Seth Godin is wrong

I devour Seth Godin’s work. His bite-sized snippets of wisdom make great reading, so I was rather surprised to find myself utterly disagreeing with him on his latest post about the curse of incremental improvement.

He asserts two statements. One about MP3s:

MP3 files sound not nearly as good as they could

And the other about CDs:

The thought of, for example, working on the CD for six more months before declaring it ‘done’ would have been considered short-term economic stupidity. As a result, we are saddled with thirty years of sub-par music–if they’d just held on a bit longer, it would all sound so much better.

I realise a lot of what he said could be up for interpretation. But saying that MP3 files don’t sound nearly as good as they could is pretty all encompassing.

Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror ran a very good bitrate experiment (While trolling everyone into listening to arguably the worst song of all time). The conclusion of which was that apart from 128kb/s encoding, it’s pretty hard to tell an encoded MP3 vs the raw CD audio, with 192kb/s being the optimal sweet-spot.

It’s true that older (circa 1990’s) MP3 encoding was of variable quality, but today’s MP3s are an entirely different beast.

Bitrate is only one part of the audio quality equation however. The other is bit-depth, with CDs being recorded with a bit-depth of 16 bits. And the limiting factor in audio playback is not the 16-bit depth, but our own limitations on the frequencies and levels that exist between the threshold of audible or the threshold of pain.

It makes sense to record and process in 24-bit purely for the extra headroom. But for playback? Completely pointless. We’re the limiting factor and unless we evolve better ears, we always will be.

So looks like Seth was wrong in pretty much all his examples (As for the cellphone call quality example, I’m guessing he’s got an iPhone, which admittedly isn’t brilliant for calls, whereas my SE810i is great). But what is he actually trying to say?

Perfect is the enemy of good-enough in my book. You’ve got to take into account the law of diminishing returns. Release it if it’s good enough, learn from it and improve.

Don’t be frozen by the futile pursuit of perfection. Otherwise you risk never releasing at all.