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I Want My MP3 ... to Sound Better: The Challenges of Boosting Music in Cars

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author photo by Lindsay Martell May 2014

There's something so satisfying about punching up Pandora and streaming your favorite songs as you hit the highway. But why is it that the songs never sound like those old CDs that are gathering dust in your garage?

In a word -- quality. MP3s and other compressed media formats can't hold a candle to a CD. All that shrinking down does a number on those nuances that make a song, well, sing.

There are two types of audio sound quality - "lossy" and "lossless," or compressed and uncompressed. The most popular lossy (compressed) format is MP3. Uncompressed audio (lossless) retains the quality of the original source, such as a CD. Apple's iTunes platform uses lossless, and both WAV and AIFF are uncompressed formats, too. These files are bigger and less portable than MP3s.

Chris Ludwig, chief engineer of acoustic systems for North America/Japan at Harman International, says consumers are constantly faced with the dilemma of quantity versus quality when it comes to music.

"The advantage of compression is it really delivers more media to more people in more ways," he says.

And even if you shell out cash on a high-end stereo system for your car, you still may find the quality a little lacking. Even the fanciest speakers in the world can't fix the digital format.

"It's much easier to carry around than a CD. It's fundamentally smaller data," Ludwig explains.

And CD sales are shrinking fast. Purchases dropped 14.5 percent to 165.4 million units in 2013, down from 193.4 million in 2012, according to Billboard. Heck, automakers are beginning to ditch CD players, too. The 2015 Chrysler 200 does not offer a CD player -- it's one of the first vehicles to lose that familiar disc slot.

But even with CDs potentially slipping into oblivion, folks still want their music to sound stellar. And that's the problem with compression. When it makes files smaller and easier to distribute, either via streaming services or MP3 distribution on your iPad, for example, "the resulting artifacts associated with that compression process really do hurt the audio quality."

What does that mean? The high-frequency content gets stripped away. Think guitar snares, drums, or the gorgeous reverb of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 recorded live at Carnegie Hall. The more compressed a file is, the more high-frequency content is thrown away.

"If somebody plays a snare drum hit on a drum, for example, it's a very dynamic instantaneous wave form. Compression looks for those peaks in a wave form and essentially chops them off and throws that data away," explains Ludwig.

"So a lot of what was emotional and great-sounding about that drum loses a lot of that life. It loses a lot of that punch and that pop that was there in the original recording."

Harman's answer to bringing back a song's luster is Clari-Fi. It's a system that analyzes the content that was there -- those beautiful peaks and stunning reverb -- and it knows how much it was compressed, restoring what was lost in the compression process. The result?

"It brings back that pop and that punch to the drums. It makes the music more emotional and really brings it back to life," says Ludwig. "It really gives consumers a great way to experience their music -- sometimes for the first time."

The system will make its debut in the 2015 Lexus NX compact crossover.

As for making our favorites sound better mid-commute? Singing along always helps.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
I Want My MP3 ... to Sound Better: The Challenges of Boosting Music in Cars - Autotrader