Forgotten Audio Formats: MP3

The year was 1994.

Music was as popular as ever, with rock bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins, pop artists like Ace of Base and Mariah Carey, and soul artists like Boyz II Men and Janet Jackson selling millions of albums.

The music industry was relatively healthy and investing in new artists. Thousands of people were employed to record, catalog, distribute, market, and keep the books for successful recording artists.

This B-side collection by The Smashing Pumpkins sold 1,000,000 copies in America in just a few months to go certified platinum. That’s 1 million CD’s sold, not youtube views.

Music could be consumed on multiple formats. Most listeners had a mixed bag for their own collection: analog vinyl LP’s and cassettes along with digital CD’s. FM music radio was not completely dead.

Other physical formats existed such as reel-to-reel and LaserDisc, but were tiny markets. DAT and DSD were still years away.

File-only digital had just begun with the WAV/AIFF format (released in 1991), but a CD held more data than most hard drives in 1994.

You might get 350mb of total hard drive space in this 1994 computer. That’s half a CD.

In the tech world a trend was accelerating that would forever change the music industry: hard drive price per megabyte:

1988 – $16
1989 – $12
1990 – $9
1991 – $7
1992 – $4
1992 – $2
1993 – $0.95
1994 – $0.81
1995 – $0.68
1996 – $0.21

You would need $10,000 worth of hard drive space to hold a single CD in 1988!

By 1994 it was $526. By 1996 $135 got you 650mb of HD space.

The 650mb Compact Disc cost pennies to manufacture and sold at retail for $15-30. Nice markup if you can get it! Plus they were proving to be durable, and with CD-R’s coming down in price CD was the digital format of necessity unless and until something drastically changed.

Either the bandwidth needed or bandwidth available had to change.

Don’t forget: bandwidth = moving storage. Storage = static bandwidth.

The same software engineers who came up with JPG image compression were called upon to investigate audio and video compression. Their goal: to get the file size small enough for 1990’s bandwidth. If a CD was $20, how to compete?

Shrink the file by any means necessary.

For music testing they used contemporary music (Suzanne Vega) and developed what they called perceptual coding.

Perceptual coding targets all the parts of mixed music that were open to perception beyond the main focus of the song – the melody and beat. So things like transients, decays, pan and placement, room and soundstage size, the timbre of instruments, the blending of sounds, that type of thing.

Remember hi-hats? MP3 crushed them into non-existence.

These audible cues are always present in mixed music but are unmeasurable and basically indescribable. Actually, people can describe them all day, but they are nearly impossible to measure and no one even agrees how to explain verbally or through written language.

You may know it when you hear it, but it’s not possible to explain further in a controlled, consistent, scientific way.

No matter how descriptive you are, the next person will use completely different terms.

This listener confusion and lack of terminology made the engineers jobs far easier. They found they could actually remove nearly 90% of the audio data before testers consistently identified a difference using this listener confusion and flawed testing methods.

A few 90’s mp3 engineers, not audio engineers.


This gave the engineers the green light they needed. It was close enough to fool enough people and the MP3 specification was published. A 50mb WAV file became a 5mb MP3 file and life was good!

It was true – at first listen, they almost sounded like the original. It took a more critical listen, and especially repeated listens, to pick out the degradation.

Over time many came to hate the MP3 sound. Casual listeners didn’t care as much, but professionals, musicians, and audiophile-types rejected MP3 as lossy.

Sound quality has always been secondary, though. Finally computers could play near-full quality music! File-based convenience had arrived.

Finally modems and networks could send the files around!

Finally bootlegging was convenient!

MP3 was quite popular in it’s time. Nearly every device made could play MP3 files, including phone’s, video games, TV’s, and wireless speakers.

Early MP3 player

Apple, Amazon, and Google made good money selling MP3 files. Nearly every artist and label agreed to lossy their catalog for profit. DIY sites like Bandcamp and ReverbNation allowed indie bands to publish in this new age.

But MP3 had no artwork beyond a tiny cover. No lyrics. No credits. No booklet. No shout outs. There was nothing physical to attach to. Listeners attached to their iPod or phone instead, and not necessarily the content on it.

MP3 was highly bootlegged and for some time, recorded music lost all value.

MP3 also required almost no people to distribute or sell it to the masses. Nothing to sell & nothing to move = nothing to promote. This equals nothing to invest in.

Bootlegging ran rampant and the music industry practically folded. Most musicians stopped making money from their music.

Limping along, MP3 got one quality improvement in 2009, rebranded AAC by Apple, but it wasn’t going to help much. By 2014 streaming was stealing the download market.

Streaming takes everything bad about MP3’s and extends it to the rental model.

Now you own nothing, not even the 10% files. You pay a subscription to hear the degraded versions of your favorite songs in-between commercials. Don’t pay up? No music for you.

The current streaming business model is unsustainable for both the license holders and the license purchasers, but in this post-fact world perhaps it really doesn’t matter. Quality has been trumped. I’ve been wrong before.

Lossless formats like FLAC, around for years now, give critical listeners an open format to rally around. Buying hi-res music from sites like HDTracks and ProStudioMasters is a thing again.

Hi-res hi-fi DAP’s finally emerged in many markets. 24bit FLAC continues to offer higher-resolution files with no DRM.

The A&K Jr. is a modern hi-res DAP with obvious sonic improvements over the iPod era.

Bandwidth/storage is now available. I have 60+ full lossless albums on a card the size of my pinky nail. I have the bandwidth into the house to stream 24bit audio, if anyone offered it.

One can only hope that the MP3 era is the last time we accept such a massive downgrade in quality.



  • CD’s are still for sale in retail, vinyl never went away, and even cassettes are making a weird indie comeback.