MP3 does not sound too bad after all

By WL Low


I remember very well back in my teenage years, my most prized possession was my Sony Walkman, which came with Super bass adjustments, long life, rechargeable lithium ion battery. Very light and compact, it was physically not much bigger than the cassette tape’s clear plastic cover itself. It had another cool feature too, which was auto reverse. I used to admire its inner mechanism – those miniature motors, rubber belt, pinch rollers, mini capstan and lastly, a Permalloy tape head for playback. I always kept a bottle of cleaning alcohol and cotton ear buds close, as the tape heads and pinch rollers would require frequent cleaning, to get the best sound and for tape wow and flutter to be reduced. In a way, the Sony Walkman was very much built like the internal mechanism of a precision Swiss watch. I never left home without it.


Fast forward 20 odds years and facing my mid-life crisis, the Sony Walkman is now replaced by my indispensable, do-it-all iPhone 5! It’s my tele-communication device, social media, Internet info-center, news, games, mobile audio and video device all rolled into one sexy, and smart-looking package, which fits into my palms comfortably too. It’s much lighter than my Walkman could ever be. I use the iPhone 5 for in car and mobile music. I have access to iTunes and my phone currently stores more than 600 songs in MP3 codec. That’s a whole lot more than a 90-minute cassette tape could ever store. I normally do not listen to audiophile standards on my iPhone, but rather today’s chart music, which are mostly recorded on the MP3 codec format.



The freebie white ear phones that come with the iPhone 5 – its design is much improved from that of iPhone 4, but it”s certainly far from the best!


The modern music repertoire would include from the likes of Adele, Rihana, Psy, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Nicki Minaj, Maroon 5, and, yes, even a little bit of Justin Bieber! The music is mostly pop, rock, dance and some rap too. Just for kicks, there is one and only audiophile album (Musik Von Einem Anderen Stern, a.k.a. Manger CD) stored just for reference (in MP3 codec).


Many seasoned audiophiles have complained that MP3 sounds compressed, bandwidth limited, digitalised and trashy. Whilst I can agree with them to a certain extent, I beg to differ however, as I heard many things on the MP3 which the now extinct cassette tape could never hope to equal. How about the following MP3 advantages? Like the CD quality silent background, pitch stability without the wow and flutter, or the crystalline clear mid-band presentation, with minimum audible distortion.


Using  iPhone 5’s freebie earphones, I get very reasonable sound quality from modern MP3 recordings. While bandwidth limitation is its most glaring sin, followed by a lack of micro detailing or dynamic shading. I didn”t hear much compression or digitalised music presentation. What I heard was a very fluid musical presentation, with rock solid pitch stability and very neutral tonal colour. The mid-centric musical presentation was still highly coherent and very enjoyable, if one is thinking music first, followed by hi-fi sound.


I recently came across some products that will take the iPhone/iPod performance up a few notches, most notably head phones of which there are many designs to choose from that will suit any budget. In the next two instalments, I shall try some leading candidates that will truly elevate the audio performance of the iPhone/iPod.


It’s time we audiophiles loosen up, and boldly embrace the MP3 format with music being the primary reason, perhaps if each of us can even infect a few iPhone/iPod users to upgrade, then we’d have the making of a whole new generation of future audiophiles to come!



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