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When performing lossy audio encoding, such as creating an MP3 file, there is a trade-off between the amount of space used and the sound quality of the result. Typically, the creator is allowed to set a bit rate, which specifies how many kilobits the file may use per second of audio. The higher the bit rate, the larger the compressed file will be, and, generally, the closer it will sound to the original file.

With too low a bit rate, compression artifacts (i.e., sounds that were not present in the original recording) may be audible in the reproduction. Some audio is hard to compress because of its randomness and sharp attacks. When this type of audio is compressed, artifacts such as ringing orpre-echo are usually heard. A sample of applause compressed with a relatively low bit rate provides a good example of compression artifacts.

Besides the bit rate of an encoded piece of audio, the quality of MP3 files also depends on the quality of the encoder itself, and the difficulty of the signal being encoded. As the MP3 standard allows quite a bit of freedom with encoding algorithms, different encoders may feature quite different quality, even with identical bit rates. As an example, in a public listening test featuring two different MP3 encoders at about 128 kbit/s, one scored 3.66 on a 1–5 scale, while the other scored only 2.22.

Quality is dependent on the choice of encoder and encoding parameters.

The simplest type of MP3 file uses one bit rate for the entire file – this is known as Constant Bit Rate (CBR) encoding. Using a constant bit rate makes encoding simpler and faster. However, it is also possible to create files where the bit rate changes throughout the file. These are known asVariable Bit Rate (VBR) files. The idea behind this is that, in any piece of audio, some parts will be much easier to compress, such as silence or music containing only a few instruments, while others will be more difficult to compress. So, the overall quality of the file may be increased by using a lower bit rate for the less complex passages and a higher one for the more complex parts. With some encoders, it is possible to specify a given quality, and the encoder will vary the bit rate accordingly. Users who know a particular "quality setting" that is transparent to their ears can use this value when encoding all of their music, and generally speaking not need to worry about performing personal listening tests on each piece of music to determine the correct bit rate.

Perceived quality can be influenced by listening environment (ambient noise), listener attention, and listener training and in most cases by listener audio equipment (such as sound cards, speakers and headphones).

A test given to new students by Stanford University Music Professor Jonathan Berger showed that student preference for MP3-quality music has risen each year. Berger said the students seem to prefer the 'sizzle' sounds that MP3s bring to music.

Bit rate

Several bit rates are specified in the MPEG-1 Audio Layer III standard: 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 80, 96, 112, 128, 160, 192, 224, 256 and 320 kbit/s, with available sampling frequencies of 32, 44.1 and 48 kHz. [31] MPEG-2 Audio Layer III allows bit rates of 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 80, 96, 112, 128, 144, 160 kbit/s with sampling frequencies of 16, 22.05 and 24 kHz.[31] MPEG-2.5 Audio Layer III is restricted to bit rates of 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56 and 64 kbit/s with sampling frequencies of 8, 11.025, and 12 kHz. Because of the Nyquist/Shannon theorem, frequency reproduction is always half of the sampling frequency, so 8 kHz sampling rate limits the maximum frequency to 4 kHz, while 48 kHz maximum sampling rate limits an MP3 to 24 kHz sound reproduction.

A sample rate of 44.1 kHz is almost always used, because this is also used for CD audio, the main source used for creating MP3 files. A greater variety of bit rates are used on the Internet. The rate of 128 kbit/s is commonly used, at a compression ratio of 11:1, offering adequate audio quality in a relatively small space. As Internet bandwidth availability and hard drive sizes have increased, higher bit rates up to 320 kbit/s are widespread.

Uncompressed audio as stored on an audio-CD has a bit rate of 1,411.2 kbit/s, so the bitrates 128, 160 and 192 kbit/s represent compression ratios of approximately 11:1, 9:1 and 7:1 respectively.

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