Originally Posted by Empire1
I download a lot music admittedly from online mp3 sites. I always hunt around for the 320 kbps files, but now I'm starting to wonder if there is such a thing as "bad" 320kbps files.
I know there's going to be a difference when you're using different encoders, especially ones that are older, but is that difference large? Can 320 kbps mp3 files be bad?
I am planning to get higher end audio equipment in the near future, but I'm wondering if the quality of my equipment will outpace that of my music.
Yes, 320 kbps can be bad, for several reasons:
Some pieces of music defeat all mp3 encoders. This was discussed and the discussion supported with abx tests by a couple of participants at trying-to-hear-the-difference-between-320-mp3-vs-flac-16-24-bit-44-1-88-2
Lame and Fraunhofer are probably the best mp3 encoders available but this sample will defeat them at any setting. It is an extract from real music, not some fiendish concoction designed to expose the weaknesses of the encoders (though it serves as a useful illustration of the most obvious of those weaknesses). It causes problems for Ogg Vorbis as well. It can be encoded much better by aac encoders such as Apple's or Fraunhofer's (found in Winamp or Android).
More generally, and as you state, there are several other mp3 encoders, some current and some historic, which are not as good as lame or fraunhofer. They were quite widely used, maybe still are in some applications. I knew someone who kept hundreds of GB of mp3 available via bittorrent and he had a huge share ratio over years. He personally encoded all his mp3s to 320 kbps whatever format they were already in, anything from retail CD to pirate CD to downloaded rips. It gets worse. He used the xing encoder for everything because he was convinced it was the best and he liked the sound. If you get your music any which way then you certainly have 320 kbps mp3s which were transcoded from lossy using low quality encoders and which sound crappy compared to the CD. Even if you buy lossless files from licensed vendors you will occasionally find yourself with flacs that originated from lossy (this has happened to me more than once). There's no real substitute for buying the CD and doing it yourself, or buying the files direct from the original record label instead of a third party vendor. Most labels do this now.
Storage is cheap, CDs have never been cheaper and high capacity players are available. If you have money to buy nice players, headphones, amps and other hardware then it makes no sense to be a miser with the single most important element - the music.