell when I’m played a track and asked what format it’s in. So much is dependent on the system and the environment. My own thoughts are go for the higher quality. Although it cost me twice as much I never have to worry about quality cause it’s the best format I can buy.

  20. I think hardly anyone will *really* be able to hear the difference between 320k and 192k, as long as you don’t touch the tempo. As soon as you start to timestretch your tunes, the 192k will most likely deteriorate a little faster.

    I have this Basement Jaxx CD of 1999, of which I thought I sounded great at the time. But when I listen to it now, I think it does sound worse than most 192k mp3s of today.

  21. This is going to sound like an advert, but I’m just a happy customer, honest!

    I recently upgraded 95% of my music to 256k AAC using iTunes match – I’ve been collecting / importing MP3s for 10 years or so – starting out at 96 or 128k (!) – thankfully I don’t need to re-download or re-import any that are in the iTunes store – just sign up to Match for a year (20 quid), let it do it’s syncing, then if you delete your local file, you’ll immediately be able to download the DRM free 256kb AAC file. There’s guides on the interweb about how to do it in bulk. It took about a week or so to scan / match / delete / download about 15,000 tracks in my iTunes.

    Then if I don’t renew my account next year, I still get to keep my 256k aac files.

    • thanks! I was waiting to see if someone woudl mention Itunes <atch…. I didnt know how it worked and if I would be able to dl the songs to my computer after they have been matached. I have a copy tracks that are 128 and I jsut couldnt let tem go but it is definitely worth the price if I get to keep the files….Cheers!

  22. It’s all depend of what genre you’re playing. Some tracks are underground/gettho produced, 320 or 192 won’t make any differences.

    Depend of the club/bar PA but a lot of them have weak sound system and you won’t notice any differences too.
    Last but not least, even if you play a mp3 a 192 you will play back to back with one guy that only play CD-DA wave because he is a pro… but he just play 22.5Khz @ 64 or 96kbps internet ripp-off burned to CDs !!! LLLooollll

    I don’t think using 192 is bad, but playing tracks that all sound ‘the same’ is better. So EQ, gain is the best things to do, and if a track is shitty, try to find a better version and get rid of this one.

    There are a lot of parameters that come into mp3 compression, not only the bitrate so you cannot judge a track only because it is a 192kbps rip.

  23. One thing to consider:
    We over 30 (or even over 40) may not notice the differences in sound as younger people do.
    So you may think 192kbs may sound decent enough, your (maybe much younger) audience may disagree.
    (The higher compression of lower kbs mp3′s is mostly achieved by cutting higher frequencies and the ability to hear those higher frequencies decreases significantly when you get older).

    • Now that could very well be true! Although I feel I am still capable of being very picky… ;)

      • I agree with GerdB. I’m wellll over the 40′s mark & been going for 30+ years.
        I use Platinum Notes to “clean” my music. I have it set to VBR, which usually allows a song to play anywhere from 192 – 320kbs. It’s actually interesting to watch the song changing as it “sees” the need to…eh?…didn’t hear a bloody thing, just the constant buzzing in my ears….

    • False. They have been educated with mp3/napster/emule and iphone/ipod devices or phone dock blaster. Even FM radios are over compressed, louder with less dynamics.
      Do you really think this will give you a good earprints ? I don’t think so. The younger are less sensible for sound quality, they often said that they don’t care, they’re more about what is inside than what is handling it…

      Who is using FLAC or loseless files ? Not those that are watching screenrip or cam divx.

      • Good point. But still, they are physically able to hear a difference, not saying (anymore) they care about it.
        And thinking of it, when I was young I had a cheap cassette recorder, recording my favourite music from AFN (an American Army FM radio) in a terrible quality, and enjoyed to listen to those.
        But I as well really enjoyed it to hear my favourite Johnny Guitar Watson records on my friends father High-End Hifi gear(well, that was more than 30 years ago).
        My point is, we elderly, also grew up with terrible sounding cheap cassettes and noisy FM-Radio sounds.
        Nowadays I prefer to hear my music in the best quality available. When you love music, you may at first not care about the sound quality, but you learn with time to apreciate it, because it makes the listening even more pleasant.
        But as some said, in a noisy club, the people in Party-Mode, slightly drunk, it may make no difference 192kbs, 256kbs, wav or whatever.

  24. Even carefully listening to my music collection on studio monitors, it’s hard to tell an individual track ripped at 192 from another at 320 or 256, but I can hear the difference when mixing a track at a lower bitrate during a set.

    Before dismissing this as just an annoying issue facing digital DJs, there’s plenty of poor vinyl out there too. Overly thin singles cut at 45rpm, the volume and depth of sound difference between an LP and a 12″ single, especially the first track if it’s been pressed with the groove too close to the outer edge, etc.

    There were a ton of songs that I would have loved to play out when I spun vinyl only, but the record pressings or mastering jobs were crap, so I couldn’t. It’s the same with digital. There are tracks I cannot find that I only have 192kbps copies of (mostly white label vinyl rips or remix/bootlegs), so I make due.

    It’s all to entertain, most audiences don’t listen closely enough anyway, so 99% of the time it’s a non-issue.

    • I’m glad someone mentioned poor vinyl. Anyone remember Trax records from Chicago? They all sounded like they were pressed up on digestive biscuits. This may have been from the recycling of old 12″s into new releases – a great shame as it was the only way of acquiring some of the earlier stuff on the label. Paul Winley’s Super Disco Brakes series of LPs are also notoriously bad on vinyl quality and mastering.

      • I have an MP3 set of “The History of the House Sound of Chicago,” which was a 15-CD collection of remastered tracks issued in 1989. Volume 6 is “Trax Classix,” which includes Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body,” among others. They sound pretty decent, I think, although since I was born in 1987 I never listened to them on original Vinyl :p As a side note, the MP3′s I have were encoded at 192kbps, and I would confidently play them at a Gig… or, more likely, sample them for a remix :)

  25. I have always used 320kbs tracks but still get tracks passed onto me that are lower in kps…often down below 192kbs the difference is slightly apparent but that is not the major problem…what I find most difficult to handle is the recorded level of tracks….some tracks will sound muddy..yet quite loud when you play them..no matter what kbs they are..the problem there has been overdriven signals on their recording…..I knew about the problem but could not see it untill I started editing every incoming track and all my existing tracks….about 18,000 of them….using Audicity and seeing of the tracks redlined…..a lot of tracks redline and often their signals are chopped flat where they crest ….I replaced all those bad tracks with new ones…even recording some from tracks with lower signal levels and then using Audicity to bring them back up to level using the ‘amplify’ Effect…it brings those tracks up to max level stopping at the first sign of ‘peaking’….often those 192 and lower tracks were ‘dubbed’ tracks that had high levels in them….where as all my tracks now are clean and clear..and 320kbs..

  26. Seriously people. You CAN hear it. I’d only use less than 320 if I absolutely could not get the track (which is pretty darn near impossible if you actually buy your music). Having quality tracks, record rips etc is what makes you the DJ (especially in the world of digital djing) with the ‘knowledge’ rather than some punter who buys 192s off of iTunes.

  27. I’ll use best I’m able to find, sometimes it’s not that good. I buy 320 kbps files, because there are couple shops that sell those for a same price as iTunes sells 256 kbps. I considered flacs when I ripped my cd collection, but I didn’t have the space on my current gear.

    I also own some vinyls and an old record may sound just as bad as a bad file, but you have to play what you have to play.

  28. Will Konitzer says:

    Daft question, no it’s not acceptable.

    Because of the way MP3 encoding works, your bass ends up sounding flabby and the high end get smeared across the time domain. Net effect, the lower the bitrate, the less impact the drops will have.

    • In your opinion it’s a daft question, Will. The range of opinions here indicate that there is no right answer here.

      • Will Marshall says:

        That said, it’s entirely possible for people to have opinions that are wrong ;)

        I’ve heard a couple “mastering engineers” argue that it’s totally OK to master a pre-limited, MP3 render of of a tune, rather than demand a proper lossless pre-master.

        As you might imagine, they’re not very good at their job.

      • Will Konitzer says:

        OK, maybe I was a bit harsh and it’s not such a daft question as people obviously have a variety of opinions, but the answer is still the same – it’s not acceptable.

        You wouldn’t go to see a film at the cinema and expect to see it at a low quality. The same is true of hearing music at your local venue. The quality of PAs these days is vastly superior to what was being produced a decade ago, yet people are choosing to play source material that isn’t as good.

        Personally, I would advise people not to use low quality files. They generally have less dynamic range, flabby bass, lack of high end, a generally harsher sound, problems with tempo stretching (which almost all DJs will need to do) and a whole host of other problems. Just because your ears aren’t trained to hear the problems doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Given a choice I wouldn’t use a lossy format (such as MP3) at all, but I understand that for a lot of people they can’t afford the extra cost of a lossless format like WAV.

  29. When I started using Final Scratch back in 2004, I was using MP3s of 128 kbps. As Final Scratch died and up came Traktor Scratch, Serato, and Torq, I moved up to 192 and stayed there longer than others did. I used to catch some flack from DJs who felt you “must” use 320 kbps or WAV. Even now I still see some who are adamant that DJs should give up MP3 and stay lossless…no matter what it costs.

    I usually like to stay with what I know will work. What I mean by that is to use what I know won’t make my DVS or laptop struggle. When I got off Final Scratch and gave Deckadance a try for a bit, I tried using some WAV files, but noticed how my computer and program was struggling. Some can say “buy a Macbook” or “buy Serato”, but I still am a firm believer that all the added auto depth isn’t worth it if you’re risking a crash or a problem at a live gig.

    Now I use 320, but I still have a lot of my older collection in 192. They sound good and they work. I’ve seen some audiophiles who still push the issue, but in the many years I’d go to clubs and raves, I don’t believe I ever heard true clarity. Even if you buy a top of the line sound system, you’re still dealing with background noise and often times bad EQing on the part of the DJ. That or the venue put in plenty of woofers, but not enough mid and high to compensate.

    I think any DJ should stick to what they can afford both in gear and music…and what their laptop/computer can handle.

    • Will Marshall says:

      MP3 decoding is much more computationally expensive than WAV decoding.

      If your computer is having issues, switching to lossless files will improve them…

  30. Chuck van Eekelen says:

    Three years ago or so we finally put the “shall we move to mp3″ discussion to bed. My good friend and owner of a road show has forever been saying the quality on mp3 would not be good. And I wanted to prove he was wrong so we could move on.

    We got the keys to a reasonably sized club during daytime and invited a couple of good ears. We had the young ones (18-19) and the old ones (45-50) and a few in between.

    I had made 20-second cuts from different songs at 128,192,256,320 and wav. Forms were passed out where the audience could “tick the box” on which cut they thought they were listening to as they were being played in random order. We played four songs (20 cuts) on a pleasant level (say 85db or thereabouts) and four songs at about 100db, just to take away the sound level bit of the discussion.

    End result: 1 of the youngster managed to get closed to the jackpot, but still couldn’t make the difference between 256 and 320 and wav and had only a marginal score on identifying the 192s.

    Something to note is that since we were in an essentially empty club, there was no crowd noise or anything to distract from the quality of the sound. Obviously a full house will even add to further mask the actual sound quality.

    We had to conclude that, especially at high volume, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between 192 and wav. 256 and above sound as good as the original CD.

    What we did discover though was that the source for the mp3 mattered. So if you are using high quality downloads from reputable stores or use a good ripper (dBpoweramp is my favorite hands-down) with the original CD’s, then you are on your way to a high quality digital collection. If you have to rip a lot of CD’s, do yourself a favor and buy Plextor CD drives for your PC (or stick one in a USB external 5,25″ casing for use with a mac. They are faster than most and are absolutely the top when it comes to error correction. The may cost more than twice as much as regular CD-rom players, but they are well worth the price.

    Greetinx,
    Chuck “DJ Vintage”

    • Will Konitzer says:

      Hi Chuck,

      Unfortunately your test isn’t really valid for a number of reasons – for instance, did you check the hearing response of the listeners beforehand? Hearing impediments have a psychological impact on how people hear sound, so you can really only perform valid listening tests with people who haven’t got any significant hearing loss otherwise your results will be biased.

      You also can’t just play items randomly and ask people to grade them because your ear adjusts to the new sound within a few seconds and most people’s ear memory isn’t good enough to remember what has come before, hence the reason for a reference and A/B blind tests.

      I’m slightly biased here because I spent a while designing listening tests, etc. If you’re interested, here’s a relatively new paper written by some of the people I was assisting describing some of the biasing problems encountered etc.

      http://www.acourate.com/Download/BiasesInModernAudioQualityListeningTests.pdf

  31. Keep in mind there is a difference between 192kbps VBR and 192kbps CBR. And it depends on which codec you used to encode with as well.

    In other words, there’s more to the question then the ‘claimed’ bitrate.

    And for those that claim to hear the difference – try some ABX comparative tests sometime. It might open your eyes sometime.

    For the average person, they can’t tell the difference between 192kbps VBR LAME encoded MP3′s and the original source (ala CD/WAV) in a near perfect listening environment (low noise floor, high end equipment). Once you have a decent noise floor (people talking, etc) and you add in ‘drunken deafness’ and that number PLUMMETS. I’ve seen people play entire sets on 128kbps CBR Fraunhoffer encoded MP3′s and no one in the club even knew.

    Keep in mind, it’s also a function of playing them back to back to high bit rate encoded files where they may notice the difference. Going from 128kbps to wav and back is obvious – but if you go from 128kbps to 160kbps to 192kbps to 256/320/wav then the chances of someone noticing are FAR lower.

    In the end, you should use the best sound quality you have available to you. But I’ve been a member of an online MP3 service which started out more than 12 years ago with 128kbps CBR files (LEGAL service BTW). I still have some because they dropped the labels before they upgraded all their content to higher bitrates. As a result, I just have to be aware of those tracks and when/how I play them within a set. I also try to keep my eye out for some of the tracks I may still use so that I can replace them with higher bit rate versions.

    The biggest issue you’ll have on big sound systems are on the sub side of things where all the sub-harmonics are removed below 20Hz. The issue is only noticeable if the system is capable of playing those frequencies (not all are) and you have WAV/CD tracks you play back to back with MP3′s. But this is a function of most all MP3′s and lossy compression schemes, not just lower bit rate MP3′s.

    In the end, go with the best bit rates you can get/have, and try not to play lower bit rate stuff back to back with high bit rate stuff and you shouldn’t have any issues or complaints. The human ear is a horrible tool for determining sound quality…. and most DJ’s have already suffered some hearing loss which only makes the equation that much more convoluted…

    BTW, try an ABX comparator if you’re wanting to see if you can tell the difference… :) GREAT tool for opening eyes with regards to the overall quality of the sound.

    • Will Konitzer says:

      Which software you use to encode has a big impact. The MP3 specification is tightly controlled for the decoding, so even 10 year old MP3 players should be able to play files from new encoders. All the clever stuff goes on in the encoder.

      The encoding specification is very loose, leaving it up to the implementer as to how they actually do the encoding or what listening model they will implement. The idea being newer encoders (on for instance faster computers) can implement much better listening models and sliding frequency analysis bands to produce a better sounding file, but this file will still play back on older players as all the player needs to do is decode the bitstream.

  32. 192 is more noise than music imo

  33. Ole Caspersen says:

    I just wanted to pop my two cents in the pool. Thanks to all contributors in an interesting thread. First of: Thanks for the overall conclusion that, iTunes 256 is Good To Play. It simply makes life easier as a DJ / pay for one song, not the whole CD, fit on a USB stick not a bulky HDd, great! … However doing more and more gigs and conserned on being just a little better each time I play I’m also taking a bit of a “poetic sound physics” perspective into this, and when you read this I’m sure even the most convinced MP3-evangelists will agree with me even if just with a fraction of their digitally compressed brain when dreaming in REM-sleep or whenever their defences is down. My theory goes, that even if you can’t hear enought frequencies to tell the differerences in Kbps, but frequencies are also felt in your body – isn’t that what a packed dancefloor is all about? People absorbing frequencies and responding to the rythm. As a DJ you are a merchant in VIBE, and cutting out frequencies when compressing song equals cutting out Vibes. I think it’s our job to bring as much vibe to a party as possible. A typical AAC 256 song is 8 MB the equivallent WAV or AIFF is 50 MB or so. See where I’m headed here? And 3 TB HDDs are down to about 150 USD (thats a lot AIFFs) So to cut things short, I’ll end my preaching with a confession: I just purged everything below 190, but I’m still ashamed of still playing 192′s.

  34. I only use WAV Files or hi 320 mp3 no less and you might not be able to here the difference u can definitely feel it . Wav files feel more full

  35. The ‘short’ story: Playing an mp3 at the same volume as an wav/aiff gives a lower power sound in the air. In a crowded venue, an mp3 do not ‘reach’ the same distance as a wav is able to. So with mp3, you may ‘understand’ the music in a certain range from the speakers (~25m), but going further you will hear more and more somehing like a ‘music noise’. Turning up the volume does not help an mp3 to penetrate further, it is only increasing that noise of music. Practically you may end believing your speakers/the venue speakers are much bad than you thought – in fact the mp3 is to be blamed. Playing a wav/aiff looks like an extra power added to your speakers and amplifiers. It sounds ‘full’. Anyway, mp3 codecs are cutting INFORMATION in order to shrink the music. This musical information means really power in the electrical mean of the word ‘power’. Filtered information results in a weaker power of the signal and this can be proved using electrical engineering and mathematical knowledge. The conclusion is: regardless of what an individual may hear, the effect on this individual is different when using full spectrum music or a chopped one. Otherwords YOU CAN EASILY MANIPULATE INDIVIDUALS WITH A FULL SPECTRUM MUSIC THAN WITH A CHOPPED SPECTRUM ONE. And a DJ is a people manipulator. As an example, take these extremes: try to make a borred crowd to dance without bass. You can’t produce any emotion. the same without any treble. And compressing music is getting ‘rid’ of a lot of spectrum, resulting in a ‘lighter’ version of the original. Mp3 compressing is like a fence you can peep through (because at every set of frequencies, some are filtered=removed according to the algorithm used), while the original music is like a wall. The nice thing here is that this can be proved by mathematical calculations about electrical power of signals. We have to take into account that the spectrum of a CD is 20hz-20khz due to the Nyquist theoreme, and this is the first filtering stage. You cannot hear 20.1 khz, but your body is eacting to that frequency as well as to the ultrasound of an ecography (last studies shows the unborn babies are desperately trying to avoid the ‘mouse’ that the doctor is walking on the mother’s belly). Maybe Armin cannot make always a conscience differenc between 192k and wav but this is not the best way to have a conclusion. The best way is this one: whether an individual can notice or not differences by his ears, every individual will be better/faster transported/manipulated to the essence/message of that music using the full spectrum of the music because all the body resonates with frequencies. Do not forget army is using low and sub audible frequencies in non lethal weapons to get people very sick-they may not hear anything, but start vomiting. So their body feels more than the ears can tell.

  36. i’m strictly a 320 person, the quality is amazing. i don’t use anything else but 320.

  37. mmmbutch says:

    Always lossless for me. Sometimes I’ll use 320kbps MP3s…. Never any less tho, Anyone that’s using 128 either needs to re-rip their collection or start buying their music.

  38. From plenty of outdoor event experience, I have found if you are playing on a 6-10k or under PA system, MP3 320 is the least quality you must aim for. Anything over 10K and you should really start looking for your tunes in WAV or FLAC…or just anything lossless.

  39. In the clubs I’ve played in, you could definately tell the difference between 192 and 320. It’s not very noticable but you can feel the difference, the sound sounded a lot less thick to me.

  40. I always seek out and buy music in lossless formats whenever possible. To me, it’s part of being as professional as possible in what I’m doing. That means putting out the best effort and product that I possibly can to the people supporting me. Maybe most people can’t tell the difference but it seems that some can, or this wouldn’t get debated so much. I’ll sleep better knowing that I tried to cater to the most discerning ears in the club that night rather than just assuming everyone was too drunk to care.

    Plus, having the lossless files leaves you with more options on the production side of things. It’s ideal to be working with high quality files when sampling, editing, etc.

  41. There is a difference in sound between 192 and 320 mp3s. It is most noticeable in the high end. To my ears the high end sounds squashed in 192 mp3s when compared to 320. 320s are Ok sounding but when compared to Wav or Aiff you can the lack of depth of 320s. Wavs files hit the speaker differently giving that fullness.

  42. An excellent article and fascinating insight into everyone’s digital audio file preferences. Personally, I’ve re-ripped all my CDs into a lossless format and then duplicated the tracks I want to play out into a more manageable size (256 AAC). When technology matures I expect I’ll shelve the 256′s and duplicate in a better format, but for now it’s fine.

    With the rise of video DJing maybe we’ll see a discussion on what resolution is suitable for playing out with videos?

  43. Victor_M says:

    you also have to remember where you getting your 320 mp3′s from. There been plenty of times I’ve downloaded a track labeled “320″ a record pool that sounded like 128. Why because the source material was 128 and the re encouded it at 320. Crap in crap out!

  44. I think this was mentioned earlier, but the ENCODING METHOD is critical to the quality of the MP3. I rip CD’s with EAC (“Exact Audio Copy”) and then I have EAC externally reference LAME to encode the files to 320kbps/CBR MP3 files. Even LAME has an option for “low quality” or “high quality” on the encoder settings. Another program I used to use, CD-DA Extractor, had options for “fast” or “high quality” encoding, which really tells the whole story. Even at 320kbps, if you are impatient and select the “fast” encoding method, you will end up with a file that could potentially sound worse than a 192kbps file that was well-encoded using “high quality” settings. In fact, some of the 320kbps MP3′s I have that I did not encode myself DO sound crappier than CD’s I ripped several years ago at 192kbps!

    Okay, and one other thing to note — if you are dealing with oldies music, the specific compilation or re-mastered CD you have is critical. After all, if the source tapes used to digitally remaster the music were not original generation tapes, or the sound engineer sucked at his job, it doesn’t matter if you sample it at 96kHz and 24-bit depth if the *analog* source sounds crappy! Lots of late-80′s and early-90′s digital remasters sound crappy compared to more recent re-masters. CD’s were new at the time, and it seems record companies would grab whatever source tape they could find and slap it on a CD just so they had something to sell to people with fancy new CD players.

  45. Sherpapsy says:

    On has to wonder why our friend here only has 192k MP3′s to play out with…who sells music at such low quality? I am loath to think anyone plays out with nothing but pirated tunes, and if paid to do so…but that’s another argument. As for audio file quality, why anything but lossless?

  46. I would definitely not use MP3′s that are less than 320 kbps.
    It’s true that most of us can’t hear the difference, but that’s not all that counts…
    Listening to compressed music for a long time tires you more. So maybe the crowd doesn’t experience any difference during the gig itself, chances are that they will go home earlier and they are more likely to wake up with an annoying beep in their ears when you play heavily compressed music. Same goes for mr. DJ himself ofcourse.

  47. I can very much hear the difference between 192K and 320K, and personally would never play anything but a 320 out. I can’t even stand to have less than 320s on my iPod. However I hear low bitrate tunes played out a lot, especially from local DJs and most people don’t notice. The thing is, if the MP3 sounds bad on headphones, it will be just as bad on a loud system. So use your ears. If its good enough for you, chances are it’s good enough to be played out. But as the article says, do some side by side comparisons to really know.

  48. Sorry but you can’t reverse sound quality,what’s lost during compression is lost that’s the fact.
    People can’t tell the difference between true 192/44.1 and 320/44.1
    (unless your the bionic woman from the 70′s series)as long a the source is reliable, anything below 192 is useless.If in doubt use a acoustic spectrum analyser. I always do it doesn’t matter the source, even with cd’s.

  49. wil s bur says:

    There’s no big differences while just playing or doing beat to beat mixes. But try to scratch slowly the same track at 192 & 320 kbps and you’ll hear it.

  50. wavyears says:

    What an item! Dance people have no good ears left and DJs for sure after attending many parties. 192 Kbps is way enough. Armin Van Buuren is right he can hear it (anymore). With tinnitus 160 Kbps is O.K.

    • I don’t know if you’re being serious or not but your post made me smile and there’s more than half a grain of truth in it.

      • wavyears says:

        Thanks for smiling, realy, but I was a bit serious Phil and still am: If Armin Van Buuren uses 192 Kbps, it’s the flow, the vibrations, the moves, the lines that makes it, mind this hole Apple generation is grown up on low-fi audio and has their ears tuned down by Watt force speakers and earplugs.
        Maybe a next FLAC generation… {(-:

        It takes a little to laugh but a lot to cry.

  51. Go 320kbps. There is definitely an audible difference between 192kbps and 320kbps. Unfortunately many MP3 encoders are bad even at 320kbps.

    If you have damaged hearing, especially in the high frequencies, it makes it harder to detect the differences. MP3 encoders in general will allocate less bits towards the higher frequencies as they are deemed less important.

    Once you start stretching and playing with the audio the differences become very obvious. Imagine that it’s like having a blurry little low resolution picture. From far away you can’t tell that it’s low resolution, but make it bigger or go up closer to it and suddenly you can tell how bad it looks.

    You might find it hard to notice compression artifacts, but the moment you notice them in a song you like, it’s annoying.

  52. i agree that using ur ears is very important – i would say the audible difference between the formats is subtle ( depending on which formats are being compared) but the problem is that many of these files formats get mingled along the way – example: taking high quality to 128, then back to 320 or so forth will have a huge effect on the final result (that being said, yes the encoders or algorithm being uses is very important – another example Winamp free app VS a $500 dollar pro Apogee converter).

  53. I’m going to put my tuppence in here – as a working DJ, playing every weekend on a wide variety of rigs, from kitted out clubs, to scuddy little squat basements, to festivals – you really are going to notice the difference in sound quality of playing too many low bitrate MP3s, especially if, like me, you play a lot of music that relies on bass. Yeah, you can get away with 192 (or even 128 if the song is a true banger) occasionally if you can’t get the track in any other format- sometimes dancehall tunes are impossible to get in any decent encryption, so you just gotta work with what you got. However, as many others have said, after a while those wack bitrates start to really tell, and you just can’t move a crowd as well as the man with top quality soundfiles. I guess I feel different because I was a vinyl DJ for a decade, and still would be if the tracks I play weren’t only available digitially- it seems so mad that all this new tech has led to a deterioration in the sound we generally hear out, with quality sacrificed for convenience… Still, do your crowd the honour of looking for the highest quality you can, you’ll be better for it

  54. I’m 49. Have been working in the aviation industry, for 20 years. DJing a year now. Always used ear protection. Lowest frequency I (h)ear/feel is unknown as the feeling interferes too much.

    Now the highs. Ends at slightly over 19 kHz. I can hear the on/off switching of FM sterea/mono pilot tones. My hearing response is pretty flat — I have it tested every year with and without protection (in ear protection used to keep aircraft sounds out) and so far all OK so it seems.

    Now. let’s take the ears as reference. And what do I hear? Some 320kbps mp3′s sound OK, same taken off youtube at 48 kbps, sound better. Obviously my ears. What happens often is that some artefacts are really due to harmonics mixing. Same story for vinyl that some people feel sounds better. It’s all in the ears. It depends on so many factors, that I safely can say that the used encoding software, filtereing, bits et al is a major factor.

    I have heard similar functioning gear, 96 kHz sampling, 24 bits, sounding ‘weird’ and my current DJM850/CDJ850s sound better.

    Sretching of sounds — also this heavily depends on the used algorithms. On linux, there are free sound stretching tools that can be finetuned and you hear a lot of difference.

    Basically I don’t often hear music that can be streched when lowering the pitch. The base kicks are sometimes not a full thump but partly broken in two pieces. That does not realy change if I feed a 192 kbps or 320 kbps track. WAVs are also even crappy to hear.

    I have spoken to people that use a EUR 80 behringer mixer and hear differences. Putting them on the DJM850, they disappear. Same players,different mixer, same headphones, same levels, same amplifier.

    So, basically it’s all what your ears hear. Nothing more, nothing less.

    For me 192 kbps is fine enough. I don’t care. My ears don’t care either.

    Have fun!

  55. if you’re using anything below 320 get off the decks yo… i know dudes paying the extra 2 dollars for .wav files man… it’s sad to see people arguing that 192 is ok

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