[the significance of] Good Sound in our Time.
We started out writing this piece about a month ago. At thinkmore, this conversation has been had many times over, multiple times a year. As anyone who’s visited our studio will attest, we’re fascinated by sound – some of us are audiophiles, some music lovers, some very interested in the human sensory system. Above all, we’re very cognizant of sound – the creation and production of sound, the capture and transmission of sound, and the reproduction and the perception of sound. We’ve written about and commented on sound, music and music making equipment here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Image of thinkmore studio below, with Klipsch LaScala speakers driven by Acoustic Masterpiece M101 amplifier.
Additionally, partly through our research into hearing and it’s effects on the human body, we’re aware of the importance of being able to hear, and being able to hear well and with the very highest fidelity – which is why this latest piece in the NYT is a source of such disappointment.
Well written and well researched articles are few and far between – most go un-noticed since readers themselves are no more aware than the write. In this case, however, we feel we should comment.
Please read this article for yourselves [yes, the New York Times requires a you to sign in to read – it’s free and painless and worth it] : In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back.
“The last decade has brought an explosion in dazzling technological advances — including enhancements in surround sound, high definition television and 3-D — that have transformed the fan’s experience. There are improvements in the quality of media everywhere — except in music.
In many ways, the quality of what people hear — how well the playback reflects the original sound— has taken a step back. To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks are engineered to be much louder as well.”
All true in 2005 – but hardly relevant today. Here’s a short list of purely technological milestones of the last decade that make this the best time to experience high-fidelity music reproduced from electronic files, all possible through portable electronic devices.
in our time, on this day :
1.0 : Memory / Storage is cheaper than it’s ever been, rendering the storage of music files as compressed versions un-necessary. CDs can be ripped using no compression or using lossless compression [iTunes has this] and played back as well as, or better than, was possible using disc media.
2.0 : Bandwidth and Speed has increased. The implementation of new wireless protocols and technologies, and the proliferation of high-speed and high-bandwidth data connections has made file transfer quick and painless.
Now, ‘compression’ is always talked about as a big problem, which it is. But compression is nothing new – it’s been around since the advent of radio. Unfortunately, the term ‘compression’ has been applied equally to both broadcast radio and streamed content, even though the reasons for application and effects on each are different. Essentially, all music has softer and louder extremes, but most radios are incapable of adequately conveying these extremes. As a result, music played back in these instances can sound incomplete, or anemic. To compensate for the deficiency of radios [the loudspeakers in radios], the extremities of a piece of music are pushed in towards the middle, thereby flattening the perspective while making all of it sound loud and full. In effect, the music has been pinched towards the center – hence the use of the term ‘compression’.
In the case of portable or online electronic media, bandwidth and memory capacity issues had forced another sort of compression, one where the fidelity of the signal [as measured in bits or actual size of a piece of music] is compromised. A piece of music is made smaller by tossing out the bits deemed un-necessary for the communication of that piece – in effect, subtlety is lost, while recognition is maintained. This sort of compression is now generally not needed since issues 1.0 and 2.0 above have largely been resolved.
3.0 : Portable devices are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. All iPods are capable of storing and playing back high resolution music files at CD quality, using a variety of formats, including lossless compression, with bit-perfect playback. And some of them look good while doing just that.
4.0 : Everyday computing devices can be used as music servers for large libraries. For example, the Apple MacBook is highly noisy environment. When used for work, it is generally running multiple programs and processes and its low-fi nature as a music player is apparent when music is listened to through a pair of headphones – the noise in the system is clearly audible. However, hidden away in every MacBook is a digital output for audio, in the form of a Toslink / Optical output [and USB and Firewire] which can feed an external Digital to Analog converter. The D/A converter takes in raw digital data [bit-perfect, remember?] and outputs an analog music signal that can be fed to any home audio setup that has an amplifier. There’s good sound to be had from any computer. It’s that simple.
is good sound expensive?
And as most music lovers know [and more audiophiles than would care to admit also know], there’s really not that much correlation between the cost of one’s music system and the amount of enjoyment one might derive from it. I’d suggest that one not be turned off by some of the high price tags associated with audiophile equipment, and just take a listen. If it sounds good to you, ask a good salesperson [or an audio-obsessed friend] how one might experience something similar for less. I’ve advised plenty of people, and I’m happy to help.
What I’m getting at is this : there’s no longer any excuse for bad sound – the technology is there and pretty much ubiquitous by now. Making, recording and distributing music has never been easier, and playing it back with high-fidelity is now within everyone’s grasp [at least everyone who reads this blog]. I’d go so far as to say that music reproduction is at it’s peak – iTunes [free, BTW] and others have made it a pleasure to browse through large libraries. Over that last few years, I’ve imported about 6,500 tracks [of music I own on discs] into iTunes, and have been able to find and listen to things I never knew I had – all in high-fidelity. It’s been a blast – Ella, Aretha, Martha, Ravi, Nusrat, the Duke, Louis, Miles – all come alive in our space, just a click or a swipe away.
onward and forward – embrace the future!
With every technology, there’s a period of euphoria – excitement born of the technology itself, and the newness it brings to our lives. It’s the next step that’s the most interesting – a familiarity and acceptance of the technology brings the potential for further exploration – new ways of browsing, finding, using – something beyond the basic and the obvious. It’s the difference between knowing how to being able to communicate in a language and becoming fluent in it. Fluency is where the subtleties emerge, the playfulness emerges, and the fun begins.
Does this mean that we discard the CD, the SACD, vinyl? Of course not. I’d suggest treating this electronic medium as just what it is : another medium, and one which has a place alongside others. Let’s embrace it for all the good that it brings, but let’s not lose sight of where it comes from, and what qualities certain media possess that cannot be replicated by others.
We’re almost at a point in time now when electronic media are the mainstay of the industry and there’s no going back. What can audio equipment manufacturers do to prepare for this? They need to see and understand what people want now [and what they might want soon] and what they can create to meet those needs.
As with any endeavor, It’s not about just making stuff, it’s about understanding human needs first and creating with focus, intelligence and integrity. In this instance, being audiophiles, musicians, engineers, designers and architects, we’re perfectly positioned to help. Call us – we’d love to hear from you.