Report: MP3 sound causes ‘negative’ emotion

Report: MP3 sound causes ‘negative’ emotion


norman lebrecht

December 12, 2016

A study by the Audio Engineering Library suggests that background noise added by low-quality sound compression may produce a negative emotion in listeners.

Previous research has shown that MP3 compression changes the similarities of musical instruments, while other research has shown that musical instrument sounds have strong emotional characteristics. This paper investigates the effect of MP3 compression on music emotion. We conducted listening tests to compare the effect of MP3 compression on the emotional characteristics of eight sustained instrument sounds. We compared the compressed sounds pairwise over ten emotional categories. The results show that MP3 compression strengthened the emotional characteristics Sad, Scary, Shy, and Mysterious, and weakened Happy, Heroic, Romantic, Comic, and Calm. Interestingly, Angry was relatively unaffected by MP3 compression.

Full study here.



  • Alexander says:

    Interesting. I don’t download music, because I don’t want it in a compressed format. The one time I wanted a recording that wasn’t available on CD I paid a little extra to download a lossless format as well as the MP3. When I rip CDs so that I can listen on my mobile phone I always select the highest quality, even though it takes up the most space. I haven’t been aware of differences in emotional response, but I do believe that MP3 gives perceptibly poorer quality sound even with the smallest possible degree of compression.

  • Ann Nomynous says:

    I’m sure 99% of music listeners can’t tell the difference between mp3 and wav/aiff just by listening. I can’t either.

    • Jim says:

      And the ones who claim to tell the difference either have very expensive listening equipment and/or are lying.

    • Peter says:

      Easy to tell. But it depends highly on the compression rate.
      MP3 with 64 kbit/s is very different from 256 kbit/s. The latter you need good equipment to tell the difference, but at no means “high end” is necessary to hear the difference to uncompressed audio.
      MP3 with 64 kbit/s even a donkey over a telephone can hear the difference.

    • William Safford says:

      Unless you have significant hearing loss, or your choice in music tends towards the severely compressed by the audio engineer (doubtful if you’re interested in classical music), or your playback devices are particularly inferior, you probably can hear the difference between MP3 and lossless digital music.

      I first came to this realization after I was given an iPod for Christmas years back. I started importing my CDs into iTunes, then transferring them to the iPod.

      After a short while, I realized that the ripped files on the iPod and on the computer sounded noticeably worse than the original CDs.

      I started doing research. That’s when I discovered that the CDs were being imported in lossy compressed format (either MP3 or Apple’s format — not sure at this point).

      Once I reimported all my CDs in lossless format, the sound was again equal to the original CD.

      I noticed the difference using high-quality but not particularly high-cost headphones: one pair that cost about $80, the other pair that cost under $200. They were plugged into the headphone jack on the iPod or the computer. I didn’t need a mega-expensive stereo system to make this discovery.

  • Jim says:

    They tested 10 people – not a real study.

  • Adama says:

    I very strongly agree with the sentiment of the study.

    I was challenged to a “blind-listening” test with friends once and it was easy to tell MP3, 44/16 CD and 24 bit versions of the same recording. It’s as obvious as reading it on the label – at least to me. I am convinced that alot of the listening experience – live in the concert hall too – is also related to the non-audible – the cushion that surrounds the audible sound – the context in which it sits.

    Ho humm….

    • Maria says:

      Many years ago I attended a live comparison between a pipe organ and an Allen digital organ. I understand that the organ is one of the easier instruments to replicate but, to me, the difference was clear.

      The Allen was clearly a substantial achievement, and there is probably no alternative where a pipe organ is not available, but there was a relentless “hardness” to the sound which became more obvious as time passed.

      It’s possible, of course, that the amplification might have been partly or wholly responsible. I don’t know what was used.

  • Brian B says:

    A 320kbps MP3 can be satisfactory. Below that the differences between it and a lossless format are very noticeable. People listening on these tiny mobile devices have no idea what good sound really is as heard through an even mid- to high end audio system. Even subfusc recordings like RCA “dynagroove” will sound better.

    • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

      But you really need a DAC to get any kind of real audio quality, whether it’s CD or MP3

      • Peter says:

        Well, you need a DAC to get any audio at all… 😉
        Today even the most standard DAC chips in smartphones are giving a good sound, compared to the difference a high quality DA converter could make 20 years ago.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    Is this even really science? When I was a kid decades ago I listened to music– including classical– on a cheap six-transistor AM pocket radio. I didn’t feel particularly depressed. This reads like one of those “publish or perish” studies.

  • Simon says:

    Not sure how I ended up here, but agree with GM above. I was brought up on a Binatone radio and gramophone. I also had one of those little Japanese transistor radios with earpieces. Severe bandwidth limitations coupled with scratchy noisiness. But the thrill of good music shone through and made everything exciting. I graduated to relatively low quality (I think it might be called retro nowadays) band equipment when I started gigging in the 70s and 80s. And it still sounded good. Migrated through good quality analogue hifi (great) to CDs (great) to multidimensional time-warp squillionophenia sound environments (er….great but too many buttons). But the thrill of the music shone through, whichever system I was using. The point being, good music will win through. Concentrate on that, not the hifiness of the system you are listening to it through. Feel the emotion and not the technical spec. I am a Chartered Engineer working on extremely high performance imaging – but the best image is the one you love to look at not the sharpest.