CD vs iTunes Store: Audio Quality By Josh Blagden | JB - Mac Help | JBlagden

CD vs iTunes Store: Audio Quality   By Josh Blagden

At this point in time, we have grown attached to buying music from the iTunes store due to its convenience and in so doing, effectively thrown CDs to the wayside as though they were anachronisms. I agree that the downside of CDs is that they aren’t as convenient as an iTunes download and like all optical media, are easily damaged. However, they beat music purchased from the iTunes store in one important area: Audio Quality. CD’s have significantly higher quality audio than music which was purchased from the iTunes store. 

What’s the difference? The difference is the format(format) and the bitrate of the music. For years, iTunes carried [DRM-protected] MP3s, then they moved on to 256-bit AACs. An AAC file is of higher quality than an MP3, but it still doesn’t compare to an AIFF file from a CD, or even to Apple Lossless files, which are very close to being of the same level of quality as a CD. Aside from the format, the bitrate is also an indicator of quality. iTunes currently sells AAC files which have a bit rate of 256 kilobits per second. Take the Beatle’s song Yellow Submarine, for example. The bitrate of the AAC version is 256 kilobits per second, while the Apple Lossless version is 892 kilobits per second; the bitrate of the Apple Lossless version is roughly three times higher than that of the AAC version. 

Will I notice the difference? Whether you’ll hear the difference between different audio formats depends on your headphones. If you’re using a cheap $10 pair of headphones, you won’t notice the difference. You might notice the difference with a $30 pair of Apple headphones. You’ll definitely notice the quality difference with good pair of headphones. However, a lot of people may think that you have to spend $150-$300 to get a good pair of headphones, or at least to get a pair which will be accurate enough for you to be able to notice the difference between AAC files and their Apple Lossless counterparts. That’s simply untrue. You can get a pair of Sennheiser 428s for around $50. With those headphones, you can easily tell the difference between the two file types. One easy way to notice the quality difference is to listen to Yellow Submarine by the Beatles. In Yellow Submarine, there’s a a bell which rings approximately halfway through the song. The bell is easy to miss in the AAC version, while it’s crystal-clear in the Apple Lossless version of the same song. While AAC is significantly better than MP3, it’s still not as good as Apple Lossless. 

Isn’t there a size difference? An MP3 file takes up roughly 3 megabytes, an AAC file takes up roughly 10 megabytes and an Apple Lossless file takes up roughly 20 megabytes. An album which has 20 songs will generally take up 60 megabytes in MP3 format, 200 megabytes in 256-bit AAC format and 500 megabytes in Apple Lossless format. Due to that big size difference, you likely won’t want to keep Apple Lossless files on an iOS device, or anything which has a small hard drive or Solid State Drive. On a computer, Apple Lossless files aren’t an issue as long as you’re not using a low-capacity Solid State Drive or even a small hard drive. If you’ve got enough space and a good enough pair of headphones, it’s well worth the extra file size. For iOS devices, you could have a playlist of AAC files, including AAC file which have been converted from Apple Lossless files. Whether it’s worth the additional space requirement really depends on how much storage space you can spare. Assuming the average person has 20-30 CDs, if you can easily spare 15 gigabytes for your music library, the extra quality is well worth the extra storage space. For iOS devices, you can choose to have iTunes convert your Apple Lossless files to 256-bit AAC files on-the-fly when you sync your iOS device. This way, you’ll get a good level of quality on your IOS device without taking up too much space. This is particularly good for people who have 16 gigabyte iOS devices, since it’s very difficult to work with that small amount of storage space.

Conclusion: CD’s offer considerably higher-fidelity audio than music downloaded from the iTunes store. The Apple Lossless audio format captures roughly 95% of a CD’s audio quality. Apple Lossless files are well worth the space on a computer which has a good amount of free space, and if you have a pair of headphones which is good enough to distinguish the difference between Apple Lossless files and AACs or MP3s. Since you likely won’t want to take up extra space on an iOS device with large Apple Lossless files, you can have iTunes create 256-kilobit AAC files for your iOS device.

© Joshua Blagden & Justin Barczak 2013-2015