Everything you need to know about SoundCloud’s new Opus audio file format
Outrage ensued after a SoundCloud user thought he discovered that the platform had halved the bit rate of his audio files. In fact, SoundCloud has moved from MP3 streaming to Opus files, a supposedly superior audio file format. Claire Lobenfeld breaks down Opus and explains how it can benefit you, the listener.
After the headlines throughout 2017 for layoffs and cash flow issues, SoundCloud kicks off this year with more controversy. a uproar ignited after tweets from the New Jersey Direct producer about alleged degradation in SoundCloud’s audio quality went viral. Here’s the reality: SoundCloud has ditched 128kbps MP3 files for 64kbps Opus files, and the company itself claims no change in audio quality. “We’ve been using the Opus codec (among others) since 2016, and we regularly test different combinations of encoding and streaming to give listeners a great experience on any device,” said a spokesperson. Recount Billboard in response to a backlash. “In addition, we store all creator content at its originally uploaded quality level so that we can continually adapt to advances in encoding and playback.” So why is the bit rate split in half?
Let’s talk about codecs first. A codec is software that compresses data for faster transmission. MP3 and Opus are both examples of codecs that take audio data and compress it into a smaller size, so that they take up much less space or bandwidth and are faster to send over networks. They are both also considered “lossy” codecs, which means that the software analyzes the data and filters out anything that may be deemed unnecessary. With audio data, this could mean high frequency sounds generally inaudible to human ears or even weaker sounds which may be masked by louder sounds in the audio. (Vinyl heads, feel free to use this information the next time someone asks you why you always buy records.)
One of the advantages of lossy codecs, however, is that you can dictate how much it keeps or filters. This is the bit rate, which tells the file how much data to send to its recipient. Of course, a 128 kbit / s MP3 file sounds much better than a 64 kbit / s MP3 – less compression equals reduced quality. But while MP3 and Opus files do the same thing, Opus is supposed to be better at choosing which file details to keep. Part of it has to do with updated technology. MP3 is a dinosaur – last year its creators even declared him dead – and was finalized as software in 1993; Opus was finalized in 2012.
Using better software seems reason enough for SoundCloud to start using Opus files. Opus is also an “open standard” which means it is 100% free for everyone. (MP3s were patented software and came with royalties.) Companies like Mozilla and Microsoft support the software while Google uses Opus for Google Hangouts. Many songs on YouTube also use Opus. But how could the use of Opus files benefit the listener? The lower throughput means using much less bandwidth, resulting in faster boot times (less delay between playing and listening to songs), better reliability on poor or slower connections, such as cellular service and less monetary charges (a possible bonus for SoundCloud users in states where the repeal of net neutrality means ISPs can start raising prices for subscribers who use more data) . For SoundCloud itself, cutting its bandwidth usage in half will drastically reduce its internal costs, and saving money is likely a priority after a financially precarious 2017.
You can usually get quality sound from 64kbps Opus files and most listeners will have a hard time distinguishing them from the original audio. Some would argue that 64kbit / s is too ambitious a drop and that 96kbit / s Opus files would be a better alternative that would further reduce costs without degrading audio quality. In reality, most people will not be able to notice the difference at all.
Claire Lobenfeld is the editor-in-chief of FACT.
Read more : After a turbulent 2017, can SoundCloud survive the streaming wars?