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MP3s Made Me Dumb

by Josh Wardell July 31, 2007
MP3s Have Made Me Dumb

MP3s Have Made Me Dumb

How I stopped listening and simply learned to ‘hear’

That isn’t to say that my IQ has in any way suffered at the hands of the miracles of algorithmic digital compression, in some ways it’s even quite the contrary. The problem isn’t that my overall cognitive function has been hindered, but instead, it’s my desire to find out what the next newer/better/faster/cleaner/quieter/louder/meaner/cooler/neater audio breakthrough might be. I started in the high end electronics retail world at the exact moment in time when DVD-Audio and SACD came to the front, and while I will make no references to Beta vs. VHS, Xbox 360 vs. PS3, or HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray format wars in this commentary (beyond that one), I will say that my interest was piqued and my ears were pleased. Sitting down in a demo room with a turntable, a super premium standard CD player, and SACD/DVD-A players, making direct comparisons was not only easy, it was pleasurable. For the first time, I TRULY understood what it meant to say “CDs sound ‘flat’ compared to vinyl”. Using the same recording across all those formats whenever possible, and simply switching inputs on the Krell pre-amp, the intricacies and subtleties of each format became crystal clear. For the first time, I heard when an engineer edited two separate takes of a song together to capture the best aspects of multiple recording sessions. I understood the motivation behind that and how the emotional impact could be drastically changed by how the artists rendered one take over another, but for the first time in my life, I experienced that strictly mechanical aspect of the heartfelt experience of recording, and that only added to the emotion of my experience.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t/don’t listen to MP3s in any fashion. Actually a larger portion of my purchases of various devices at that time played to the pre-iPod desire to have massive amounts of music in one small form factor (12 whole albums on 1 CD!) for ease of use, but I had something else to talk about with my clients. Most of the time they came in with a request for a DVD player or shelf system that “can also playback MP3s” and while I was catering to their primary interest, I would ask about what direction their music tastes were inclined. Having adopted both SACD and DVD-Audio formats from day 1, I had dozens of discs to use as demo material, and after demonstrating compressed audio playback on their preferred device, I would invite them into one of the listening rooms, having gathered a collection of discs to demonstrate. Setting them down in that swiveling glove leather seat strategically placed at the sweet spot of this system or that, the sensation of envelopment already beginning to overcome them, I placed a standard CD in one player, and the high resolution version in the appropriate player for a true side by side comparison. Positioning myself to the side of the system in question so I could gauge their reaction, I would quickly time sync the discs for uninterrupted switching and give them the controller.

Eyes closed, feet reclined on the matching ottoman, and the room lights dimmed to near dark, the experience could begin. With more than 300 discs in my demo library, I more often than not had something that my client knew by heart and would watch them start singing along in their head, lips pursing and slacking in time to the words or beat of the song. I would start them with the standard CD (or sometimes even the MP3!) and have them step up to the next standard in audio performance by the simple pushing of an input select button. The immediate and visceral reaction they had every time without fail indicated one incandescent truth. Better music heightens the emotional experience gutturally, tangibly, psychologically. I don’t mean better in the sense that O’town were better poseurs than 98 degrees, but in the “I didn’t know what I was missing in this recording until now” sense. The same thing they always knew seen in a new light, with nuance and subtlety, and even mechanical devotion to excellence from a nameless recording engineer still intact.

As the demo ended, I usually didn’t sell a pre-amp/amp/speaker combo in addition to whatever device they had already decided on, but they would often ask if there were a DVD player that played not only MP3s, but also DVD-A or SACD instead! The door was beginning to open, and the light was spilling out more and more as they pushed it just a little bit further. The tide was beginning to turn against the naysayers and non-believers. The first volley had been fired in the next wave of audio quality improvement, inexorably forward from etched wax and vinyl, to magnetic tape, and into the digital pits and lands of the optical format revolution, growing more densely packed, the new tootsie roll center of the digital audio age. “This young upstart compressed audio format no doubt is here to stay” I said to myself, “but it will occupy the gym member, marathon runner sort, needing something portable and skip resistant, but not requiring fidelity to the original recording.” Surely the detail and truth in these new formats would soon own the living rooms and lounges of suburban America! Things were looking up for a viable replacement to the aging CD.

On October 23, 2001, the tide began to recede… nay… rush the other direction. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, only recently returned to the captain’s chair of said organization, announced a Mac-compatible product with a 5 GB hard drive that put "1000 songs in your pocket." The iPod set the world on its collective heels. Who had ever heard of carrying so much storage, integrating it so closely with a home computer, simplifying the process of compression and transfer of files, or for that matter making a consumer device a distinct fashion statement? Originally slated to be only a Mac owner's device with limited potential for wide distribution, the exclusivity of it makes PC users squirm in their seats, and techno-fashionista’s swoon with anticipation.

The die was cast, the capacity wars were on, and the mantra was no longer “I can run for 2 hours without repeating songs or having the music skip even once!” No, now “I can quite literally listen to music for 14 continuous days without hearing the same song twice, except for that whole recharging the batteries, bathing, eating, and social interaction… thing.” The nice part is that at that same moment, de-rigueur interpersonal communication was distilled down to a simple grunt and nod with white earbuds wedged far enough in to isolate us from anything but "Left with Alibis and Lying Eyes" and "Are You Gonna Be My Girl". Please don’t take this as a social criticism or think for a moment that the author isn’t guilty of these very things. I am (although being an ‘opposite of what’s popular’ type, I went for a different brand of player). What is being said is that music went from a deeply enveloping and personal thing that you could share with everyone in the room with you, to an absent minded soundtrack for life and everyone in your mind with you. Yes, I’ve seen a person dancing and drumming to a song in a park as a Frisbee headed his direction, with that telltale white string seemingly keeping his head from floating away in what must have been quite a gale, because even when people spoke to him he would yell over the noise in response rather than risk bifurcating himself by taking the buds out to speak, but was he truly ‘listening’ to the music? Hardly.

Part 2: Listening versus Hearing Audio

So how does this rant come full circle and point to my own lost ability to ‘listen’ and found ability to only ‘hear’?  About 2 years ago I purchased a Linn Unidisc player which can play MP3s, SACDs, DVD-As, VCDs, etc…  I immediately pulled out my collection of high resolution audio disc formats and began sampling and smiling, thrilled that I was wise enough not to buy both an SACD and DVD-A stand alone player, opting instead for a Sony DVD player that also played SACDs, until a unified player came along, even if it meant my DVD-As were relegated primarily to digital 2 channel output only.  My new player was all things to all people, and the best of all those at that, so I grabbed my high-resolution discs, along with several of my MP3 CDs lying around from my car use (again, not an environment needing superior audio fidelity, or so I thought until this story broke the other day) and put my ears to the test once again.  The high-resolution formats were clean, sharp, amazing, deep, truly breathtaking, but I suffered from “only 2 to 3 good songs on a CD” syndrome, and this required that I be in constant motion, changing discs and skipping tracks.  The MP3s were vulgar, noisy, shallow, coarse, simple, ubiquitous, easy… In other words, they sounded like a cat being shoved through a tennis racket, but several hours of uninterrupted audio without investing in a multi-room Sonos system costing multiple thousands of dollars became a bit more appealing.  I stopped listening critically for Miles Davis to breathe between transcendent arpeggios, and reverted to my Army barracks room philosophy of “the volume knob at some point negates the noise in the track, the room, and everything” and just started hearing music… LOUD.  I even docked my uPodd (my nickname for my non Apple device with the extra 'd' added for insurance against litigation) into my main system so I could go straight from my earbuds to the stereo with a minimum of interruption.

So is this a redemption song?  Was I once lost only recently to be found?  Has this sheep begun to stray from the flock?  I can say unequivocally, in one strong and clear voice… Sort of!  The simple fact is that I AM a member of the “grunt and nod generation” and I couldn’t live without, in theory, being able to drive from here (South Dakota) to Tokyo and back at 25mph without once hearing the same song repeated.  Convenience, technophilia, knowing more than “the squares”, and just having my musical motivation with me at all times have pervaded my every cell and fiber.  However, I feel as though I just took a sip of an extra spicy Bloody Mary the morning after a long night out with the boys…  The fog is slowly lifting, I can’t help but see the error of my previous night’s endeavors, but the only fix is the hair of the dog that bit me.  A couple weeks ago while moving, I opened my crate of SACDs, DVD-As and even HDCDs, which hadn’t gone ignored, but hadn’t been properly admired over the past 2 years either.  I put that crate at the top of my home theater boxes and began the torturous, yet somehow enjoyable process of first boxing, then opening and reconnecting all my electronics.  As a part of my set-up, I listened to various pieces of music I knew intimately, watched movies that I could transcribe in my sleep, and generally critiqued my setup.  What an opportunity to use my collection!  Out came Quaudiophiliac and Time Will Tell, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East and Raise Your Spirit Higher.  A chill thrilled down my spine, in 2.0/2.1 and 5.0/5.1 mixes, the detail, resolution, character, heart,  inspiration, and desire in every syllable and instrument was felt and experienced again, as if I were back in that listening room those many years ago!  All those discs have gone from the box in the other room, to positions as honored guests in my home theater system once again.

I mourned the passing of both great formats (even though a few are being made independently on occasion, both formats are essentially dead) and while consumer confusion did, in my opinion, deal the death blow even more so than an upstart computer company trying to make a buck, the fact is that CDs are generally good enough for most people, and the average consumer believes his or her stereo/theater system probably can’t resolve all the detail in those recordings, however untrue that may be.  Is the “CD is good enough” vibe the result of the apathy of the human ear resulting from an inundation of inferior audio quality, or is it more personal than that, from something within each and every one of us, a simple “I don’t need anything more than that” conciliation?  I can’t say for certain, but knowing that the human condition points us toward constant improvement in everything we do, I can’t help but feel that this malaise is the result of marketing savvy and external influences rather than some voice from within.

What are your thoughts?  Do you live and die by the ebb and flow of ones and zeros, or is that pocket maestro only there to tide you over until you can come home to the real deal?  Sound off in the forum and vote your conscience, am I waxing poetic for a time thankfully gone and hopefully soon forgotten, or is there an audio quality reckoning of sorts just over the horizon?

I hope we find out.