Quality suffers in mobile age

Last Updated : 10 May 2010, 16:33 IST
Last Updated : 10 May 2010, 16:33 IST

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A onetime audio engineer who now works as a consultant for Stereo Exchange, an upscale audio store in Manhattan, Zimmer lights up when talking about high fidelity, bit rates and $10,000 loudspeakers. But iPods and compressed computer files are “sucking the life out of music,” he says.

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.

In many ways, the quality of what people hear 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.

In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and convenience.

Cultural change

The change in sound quality is as much cultural as technological. For decades, starting around the 1950s, high-end stereos were a status symbol. A high-quality system was something to show off.

But Michael Fremer, a professed audiophile who runs musicangle.com says, “People used to sit and listen to music, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. ”Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else.

The songs themselves are usually saved on the digital devices in a compressed format, often as an AAC or MP3 file. That compression shrinks the size of the file, eliminating some  sounds and range contained on a CD while allowing more songs to be saved on the device and reducing download times.

Persistent effort

The music industry has not failed to try. About 10 years ago, two new high-quality formats — DVD Audio and SACD, for Super Audio CD — entered the marketplace, promising sound superior even to that of a CD. But unfortunately neither format gained traction.  Some online music services are now marketing an even higher-quality sound as a selling point.

HDtracks.com started selling downloads last year that contain even more information than CDs at $2.49 a song. Still, these remain niche interests  and they are complicated by changes in the recording process.

So audio engineers in a so-called volume war are often enlisted to increase the overall volume of a recording. Randy Merrill, an engineer at MasterDisk, said that to achieve an overall louder sound, engineers raise the softer volumes toward peak levels.

Among younger listeners, the lower-quality sound might actually be preferred. Jonathan Berger, a music professor at Stanford, said, “I think our human ears are fickle. What’s considered good or bad sound changes over time.” “Abnormality can become a feature,” he added.”

Published 10 May 2010, 16:33 IST

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