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The Dumbing Down of Audio - page 2

By

Closing Thoughts

Steve Wilson Blu-rayAs music becomes more mainstream and bubblegum two-chord rock and mindless pop further encroaches upon our society, people seem to have embraced compression playback devices and continually distance themselves from what real music is supposed to sound like. I fear we are breeding a generation of ignorance to music and fidelity playback. In fact, we may be instilling in our youth the inability to discern what sounds good! Hey, if you eat enough filet of hoof, eventually you'll think ribeye tastes bad.

But I think a ray of hope shines through. It's not Gandalf the White arriving with the army of Rohan bright, but it's there. Websites like HDtracks and iTrax offer us access to high quality digital music. And while I think it's ironic that so many people buy nice headphones to listen to compressed music, the fact that they are shelling out the cash for nice headphones says something. Everywhere you look a new DAC or headphone amplifier is being released, and support for FLAC and WAV files has taken off. This resurgence is largely still limited to the niche audiophile market, but I hope that it will lead to big name artists pushing for higher quality records. Some already have, like Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. The real question is how much ground will quality gain, and will the trend continue. Maybe it will be the vinyl toting hipsters who carry the crusade for high-quality audio, just hope the crusade doesn't involve a march, because skinny jeans are made for looks, not function.

For now, we simply recommend that you attend an unamplified musical performance in order to remember, or find out for the first time, what musical instruments actually sound like. Your ears will thank you for it. Don 't get dumbed down, do this to preserve the sanctity of your own musical intelligence.

Commentary from Dan Banquer

I got to grow up in a different family than most of you have. My father is now a semi retired classical musician. A good portion of my youth was spent in his studio where he rehearsed his woodwind ensembles, and attending some of his concerts with the New Haven Symphony. I played a few different instruments in high school and later decided to attend music school, where I was a performance major. My music career ended for medical reasons, but not my love for music.

Today I hear two things, the unceasing hyper compression, and the lowering of the musical standards of pop music to its lowest common denominator. The pop music that I hear played today makes Motown of the sixties sound like sophisticated jazz. (It isn't jazz by the way, as some idiots out there might have you believe. It's R & B, which stands for Rhythm and Blues!) In my youth, and I am dating myself here, I got to hear bands like Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Both of these bands could play their instruments well and were innovators. They used a blues based format to expand there ideas, and the blues is the basis for rock and jazz.

Today I hear young people talk their way through a song. Melody, harmony, arranging, and song form, have been pretty much dispensed with. I keep waiting for some of these artists to discover the wonderful heritage of American music, but I am starting to lose faith, as the lowest common denominator keeps looking for a new low.

As the musical standards go lower so do the audio standards as there is less and less reason for fidelity. Most manufacturers are very aware of this and will not improve the technology in many areas as there is so little demand.

To all of you who read this: Go search out and hear the great musical heritage that this country has blessed you with. You won't regret it.

 

Commentary from Mark Sanfilipo

Date: 3/12/06

Great article that squarely nails many a lossy-codec issue right on the head.

Whether or not XM radio, mp3s or what have you works for you depends on how your priorities are arranged where it comes to what's important in your listening experience. If maximum fidelity is key, you probably won't find XM radio or mp3s entirely satisfying.

However, if portability and convenience are tops on your list of listening priorities, then compressed files, such as mp3s are a good way to go.

My oldest daughter, Sarah, is a great case in point. Sarah would marry her iPod if it could cook. If it weren't for me she'd never hear anything that wasn't squashed & compressed and run through one sort of lossy codec wringer or another.

She can hear the qualitative differences, but in her mind convenience (and the fact she can store every tune in her collection in something small enough to fit in her purse) far outweighs intrinisc quality. Dr Earl Geddes pointed out in the AES Convention Paper "Auditory Perception of Nonlinear Distortion" that mp3s can have a measured THD upwards of 50% ! For someone like Sarah - who puts convenience & portability above all else - that is simply a non-issue.

If bandwidth or storage restrictions are issues for you, then once again compression is the way to go. Typical in this instance would be the case of someone listening to an Internet-based radio station on their office PC. Sonic wallpaper, if you will.

Of course, there's the "couldn't care less crowd" and my sons are a great example of that bunch: they really don't care, so long as its loud and annoying; compressed to the eyeteeth suits them just fine.

On the other hand, my youngest daughter, JB, recognizes the difference between compressed and not compressed and definitely prefers the latter. Out of all my kids she's also the one most exposed to live music on a consistent basis.

Some of the debates going on in various formats between pro- and anti-mp3 crowds in many ways echo the debates I used to hear between the pro- and anti-8 track folks back in the '70s.

Ironic to think that as the hardware we use to listen to music has been technologically refined & improved over the years, the quality of the media played back through that hardware has, in many cases, been compromised. At least the old stuff (Beatles, Zeppelin, Yes, etc) sounds better than it did back in the day.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

Deep Ear posts on January 23, 2015 20:16
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 07:12
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 01:07
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 10:00
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 20:06
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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