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The Dumbing Down of Audio: Trading Quality for Convenience?

by January 18, 2015

Originally published March 6, 2006; Updated and republished December 20, 2013

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 wristwatch with a more powerful computer today than the ancient computers that used to fill an entire room only 50 or so years ago. Heck, you can buy a wristwatch with more processing power than a computer had 10 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, digital signal processing (DSP) empowers engineers to make smarter products that can work magic on your music. DSP 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.

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 all of the 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.  Trading quality for convenience is the norm where more and more people prefer portability and instant access to source material over the quality of the media in which it's  being transmitted.


The De-Evolution of High Fidelity Audio?

Tabulated below are what I feel to be the major culprits of the Dumbing Down of Audio:

  • Hyper compression in CDs
  • Cubed speakers
  • Phones, tablets and MP3 players
  • Satellite radio
  • Streaming services (ie. Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, etc...)
  • Lack of comparative reference to unamplified live musical performances

Hyper Compression of CDs

Dynamic compression is introduced at the mixing stage by boosting the levels of quiet sounds so everything sounds loud. This is distinct from data compression which is used to make audio files smaller and can introduce different artifacts (see below).

Editorial Note on CD Sound Quality
There are many factors that influence the sound quality of source material such as:

a. How the source material was recorded (i.e. equipment, mics, etc)

b. How the recording was mastered and transferred to CD (level, compression, etc)

 

    We have already beaten this topic to death in past editorials. I encourage you to read the following articles for further elaboration.

    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 broadcast on FM to judgmentally impaired folks suffering from "LOUDER is better" disease.

    Read these articles for more on the topic:

    Cubed Speakers

    clip_image004_118.jpgThe 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, read:

    Phones, Tablets & MP3 Players

    iphone 5As if dynamic compression in CDs wasn't bad enough. Let's add more by converting the PCM data from your CDs into MP3s or MP4s with lossy data compression. 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 people go for maximum song storage on their mobile devices 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. Even worse is that high-end headphone market is exploding. Walk around a college campus for a few minutes and you will see a sea of bobbing heads with $300 Beats headphones on. 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 Britney Spears and JLO tunes. Of course, at that point, should you really care?

    Satellite Radio

    Sirius XM Logo

    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, which 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. 

    In 2006 I bought a new Acura TL with an XM radio receiver built in. The sound system in my TL was a cut above most OEM car audio systems. It featured 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 then 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 was alive and well on satellite radio!

    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 broadcast on this service. 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, it is appalling for a format claiming "CD-quality" audio.

    So now we have cubed speakers, iPod / MP3 players and Satellite radio further lowering our expectations of sound quality. What's next?

    Streaming services

    PandoraStreaming services, that's what's next. Just like satellite radio and CD, the potential for great audio quality exists. However, thanks to limited bandwidth we are stuck with low quality sound. Don't get me wrong, I listen to Pandora all the time and have played around with Spotify, MOG, and a number of other streaming services. Almost all of these services utilize low bitrate, highly compressed encoding schemes. Pandora streams AAC+ files at a measly 64kpbs via their web interface. That is pathetic. One saving grace is that Pandora One subscribers can enjoy up to 192kbps over the web. Spotify one ups (see what I did there?) Pandora with 160kpbs Ogg Vorbis files and up to 320kpbs for Spotify Premium subscribers. While 320kbps Ogg Vorbis is a big step up from what is found elsewhere, it's not up to snuff for critical listening. Additionally, these higher bitrates are only available for an extra fee, which is understandable, but means that the majority of users are stuck with über low quality audio.

    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 Audiophiles ponder more powerful amplifiers to power their speakers - but we will address that topic in another editorial.

    null

    This reminded me of a Yes concert I went to a little over 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 recuperate 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 jazz trio: bass, drums, and 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 timbre, 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.

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    About the author:

    Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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    Recent Forum Posts:

    Deep Ear posts on January 23, 2015 19:16
    Gene,


    Loved your article “The dumbing down of audio….”. If we step further back to the fifties and early sixties, to the advent of our hobby; to the days when nasties like compression of CDs, and tiny cubed speakers did not exist, we find the glorious stereo and three channel RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence recordings. These were uncompressed recordings, captured on tape running at 30 ips, and played back on giant speakers with lots of piston area to move air, energize the room, flap your pant leg, and put a huge smile on your (most times single and well-heeled audiophile) face.

    In 1957, it was Paul Klipsch who is generally credited with creating the first center channel speaker, the Heresy, to go with his Klipschorns, giant ~20 cubic foot stereo speakers specifically designed to be placed in the listening room’s left and right front corners. Back then the TV’s were 13” to 25”, and note the term Wife Acceptance Factor didn’t exist.

    When I was designing speakers for a large multi-national conglomerate we (male) engineers used to say to our (male) bosses, who were always pushing us to get our designs done, “Do you want it good, fast or cheap…pick two.” Nowadays, I think the more correct quote would be, “Do you want it small, fast or cheap…pick two”.

    Today, sound bars with puny drivers, totally incapable of producing the dynamic range of live unamplified music (DRM) are king. And it is the more décor and wife acceptable video display that takes all the space. Think about it, when was the last time your significant other yelled, “Turn down the soundbar!” Not while engrossed watching Sleepless in Seattle I’m guessing.

    Sigh, “the more things change, the more things remain the same”. (Kerr 1849). Or, If we’re talking statistics and numbers, IMHO, what we are now experiencing after 60 years of home audio is known as “regression to the mean”. With the two major mean parameters being small and cheap. Enter the one piece sound bar! Plop and play!
    Topken posts on January 22, 2015 06:12
    amco, post: 1068250, member: 57475
    Great article Gene, and I feel that your point 6 is ignored by most audiophiles who eternally compare expensive boxes with even more expensive boxes, but rarely if ever recognise the original source music as the ONLY true reference to assess the quality of reproduction. Have just scanned the entire 7 pages of comments, and as usual many are just nit-pricking. However to my surprise, no-one has mentioned the significant additional point that I believe you missed - the 21st century listening environment!

    It is neither a secret nor an opinion to observe that the global architectural trend to crisp, elegant, minimalist decor has produced impossible acoustic spaces in homes, restaurants and indeed just about anywhere! And this point is well established in the many comments on offensive noise levels in many restaurants. Suddenly one day, it just hit me that ONE reason my rather nice 70s Hifi Stereo sounded so great in my parents home is that the lounge room had wall-to-wall carpet, well stuffed furniture, and smallish curtained windows. Meanwhile my fashionable new triplex appartment with 10 foot+ ceilings in the large open-plan lounge/dining area, and with huge floor-ceiling windows, is an acoustic disaster. For this reason, well-designed car systems just MAY provide better performance than a similar investment in a home system.

    The unfortunate conclusion for me, and for a substantial number of all of us, is that nothing short of a demolition job can remedy the situation. Well, there is always the alternative of wholesale, agressive and highly invasive acoustic treatments that would entirely destroy the aesthetics and lead to a divorce case …

    PS: most architects seem to be entirely ignorant of acoustics issues in their trendy designs!?! Now if they were professional engineers, they might get fired for disfunctional design, but as “artists” they just win prizes for innovative design. Hmmm… take the money and run …


    I kind of touch on that subject when I said use my Audio Technica ATH-M50x for when I just want to listen to music in my quiet bedroom. I have the logitech speakers for just tossing out background noise if its to quiet for me which is sometimes. So yeah having an acoustically treated room is not needed when you use headphones. All you really need is a nice quiet room to sit in.
    amco posts on January 22, 2015 00:07
    Great article Gene, and I feel that your point 6 is ignored by most audiophiles who eternally compare expensive boxes with even more expensive boxes, but rarely if ever recognise the original source music as the ONLY true reference to assess the quality of reproduction. Have just scanned the entire 7 pages of comments, and as usual many are just nit-pricking. However to my surprise, no-one has mentioned the significant additional point that I believe you missed - the 21st century listening environment!

    It is neither a secret nor an opinion to observe that the global architectural trend to crisp, elegant, minimalist decor has produced impossible acoustic spaces in homes, restaurants and indeed just about anywhere! And this point is well established in the many comments on offensive noise levels in many restaurants. Suddenly one day, it just hit me that ONE reason my rather nice 70s Hifi Stereo sounded so great in my parents home is that the lounge room had wall-to-wall carpet, well stuffed furniture, and smallish curtained windows. Meanwhile my fashionable new triplex appartment with 10 foot+ ceilings in the large open-plan lounge/dining area, and with huge floor-ceiling windows, is an acoustic disaster. For this reason, well-designed car systems just MAY provide better performance than a similar investment in a home system.

    The unfortunate conclusion for me, and for a substantial number of all of us, is that nothing short of a demolition job can remedy the situation. Well, there is always the alternative of wholesale, agressive and highly invasive acoustic treatments that would entirely destroy the aesthetics and lead to a divorce case …

    PS: most architects seem to be entirely ignorant of acoustics issues in their trendy designs!?! Now if they were professional engineers, they might get fired for disfunctional design, but as “artists” they just win prizes for innovative design. Hmmm… take the money and run …
    Hobbit posts on January 20, 2015 09:00
    Hi Gene, Something not mentioned were the video streaming services - Amazon, Netflix, et al. I find the sound and picture quality of through these services does not compare well against their BVD counterparts.

    We're buying AVRs and Pre's with all this decoding capability yet about the only place to rent blu-rays is through red box, and who know's how much longer we'll be able to do that? For someone like me, while I love watching movies, I'm not that interested in owning a BVD collection. I never seem to go back and re-watch the ones I bought.
    Topken posts on January 19, 2015 19:06
    Yeah I am not expecting the best out of my $60 at the time 5.1 setup but it works for games and just background noise when I need it. I have the Audio Technica ATHM50x for dedicated listening when I need it. I have the better sounding Equipment already but for basic needs the Logitech works. I needed new headphones anyways since I was using a pair of Velodyne Vfrees that I got for free but the issue with them is they hurt my ears as soon as I put them on since they basically sit on instead of over my ears.

    As for upgraded speakers I am thinking I will grab one of those Vizio 5.1 based soundbars for the bedroom so I can enjoy movies and my consoles better. I will be picking up a decent AVR+Speakers for the main area once we get the new house in which is going to take 2-3 months to go in.

    Soundbar is perfectly fine in the bedroom so that is an expense I do not mind paying.

    As for the soundcard I already own it as well since I picked up it and the Logitech X530s around the same time back in 2008.

    I tend to use Slacker Radio for background noise anyways so the Logitech work perfectly fine there.
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