• The Death of High Fidelity

    Rollingstone's Robert Levin has published an article titled The Death of High Fidelity. I must say there is nothing like catastrophizing. The article states, "The age of the audiophile is over." Robert Levine's article paints a very bleak picture of sound quality presently and in the future. He mainly touches on compression. Compression by mastering engineers and compression by consumers in the form of MP3s. Yes, this is a problem for audiophiles and for all music fans whether they know it or not. But, Levine's subtitle says it all whether he knows it or not, "The Death of High Fidelity - In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever." This suggests the age of MP3 is just that, a period of history. Or said another way, a fad. His pessimistic outlook formed by the people he interviews is a bit off. Listening to music is an emotional experience that predates the written word. Compression fatigues the listener and makes music unappealing. I don't think people are going to stop listening to music since it has been going on "forever." I do think consumers will stop listening to music that sounds unemotional and doesn't elicit an emotional response in them. Those looking to make a buck from music sales are going to do whatever it takes to sell music. In the long run this is going to be music that sounds acceptable to the average consumer. Many are mistaken when they believe current MP3s and highly compressed recordings are acceptable to the average consumer. It is the convenience that is acceptable coupled with the fact that options are so limited. In the short term the acceptability of this music is imaginary because consumers can sit in their pajamas and purchase it. It is all about convenience, not what audio quality is acceptable to consumers. Low quality music has never been as readily available. In time more high quality downloads will be available for the same price as iTunes music. When this happens the consumer will actually have a choice between music they can listen to and enjoy an emotional experience with or music that gives them headaches and encourages them to skip to the next track/album. This is far from the situation when users chose CDs over the previous mediums. If there was a version of Pearl Jam's Ten on August 27, 1991 that said "twice the sound quality, same price", who in their right mind would have selected the inferior standard CD. There has never been a convenient vinyl. Sure SACDs and DVD-Audio discs are physically just as convenient as CDs, but there are virtually no artists producing them and they don't play in most people's players. Now, a 24 bit / 96 KHz download will most likely play on every computer built in the last five years. People want things just because they say version 2.0. You can't tell me that same consumer won't purchase twice the sound quality at the same price. Will this lead to more consumers purchasing hi-end audio systems? Who knows. If the hi-end audio industry put together madison avenue campaigns like the HD TV manufactures have done in the last few years I think the answer would be clear. I could go on and on, but I won't. I am intentionally leaving out the extreme details because this is an article about an article. I'll post my complete thoughts soon. Maybe you'll see them in a popular audiophile publication as well (hint hint ).

    Anyway, here are some snippets from the article and a link to the complete text.

    "...But even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. "CDs sound better, but no one's buying them," he says. "The age of the audiophile is over."

    "...But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, "it's like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there's a 10-megapixel image of it," he says. "I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn't look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on."

    Some compression visuals:

    Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

    Arctic Monkeys - I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor

    U2 - With or Without You (original)

    U2 - With or Without You (remastered)

    Link to full text

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