For audio voice recordings such as lectures or language lessons preserved in wave form, bitrates of 32 kilobits per second (kbps) should be acceptable, though 64kbps might provide better quality depending on the source. Voices might sound “flat” at 32kbps, though they will be understandable. A 64kbps MP3 file made from a voice recording should sound nearly identical to the original.
Non-saturated acoustic music that features simple arrangements should get good results with a bitrate of 192kbps. If the music will be played on high quality equipment, you might opt for 256kbps. Music that falls in this category would include ballads, “boy-band” songs, easy listening and folk music. Also the work of many classic artists such as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and Simon & Garfunkel.
To make quality MP3 files from classical music and jazz, the best bitrate depends on the song’s characteristics. Soft jazz can normally be replicated at 192kbps to create a good balance between file size and diminishing returns, though 256kbps might sound better on the home entertainment center. Orchestral classical should do well at 256kbps for portable players, but files of 320kbps might be a better choice if you’ll be burning to CD for the home or car.
For saturated music such as hard rock, metal, arena, pop, electronic and house music, 320kbps will give the best results. The greater number of bits per second will preserve more of the complex acoustic envelope.
When possible it is preferable that MP3 files be created using a variable bitrate. This allows the encoding program to determine if a particular frame of music requires the full bitrate. If not, the program reduces data retention for that frame resulting in a smaller file without sacrificing quality. Forcing a program to “over-sample” a frame can produce artifacts.
While this article is intended as a general guideline, one might find that he or she is just as happy with lower bitrates for specific songs or in general. Many factors affect our ability to judge the quality of music, including not just the equipment we use, but our activity when listening. For those who listen to MP3 files when exercising or walking outside, for example, exterior noise will make it more difficult to pick out qualitative differences. Conversely, audiophiles might prefer to sample everything at 320kbps, regardless of their equipment, the music‘s genre, or listening habits.