Article: Ask Lifehacker
Author: Whiston Gordon
Does Bitrate Really Make a Difference In My Music?
What Is Bitrate?
You've probably heard the term "bitrate" before, and you probably have a general idea of what it means, but just as a refresher, it's probably a good idea to get acquainted with its official definition so you know how all this stuff works. Bitrate refers to the number of bits—or the amount of data—that are processed over a certain amount of time. In audio, this usually means kilobits per second. For example, the music you buy on iTunes is 256 kilobits per second, meaning there are 256 kilobits of data stored in every second of a song.
The higher the bitrate of a track, the more space it will take up on your computer. Generally, an audio CD will actually take up quite a bit of space, which is why it's become common practice to compress those files down so you can fit more on your hard drive (or iPod, or Dropbox, or whatever). It is here where the argument over "lossless" and "lossy" audio comes in.
Lossless and Lossy Formats
When we say "lossless", we mean that we haven't really altered the original file. That is, we've ripped a track from a CD to our hard drive, but haven't compressed it to the point where we've lost any data. It is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the original CD track.
More often than not, however, you probably rip your music as "lossy". That is, you've taken a CD, ripped it to your hard drive, and compressed the tracks down so they don't take up as much space. A typical MP3 or AAC album probably takes up 100MB or so. That same album in lossless format, though—such as FLAC or ALAC (also known as Apple Lossless) would take up closer to 300MB, so it's become common practice to use lossy formats for faster downloading and more hard drive savings.
The problem is that when you compress a file to save space, you're deleting chunks of data. Remember, of course, that you're still reaping the benefits of hard drive space with lossy music (which can make a big difference on a 32 GB iPhone), it's just the tradeoff you make. However, there's a lot of argument as to whether most people can even hear the difference between high and low bitrate audio.
Does It Really Matter?
Since storage has become so cheap, listening to lossless audio is starting to become a more popular (and practical) practice. But is it worth the time, effort, and space? I always hate answering questions this way, but unfortunately the answer is: it depends.
Part of the equation is the gear you use. If you're using a quality pair of headphones or speakers, you're privy to a large range of sound. As such, you're more likely to notice certain imperfections that come with compressing music into a lossy format. You may notice that a certain level of detail is missing in lossy formats; subtle background tracks might be more difficult to hear, the highs and lows won't be as dynamic, or you might just plain hear a bit of distortion. In these cases, you might be better off listening to lossless music.
If you're listening to your music with a pair of crappy earbuds on your iPod, however, you probably aren't going to notice a difference between a 256 kbps file and a 320 kbps file, let alone a 320 kbps file and a 1,200 kbps file (lossless files ranging from 400 kbps to 1,411 kbps). Remember when I showed you the image a few paragraphs up, and noted that you probably had to enlarge it to see the imperfections? Your earbuds are like the shrunken-down version of the image: they're going to make those imperfections much harder to notice, since they won't put out as big a range of sound.
The other part of the equation, of course, is your own ears. Some people may just not care enough, or may just not have the more attuned listening skills to tell the difference between two different bitrates.
Something Else to Consider
It's also worth noting that lossless files are more futureproof, in the sense that you can always compress music down to a lossier format, but you can't take lossy files back to lossless unless you re-rip the CD entirely. This is, again, one of the fundamental issues with online music stores: if you've built up a huge library of iTunes music and one day decide that you'd like it in a higher bitrate, you'll have to buy it again, this time in CD form. You can't just put data back where it's been deleted.
By the way, in my opinion the white earbuds that come with any iPod purchase fit squarely into the “Crappy” category. They are cheap and I find them quite uncomfortable. I replaced mine with a $20 pair of noise canceling earbuds made by JVC.