The Loudness War:
Background, Speculation and Recommendations

This page is for additional material relating to "The Loudness War: Background, Speculation and Recommendations" by Earl Vickers, presented at the 129th Audio Engineering Society Convention, November 4, 2010. This paper discusses the audible effects of hypercompression and looks at the loudness war in terms of game theory. After presenting evidence questioning the idea that louder recordings sell better, it suggests some possible ways to de-escalate the loudness war.

A much shorter but slightly updated paper, "The Loudness War: Do Louder, Hypercompressed Recordings Sell Better?" was published in the May 2011 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. (Not a free download, but author's copy available on request.) The AES Journal Forum includes some discussion of this paper, which is currently the second most-commented-upon AES Journal article.

I've posted "iTunes Sound Check: Weak Link in the Loudness War Chain?", which proposes that Apple could largely undercut any remaining justification for the loudness war simply by setting Sound Check's default to On. Also see my Loudness War blog.

Loudness War Presentation [video, English]

Loudness War Presentation [video, German]

Presentation slides [.pdf]

Links to sound samples

"Wicked Game" from Heart Shaped World, 1989 (DR = 13)

"Wicked Game" from Best of Chris Isaak, 2006 (DR = 7)

With the remastered version, notice the crunch due to clipping distortion of the bass in the chorus, especially during the word "fall." (This happens on the CD as well.) Also compare the background vocals.

Additional references

Measuring loudness and dynamics

"Metrics for Quantifying Loudness and Dynamics," Earl Vickers, September 2010. This article was originally intended as part of the loudness war paper. It focuses on ways of measuring loudness and variations in loudness.

Jon Boley, Michael Lester, and Christopher Danner, "Measuring Dynamics: Comparing and Contrasting Algorithms for the Computation of Dynamic Range" , presented at the AES 129th Convention, San Francisco, CA, November 4, 2010 (

Hearing damage

At the 2011 New York AES Convention, Susan Rogers gave a presentation that referenced, and occasionally questioned, my AES convention paper. (Some of the most important highlights are in this audio sample.) Her presentation was thought-provoking, and while I disagree with some of her conclusions, I'm rethinking the section about compression and hearing loss. My paper made the assumption, as embodied in the ISO1999 standard, that hearing damage is proportional to the cumulative energy exposure; this would imply that compressed music is likely to be more damaging, since it spends more time at higher levels. However, Rogers quotes Fleischer:

Gerald Fleischer, "Strategies of the Hearing System Against Noise and Auditory Damage," in Reflections on Sound, Svensson, P. (Ed.), 2008,

who makes a number of interesting points, including:

    1. Hearing damage is much more likely to be caused by short impulse noise than by ongoing continuous noise, due to the ear's protective mechanisms
    2. Sound sources very close to the ear are likely to be far more damaging (e.g., a single shot from a blank pistol at close range can ruin your hearing for life)
    3. People who rely heavily on their hearing are more likely to have good hearing (though it's not necessarily clear which is cause and which is effect)

So, to the extent that dynamic range compression reduces the relative level of impulsive peaks such as drum hits, it may arguably serve a protective function. However, I think the jury is still out on this, and particularly on the issue of tinnitus.

Regardless of the effect of compression, evidence strongly suggests that extended headphone and ear bud listening at high levels is harmful, probably because the sound sources are played directly into the ear. A couple of my presentation slides on this are derived from:

Abbey Berg and Yula Serpanos, "High Frequency Hearing Sensitivity in Adolescent Females of Low-Socioeconomic Status Over a 24-Year Period (1985-2008)," Journal of Adolescent Health, online, 2010,

Another article on tinnitus and mp3 player usage:

Ricardo Rodrigues Figueiredo, Andreia Aparecida de Azeved2, Patrícia Mello de Oliveira, Sandro Pereira Vasconcellos Amorim, Artur Guedes Rios, Vanderlei Baptista, "Incidence of tinnitus in mp3 player users", Braz J Otorhinolaryngol., 2011; 77(3):293-8, .

The following study shows that people tend to listen at higher levels when using headphones:

Beatriz Gutiérrez Camarero and Irene Moledero Domínguez, "Listening to Music with Headphones: An Assessment of Noise Exposure and Hearing Damage," Department of Acoustics, Aalborg University, 2007, .

Preference for audio artifacts?

Footnote 4 of my paper quotes Sheffield and Berger to suggest that some listeners prefer artifacts of low bit-rate coders. The following studies contradict this idea:

Sean Olive, "High School Students Prefer The Sound Quality of Accurate Loudspeakers and CD Over MP3," Harman International R&D Group, .

Amandine Pras, Rachel Zimmerman, Daniel Levitin, Catherine Guastavino, "Subjective Evaluation of mp3 Compression for Different Musical Genres," presented at the AES 127th Convention, New York, NY, 2009 October 9-12, .

Earl Vickers,

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