I was intrigued by a well written article by Jack Scofield in the Guardian Unlimited.  In it, he writes about the future of audio formats and what  is to come, in particulary he talks about MP3, WMA and AAC formats and their advantages and disadvantages.

I’m a fan of lossless, uncompressed audio with no DRM, it sounds better and it’s easier to use.  There has been a lot of debate about DRM in the media lately, especially since a number of distributors/companies have proposed dropping it altogether (EMI, etc). Whether or not DRM survives or thrives, the question about which audio format will succeed or concede is an interesting topic to consider.

With the advent of rapidly reduced costs and increased production of mega drives like the Hitachi terabyte hard drive,  new possible considerations begin to arise. For instance, the massive increases in home broad speed and these new, enormous, hard drives coupled with the new processing power of portable devices like the new iPods and Zunes begs the question: Is it necessary to use lossy compression anymore?  Let’s at least entertain the thought….

1 terabyte is 1,000,000,000,000 bytes (no, I’m not going to get into the 1024 vs. 1000 kilobyte debate here!).  If we look at standard CD quality songs being recorded in Stereo at 44.1 kHz/16 bits with the average song being 3 minutes long, it’s easy to determine the file size of the song using the following equation:

44,1000 samples per second * (16 bits per sample/8 (bits to bytes))* 2 channels (stereo) * 180 seconds (3 minute song).

Using the equation we find out the file size of a standard 3 minute song is approximately 176,400 bytes per second or 31,752,000 bytes per song (roughly 10 megabytes per minute).  If we divide this into 1 terabyte we now have about 31,500, CD quaility, 3 minute long songs able to fit onto the drive!

Some of the very best audio/mp3 players today come standard with 80 gigabytes of storage space.  Using a standard mp3 compression rage of 128kbps (which isn’t great by the way). You can get roughly 27,777 file songs on these devices.  That’s almost the same amount of songs using our above terabyte/CD quality example, the difference being the sound quality of the CD Audio files is much better than the MP3s. 

Even if you conisder DVD Audio (DVD-A)at a maxium bitrate of 9.6 megabits per second (due to mlp, meridian lossless packing) you come up with about 4,500 songs fitting onto the terabyte drive!  That’s a pretty heafty number of songs as well!

Interestingly enough, if you were to put the standard 128 kbps encoded mp3 song files onto that same 1 terabyte hard drive, you would have about 350,000 songs! Thats around 1,050,000 minutes of listening or almost 730 days straight (2 years!).  And if you paid the “bargin basement price” of $.10 per song it would only cost you $35,000!  You only need around 11,388,000, 3 minute songs to get you to the ripe age of 65 from birth! O.K., these numbers are getting ridiculous!

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending which side of the fence you are on with regard to the DRM battle (see my podcasts), CD Audio ( and .wav type files) don’t have any copyright protection, this is where the WMA files and others would come into play. That being said if bandwidth, cpu speeds and storage space continues to increase, as it will; Why play lossy audio when you can have lossless and have higher fidelity?  It doesn’t make sense.

So is the compressible formats of audio going to disappear?  Probably not.  Most likely you will see them being used as they are today,  but also they will be compressing Super Audio CD and DVD Audio type formats down to some kind of better than “CD” but not quite SACD or DVD-A sound quality audio files.  And of course, you’ll probably still see DRM around in one form or another…

~Joseph Pisano

[tags]audio, drm, emi, gates, mp3, cd, dvd audio, aac[/tags]

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