The Dumbing Down of Audio
We live in an amazing time. Science is making bigger and better tomatoes, continually perfecting synthetic materials to enhance our lives, while making electronics more compact, powerful and affordable. It's amazing that you can buy a wrist watch with a more powerful computer today than the ancient computers that used to fill an entire room only 50 or so years ago.
Science has also made significant advances in the home theater world. Displays are continually getting better, slimmer and cheaper. Speakers are continually getting more refined and accurate. Receivers are being packed with more powerful processing features making them a better value to the end-user and yielding higher entertainment because of their ability to be the master of so many domains.
Because of science, DSP processing empowers engineers to make smarter products that can work magic on your music. DSP processing can make it sound like you are in a live performance by enveloping you with surround sound, correct for room acoustic and non linearity anomalies of your loudspeakers, or even boil you a pot of coffee at just the right temperature to avoid the classic McDonald's lawsuit scenario.
So with all of this newfound power science has endowed us with, one would logically conclude that this has bettered our pursuit of audio nirvana... Well, not exactly. Despite our advances in science, one divine truth can always undermine us - marketing . Because of marketing, and lots of gullible people that fall victim to it, reality TV shows, pet rocks, and low-carb diets sell. People don't need them, they don't make a whole lot of practical sense, yet the demand is created. The same rings true with audio.
Tabulated below are what I feel to be the major culprits of the dumbing down of audio:
- Hyper compression in CDs
- Cubed speakers
- iPod & MP3 players
- Satellite radio
- Lack of comparative reference to unamplified live musical performances
Hyper Compression of CDs
We have already beaten this topic to death in past editorials. I encourage you to read the following articles for further elaboration.
Editorial Note on CD Sound Quality
There are many factors that influence the sound quality of source material such as:
How the source material was recorded (i.e. equipment, mics, etc)
How the recording was mastered and transferred to CD (level, compression, etc)
For a more thorough discussion on typical ailments that plaque recording quality, we suggest the following reading material:
It is no wonder why many audiophiles prefer LP over CD. It's not that the CD format is inferior (far from the truth actually). The fact of the matter is the CD format is suffering abuses that the LP was immune to. Ramp the levels up to near clipping on an LP and you suffer unbearable distortion, noise and potential damage to your stylus. Do the same on CD and you've got one heck of a LOUD recording that sounds good when being broadcasted on FM to judgmentally impaired folks suffering from "LOUDER is better" disease.
I recommend the following reading material which further drives home this point:
The choice speakers of most department stores. While their advantage (other than marketing and brand appeal to the unwary public) is a small footprint, this comes at a cost. These speakers suffer from a severe lack of dynamic range and frequency response linearity. The issue arises in the fact that the accompanying bass module doesn't produce much output below 60Hz. In addition, it extends too high in frequency, making it localizable and non ideal for subwoofer duties. The driver in the satellite "cube" speakers is too small to produce adequate midrange and midbass, and too large and inefficient to produce accurate and extended highs. What you wind up with is a satellite speaker with a few kilohertz range and a bass module that has to make up the difference. It's a product of boom and sizzle that sounds impressive to an untrained ear since the demo is usually done in a noisy nearfield environment where all of the speakers are just a few feet away from the listener. But take the system home and your guests wonder why all the male voices are coming out of the corner of the room where the "subwoofer" is.
For more information on the limitations of these systems, I recommend the following reading materials:
iPod & MP3 Players
As if compression in CDs wasn't bad enough. Let's add more by converting your PCM data from your CDs into MP3. Though you could record at the maximum rate of 320kbps, most MP3 compression still causes audible deterioration to the sound quality of your CDs. This is largely dependent on source material, the CODEC used, and the quality of the recording. I have found most MP3 compression to be unacceptable for serious jazz and classical music listening. Do any critical listening on a revealing system and you will find MP3 compression will cause loss of soundstage and stereo separation and diminished dynamics (especially for cymbal crashes or piano ballads). Most teens go for maximum song storage on their MP3 players and typically encode at 96-128kbps. "It holds two thousand songs," they brag. Yeah, two thousand songs that sound like they were recorded in a coffee can. What is truly sad is that most people listening to these devices simply don't know any better. Their pop music is so highly compressed and distorted that to them it simply sounds loud and clear. They are loving it because they have the convenience of all of their music at their fingertips in a portable storage device. The convenience is certainly attractive, but these types of systems are starting to become the primary audio systems for a majority of consumers - and we wonder why high-resolution audio isn't taking off. Combine this with a docking station and a cubed speaker system and you are in for a delightful evening of listening to your favorite tunes in a tin can compressed to the "nth" level to the point where you won't be able to tell the difference between a Britney Spears tune or JLO. Of course, at that point, should you really care?
I had high hopes for Satellite radio, particularly XM. Back in my telecommunications days I studied the XM specifications to ensure there weren't any patent infringements against our company who was one of the developers of QAM technology. I saw a lot of good potential for XM and welcomed it as a step above MP3 sound quality with the convenience of tons of commercial-free music at your disposal for a minimum monthly fee.
A few months ago, I bought a new Acura TL with an XM radio receiver built in. The sound system in my TL is a cut above most OEM car audio systems. It features the 5.1 DVD Audio system co-developed by Panasonic and famous recording engineer Elliot Scheiner. I was eager to finally listen to XM in all of its glory - on a respectable system no less. At first listen, it wasn't bad. It had good bass response, thanks to the sub, no static (as promised) and most importantly, no commercials or annoying DJs. I soon discovered very cool fusion jazz and progressive rock stations. Wow, I was hearing Tales of a Topographic Ocean from Yes and funky jazz tunes from Phil Collins old Jazz band Brand X. But something didn't sound quite right. I couldn't place it until I listened more intensely. After listening to more vocals, particularly female, I started to hear a metallic quality. Instead of Laura Fabien's voice, I heard Lara Fabicon. Shakira became Shakiracon. Instead of Josh Groban, I heard Josh Grobanicon. I thought I was in a bad dream stuck in a world taken over by evil Transformer robots. As a comparative exercise, I popped in the new Peter Gabriel Up CD when the title track was being played on XM. Switching back and forth, it was easy to hear the metallic, compressed sound quality on the XM broadcast. Mr. Roboto is alive and well on satellite radio!
Now, the CD itself is highly compressed to begin with, but the XM "flavoring" made it all more unpalatable. After a few months of enduring the so called "CD Quality" of XM radio, I canceled my subscription. Once you hear the compression, it becomes a vice (at least for me it did) that you cannot tolerate for any appreciable length of time. If I were an artist, I would be outraged by the fidelity, or lack thereof, of my music being broadcasted on this service. Of course, many of the popular bands/singers could hardly be called artists so it will likely go right over their heads. After doing additional research I realized that, due to bandwidth restrictions and a large amount of channels, XM satellite's highest encoding bitrate is… shudder … 64kbps. Even though their aacPlus codec is better than straight MP3 at the same bitrate, this is appalling for a format claiming to have "CD-quality" audio.
Sirius Radio is no different, so let's not just limit this roasting to XM. Though many satellite radio subscribers polled in our forums and gathered from the web, tend to favor the sound quality of Sirius over XM. As more channels are added to these services, this problem will likely get worse. In doing some research on satellite radio broadcasting, I have found that the compression rate is not fixed and in fact varies from channel to channel at different times of the day. Typical data rates being fed to us are between 32 and 64kbps which is still far below many Internet radio stations available online for free.
So now we have cubed speakers, iPod / MP3 players and Satellite radio further lowering our expectations of sound quality. What's next?
Lack of Live Unamplified Comparative Reference
Ignorance, the great equalizer. Though not intended as an insult to people's intelligence. Simply put, fewer and fewer people are exposed to live unamplified music on a regular basis. Sure, there are plenty of concerts performed by our favorite bands, but a large majority of them (particularly rock and pop concerts) are performed in large venues with big horn-loaded speakers and kilowatt power systems. Compression and controlled dispersion are the enemies at play here and whoever plays loudest wins. This is the same mentality that plagues the recording industry and hence why most pop and rock CDs have 6dB of dynamic range or less! Meanwhile Audiophile s ponder on more powerful amplifiers to power their speakers - but we will address that topic in another editorial.
This reminded me of a Yes concert I went to about a decade ago. It was their Talk tour with Trevor Rabin on guitars. They were showing off their surround sound broadcast system, a first and last for them if I am not mistaken. I sat to the right-front of the stage, about 30 feet or so from a wall of speakers. The sound was so blaringly loud that it was painful despite the fact I stuffed my ears with cotton and covered them with my hands during the whole show. It took me days to recoup from this experience. Rather than enjoying a performance from one of my all time favorite rock bands, I was more concerned with protecting my ears and avoiding the pain.
In contrast, I recently went to a Mediterranean restaurant where a three piece jazz trio: bass, drums, trumpet were playing unamplified and literally 10 feet from our seats. What a delight to our ears. I was hearing the full decay of drums and crashes of cymbals. The trumpet had perfect pitch and timber, and you could hear the woody sound character of the bass. This is something rarely heard on a good CD on a fine music system but truly appreciated by any music lover who also happens to be an Audioholic, though you can't throw your underwear on the stage, and I do miss that.
That was a great read, Gene. However, although I agree with many of the basic points you make, I feel the bottom line is convenience. I sure like my 40 year old reel to reel, and vinyl can make for a wonderful listening experience. But it's MUCH less convenient to limit myself to those playback systems. Lower fidelity means better portability, less expensive, etc., and in many listening environments, a high fidelity broadcast would be wasted (over headphones on the El? Please, I'm not going to tell a difference!
The point of my article is many peoples only exposure to audio is portable compression devices such as MP3 or XM. These devices are fine for convenience but shouldn't be peoples only exposure to quality sound.
The Martin-Logan name doesn't ring any bells. I'll have to find some "antique" hi-fi sites!!
You might start here ----> http://www.oaktreeent.com/Stereo_Speakers.htm [oaktreeent.com]
I also read another good point about people growing up listening to compressed music only. It's all about education and maturity. A bunch of coworkers couldn't understand how I could tell a 320 mp3 from pcm. I let them listen to the difference on a decent pair of headphones and they were shocked at the difference that they could hear. They still have their mp3 players, but they spent more on their home systems.
I listen to mp3s only sometimes on a noisy subway train.
I also don't think the difference is purely monetary, however. I could see a LOT of live shows for what I've put into my system, and I've spent peanuts compared to many folks on this forum!
Everything has its time and place, and it would sure be a shame if the mass marketing of low-fi products and services hoodwinks the masses into thinking that's as good as it gets. But if it's not convenient, it won't fly.
The Martin-Logan name doesn't ring any bells. I'll have to find some "antique" hi-fi sites!!