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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.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

avaserfi posts on August 03, 2007 11:59
pereze, post: 291814
Correct me if I am wrong, but lossless is pretty darn good.

The problem I have with all of these articles about dumbing down audio and such is that they always assume that anyone with an “mp3” player is using it for just that, compressed music. Yes, I would say most people are probably buying songs off one of the many stores such as iTunes and listening away, but there are a lot of people that rip there music into a lossless format and then use there storage device (mp3 player) to listen to the music.

It is my understanding the Apple's lossless format (not sure of the others) is pretty good quality. Ok, so what is pretty good, not sure but I would venture to say CD quality although i have never done a side by side comparison.

I personally don't think the iPod is the end of audio, but that seems to be the focus of many articles and discussions.

Eric

Lossless is exactly what its name says, lossless. A true lossless format will have no differences from the original source. While there might be certain compression methods used they will still sound the same as the source which is the important part. One of the issues this article is taking is with the compression that removes or distorts music for the masses and ease of use. MP3s, the most popular downloadable format, are not lossless for the record, especially at the quality levels offered by most services (192kbs with some delving to 256kbs).

I personally keep all my music on my computer in lossless formats for ease of use but I am not loosing any quality when I do so .
pereze posts on August 03, 2007 11:47
Lossless?

Correct me if I am wrong, but lossless is pretty darn good.

The problem I have with all of these articles about dumbing down audio and such is that they always assume that anyone with an “mp3” player is using it for just that, compressed music. Yes, I would say most people are probably buying songs off one of the many stores such as iTunes and listening away, but there are a lot of people that rip there music into a lossless format and then use there storage device (mp3 player) to listen to the music.

It is my understanding the Apple's lossless format (not sure of the others) is pretty good quality. Ok, so what is pretty good, not sure but I would venture to say CD quality although i have never done a side by side comparison.

I personally don't think the iPod is the end of audio, but that seems to be the focus of many articles and discussions.

Eric
MDS posts on August 02, 2007 23:30
skizzerflake, post: 291704
It's not that I don't use them for portable media, it's just that I keep in mind that the algorithm works by removing 90% of the data and replacing it with approximations. What would you expect? Surprised that it's different? Why?

Like I said, you have no idea how it works but pride yourself on bashing it every chance you get.
skizzerflake posts on August 02, 2007 22:53
MDS, post: 290837
skizzerflake, clueless as usual regarding MP3. If your MP3 are ‘swishy’ and sound horrible it's because you used a too low bitrate. That's your problem, not the fault of the format.

Vinyl sounds better than MP3? LMAO.

Bitrate is just a question of how awful. Once the swishiness goes away with a higher bitrate, the grittiness shows up. If I have a problem it is only that I want good, undistorted sound, and that never happens with mp3. Been through thousands of those things, different codecs and software and every time I hear one I get that sinking feeling…missing music…good only for the subway. It's not that I don't use them for portable media, it's just that I keep in mind that the algorithm works by removing 90% of the data and replacing it with approximations. What would you expect? Surprised that it's different? Why?

As for vinyl sounding better than MP3….my God…complete slam dunk. Not even any competition there.
MDS posts on July 31, 2007 23:14
skizzerflake, clueless as usual regarding MP3. If your MP3 are ‘swishy’ and sound horrible it's because you used a too low bitrate. That's your problem, not the fault of the format.

Vinyl sounds better than MP3? LMAO.
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