|IMO, a realistic graph of audio formats and quality first discussed here.|
The basic lament is the tiring belief that we don't seem to care about sound quality any more as a society, the quality is "deteriorating", and that ultimately it's all got to do with "convenience".
But is this true?
Short and sweet:
NO, I don't think so.
I suspect it's much more complex and worth putting some thought into...
The truth is likely much more complicated than a short article like that (or even my post here) can fully encompass, but let's see if I can give it a try. Let us try to expand the ideas a bit beyond the limited scope of hippies, Boomers, and generic discussions of "sound quality" as if the "quality of music" were some kind of easily summarized phenomenon.
As a start, why don't we explore the 3 major domains to keep in mind around quality and what audiophiles often concern themselves with: sound quality as achievable through hardware performance, the music software itself, and the societal factors which may be changing how music is consumed and whether "quality" is sought after.
Hardware Domain:In my mind, this is an easy one. Sonic fidelity out of small, convenient modern devices are better than they've ever been. I've already documented that the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy Note 5, modern DAP (PonoPlayer), simple USB DACs (eg. AudioEngine D3, Light Harmonic Geek Out V2) are all way better than the old days of analogue/CD Walkmans (Walkmen??). The ability to achieve flat, stable frequency response, jitter-free playback, and dynamic range beyond 16-bits are all easily achieved. Even better performance can be objectively achieved with full-sized DACs and computer transports.
As a teenager, I saved up my pennies doing paper routes and cash gifts in lieu of presents, to buy my first high quality Walkman-type cassette player/recorder. It was an Aiwa HS-J800 from 1986, bought for ~US$200 as I vaguely recall which based on inflation as per the calculator works out to over US$400 today - easily within the range of modern cell phones and audio players like the PonoPlayer. Featuring auto-reverse, Dolby B NR, a good AM/FM tuner, decent size for portability, it was a fantastic marvel of mechanical and electronic audio reproduction which still works quite well today! I loved that unit and would bring it everywhere with me especially while studying in the library during the last years of high school wearing the included headband headphones which I thought sounded good back in the day. These days my kids will obviously recognize the lower fidelity compact cassette sound, and the headphones (long dead) would have been quite unimpressive - a ton of sound leakage, lacking in bass response, dynamics and resolution.
Despite the great memories, would I ever consider this little Aiwa sonically competitive with a modern iPhone or the PonoPlayer? Of course not! There's no way any compact cassette tape would be anywhere close to what even an iPod playing decent bitrate MP3 would be able to achieve let alone any of the modern portables capable of lossless 24-bit playback or higher samplerates. The Aiwa's battery life (always had a few rechargeables on hand) was significantly shorter than the >6 hours these days, and of course cassette tapes are not random access devices and can only hold up to 180 minutes for the longest blank tapes (realistically, 120 minutes were the longest I ever recorded to). A basic 16G iPod Touch Gen 6 (~$200) with some Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (~US$160) headphones would have totally destroyed the sound of the Aiwa cassette player and likely most Discmans (Discmen??) from the 80's and 90's in a shoot-out using vintage consumer headphones of the day.
As for my home digital music player, I had an inexpensive all-plastic US$200 boombox with CD player in 1987 (a Yorx), then later I spent about US$500 before tax for my first decent CD, dual cassette, digital EQ, bookshelf speaker system in 1991 (or slightly more than US$900 today). The Sony MHC-1500 was quite good looking and capable for the day unlike some of the truly gaudy offerings. US$900 these days would buy a myriad of all-in-one box systems with features unimaginable in the late 80's and early 90's with at least equivalent sound!
For around US$900, imagine putting together a system that could sound good. Perhaps pairing the US$280 Elac B6 Debut bookshelf speakers, or a pair of US$300 Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 with an inexpensive Sony STR-DH770 receiver (US$300) capable of surround 7.2 sound but run in stereo mode. This would already provide Bluetooth streaming, a USB port for music files (not computer playback), HDMI ready for 4K, and a platform to build a surround system off of! With the remaining US$320 (buying Elac + Sony with a $900 budget), that's enough to buy a decent Blu-Ray player for CD and movies, or maybe a reasonable USB DAC for computer playback... Splurge a little or look for deals, and that $320 may even be enough for a Blu-Ray player plus a 40" 1080P flatscreen TV. Alternatively, if I want a nice robust analogue stereo receiver which I could build around for the longer term, I might consider grabbing the US$700 Outlaw Audio RR2150 (100Wpc both channels driven at <0.03% THD, 20-20kHz, into 8-ohms) instead of the Sony which includes a serviceable USB computer input. Furthermore, one could look at the used market and the options at great prices!
The point of course is that for around the same amount of money, the options are much more impressive these days hardware-wise. The Elac speakers above would run rings around the old Sony bookshelves in sound quality (I still have them and they don't even compare to my AudioEngine A2's). The electronics would be more powerful and options for connectivity unimaginable a couple of decades ago.
Software Domain:I know that some audiophiles out there think the pinnacle of audio formats was the vinyl LP (I've expressed my disagreement previously). Some may even feel that the pinnacle of recording quality was in the 50's and 60's with the likes of Mercury Living Presence classical, or jazz albums like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, or maybe Getz/Gilberto. Perhaps the work of Rudy Van Gelder in general. Perhaps it was the 70's with Pink Floyd and Dark Side. How about the 80's with some (arguably) amazing sounding early digital like Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms. How about the early 90's and the Q-Sound processed Roger Waters' Amused to Death? Anyone want to nominate awesome rock and pop recordings from the 2000's and 2010's?
Along the same subjective preferential lines, we can opine on favourite formats - LP, CD, DVD-A, SACD, PCM, DSD, etc... But the fact is as far as I can tell and as expressed in the graphic at the top of this post, whatever software format we choose, the digital ones these days are within the zone of "maximum auditory acuity" for us humans. Yes, this includes high-bitrate MP3 and CD. What matters more at this stage in my opinion is the quality of the music, not the quality of the encoding format.
1. Artistic / Creativity Level: This is at the level of subjective appreciation of the music and very much our personal connection with the artist's creative impulses. Do I like the music itself? Is it a genre I can appreciate? Did the record come together to convey its message? Did I like the message? Does it resonate with my life, evoke memories, expand my sense of meaning and spiritual state? Is the music euphonic to my ears or does it sound like noise?
Needless to say, there are great artists in each generation with albums of music worth collecting and concerts worth attending.
2. Performance Level: Still very much subjective but we can compare performances and possibly come to similar conclusions as listeners. Did the artist perform as passionately as he/she could have? Was the artist in good vocal shape during the performance? What instruments did the artists choose for the performance? Did the band and back-up vocalists do a good job? Did the musicians synergize during this performance? How does this Mahler Symphony performance compare to Bernstein's?
3. Technical Recording / Production Level: It gets more objective now... We can start thinking about the limitations of certain microphones and how they were placed - did they capture the "soundstage" optimally, was placement too close/far, did this type of microphone complement the studio setup, was the microphone choice optimal as a vocal mic, etc... (here's an interesting guide). A 16/48kHz DAT recording has certain limitations. The recording space chosen will have repercussions to the sound in terms of reverb time for example. Was this a "live" stereo recording or was it multi-tracked for mixing? Digital or analogue recording? What studio tricks - relative track levels, EQ, reverb, DSP processing were selected and were they used in a pleasing manner? How was it mixed? How "loud" did the final mix turn out?
4. Consumer Distribution Level: Finally, after all of this, we get to consider how that final, mixed "product" was release to us as consumers. Was it initially a 24/96 final master that was dithered to 16-bits and resampled to 44kHz for CD? Did it need to go through the RIAA EQ, remastered dynamics, bass content adjustments for the LP? For physical distribution: What pressing plant and quality of vinyl was chosen? What material was the disk made of (think standard pressed silver CD vs. SHM material for example)? What was the final data format - PCM, DSD, MP3, AAC, HDCD, MQA...?
I trust that we are all participants in the "music lover hobby" (as discussed previously) so we can all subjectively say something about every level above. However, as "audiophiles" typically discussing the hardware and specifically adjudicating sonic fidelity, it's actually levels 3 & 4 that are most applicable in many of our discussions. The "Consumer Distribution" level is perhaps the most easily discussed because that is what is proximal before us as consumers and we can easily form an opinion. We can all argue whether we like CD vs. vinyl, prefer digital downloads, discuss the beautiful artwork on an LP sleeve vs. virtual art from a virtual store, etc... It's easy to argue that one "loves" the sound of vinyl versus the clinical accuracy of digital. Likewise, we can easily complain that lossy encoding is "bad" because we have a concept of how it works. But I hope we can appreciate that this last "Consumer Distribution Level" is typically a small part of what constitutes the "sound" of the recording (obviously recognizing too that a medium of lower transparency like low bitrate 128kbps MP3 and poor-quality vinyl could have very negative impact on overall sound quality).
IMO, as hobbyists, participants in forums, and perhaps even writers and reviewers, we need to focus more on discussing issues on the "Technical Recording / Production Level". The hardware advancements are fantastic and have been on an elevating quality trajectory over the decades for the same inflation-adjusted price... But what has become of recording production quality? If we are to put our blame on the decline in sound quality, it is precisely in this level we have to voice our concerns.
Thankfully, the classical world is still blessed with fantastic recordings that sound natural, clean, and highly resolving. Realize of course that acoustic music like classical and jazz combined account for much less than 10% of the market. What of pop/rock/R&B/rap/country/gospel recording quality and remasters these days? Over the years, I have voiced my concerns around the dire quality of albums like this, or the lack of improvement despite claims of "hi-res". I'm further dismayed by horrifying "documentaries" like Harman's "The Distortion of Sound" as previously discussed. I'm glad that other audiophile bloggers are doing their part in bringing this nonsense further to light. But we need to do more, folks. Perhaps some artists are aiming for "lo-fi" sound, but on the whole, I think many of us recognize that something isn't quite right with the typical level of sonic fidelity.
If we truly want to advance the "cause" of better sound, we must continue to participate in the forums, remind all those who care about sound quality, and publish articles putting the pressure on artists, producers, record labels, and audio engineers that it is they who are responsible for the diminished sound quality we hear these days whether it's overuse of dynamic range compression, peak limiting, poor quality home-studio recordings, overuse of DSP processing without careful consideration to maintain good resolution... [Consider this article in Sound On Sound "Secrets of the Mix Engineers" - what do you think of the DSP complexity of modern pop/rock these days?! Do you think there is such a thing as an "authentic" studio sound for this kind of music as some might want us to believe!?]
When audiophiles and music lovers recognize that music "software" these days often sound poor as a result of decisions made by various individuals at the level of the "Technical Recording / Production" and unite in voicing a desire for better production quality, then there is at least a chance for change. And an honest discussion about what's holding fidelity back for those who care.
Societal Changes and Trends:I'm not pessimistic and I believe we will see the day music sounds more "natural" again with the caveat that this will be in specific contexts at least initially. Let me explain. Let's soar to 30,000 feet and have a big picture look at where things are going on the mass scale over the years.
Technology has given us efficiency. Efficiency in storage has resulted in 1000+ songs in one's pocket (beginning at low bitrates but easily increased to lossless in the last decade). Efficiency in energy utilization has resulted in better battery life. Efficiency in processing has allowed miniaturization and convergence devices like the smart phones ubiquitous worldwide today. These changes and improvements do not imply lower quality of audio reproduction while increasing convenience as discussed above. The idea that we're putting up with poor quality "because of convenience" is a false dichotomy that needs to be replaced.
Rather, just like the question above about what constitutes "the quality of music", we should consider factors affecting the trends we're seeing these days:
1. A move towards multimedia and interactivity.
Media entertainment is powered by the seductive capabilities of computing technology: multimedia and interactivity. This has been the direction for decades. Movies were the first to capture the multimedia experience and continues to push the envelop of multichannel sound and visual technology. Multimedia audio/visual presentation was eventually embraced by the music industry as music videos and the marketing power they bring. Interactive applications such as video games have since become a massive genre over the last 3 decades with wonderful examples of artistic expression, creating an industry in their own right continuing to expand into other technologies like VR. Folks, the video games market did about $15-billion in software sales in US alone in 2013, this is about the same as worldwide music sales for 2015! Is it any wonder that the smartphone and mobile computing platforms have become the logical step in this path of technological evolution; taking the multimedia experience and gaming interactivity anywhere we go?
Remember folks, vision is the primary sensory modality for humans. We dedicate much more neurological resources to visual processing than auditory perception. In fact, I wonder if the last hundred years has been a bit of an anomaly where audio technology developed first and was "cool" as "hot" tech for awhile hence the rise of the audiophile generations (post-War and the Boomers generations?). That time of audio tech being "cool" is over, certainly since the early 2000's with high resolution video and flat screen TVs. With the rapid developments in video technology, we're returning to the "norm" - remember that for millennia music had been enjoyed in theaters, concert halls, or part of participatory rituals, not solitary affairs in one's home. There's more we can talk about in this regard, but I digress...
Given the limited time we all have, it is expected that attention to other forms of entertainment will reduce the number of us interested and willing to spend time with unimodal 2-channel stereo audio entertainment (2 channels being the typical audiophile medium). Financial resources will likewise be apportioned out for these other forms of entertainment, leaving less disposable resources overall. There will of course always be a "core" group of music lovers willing to spend $$$ on specialty audio (ie. "hardware audiophiles"), but the numbers are already significantly diminished.
2. The shift to mobile audio.
There is a price to pay for true mobility (and I'm not talking Head-Fi folks who sit in their homes with tube amps and Audeze headphones!). With a change in context from the quiet of one's home, to the uncontrolled environment of the street and public life, there is logic in producing and mastering the music loud with dynamic compression to accentuate the softer parts of the song (another reason includes the desire to stand out compared to other songs on the radio/streaming - the Loudness Wars...). I don't believe this was malicious or that music producers and artists didn't care about quality per se, but rather this is something done to have it heard over the high ambient noise. Eventually, people got used to this type of sound and either adjusted to it as "normal" or find it unenjoyable and stopped listening as much (or gripe about it like many of us audiophiles!). On balance, I'm sure the studios recognize that quality in a good soundroom is compromised by the modern dynamically compressed sound, but given the masses walking around with headphones on, perpetually connected to the Net, ready to download a tune off iTunes while waiting in line or commuting in the subway with the press of a button, of course the industry will be catering to these folks as long as they don't complain!
Can we foresee a time when unimodal audio will be cherished again by the masses? A time when large numbers will seek out and enjoy music in a venue that's quiet, serene, able to bring out nuances and allow the mind to experience the joy of pure audio reproduction?
I don't think so. Especially with economic realities the way they are. The price of land and space in large urban settings have been growing phenomenally so a good soundroom is out of reach for many (hence the rise of the aforementioned head-fi audiophiles with non-portable high-end headphone gear). Let's not beat around the bush, some level of affluence is needed in this hobby and it's not necessarily just because the hardware is expensive. Furthermore the twin effects of the seductive qualities of technology and mobility shift is not looking to end any time soon.
But just because the masses might not change, that doesn't mean the hobby is "dead" or that we can't do our part and sway perception, improve sound quality, and increase interest in this niche. Here are a few ways we can try:
A. Continue educating. This is the pillar for any change and must continue. Continue with Dynamic Range Day. Continue with showing people sites like DR Database to remind them that different mastering can make a huge difference and as discerning music lovers, we have the power to choose. Audiophile magazines must start taking on a leadership role to "call a spade a spade" and openly talk about poor sounding recordings instead of being primarily the mouthpiece of the industry (like hyping up the obviously questionable Pono claims of high-resolution audio quality last year or the superfluous MQA IMO). Even if we like the artist and recommend an album, it's important to comment on the mastering and production quality to maintain the issue in the public eye.
[As I responded to Honza in comments below, there are standards like EBU R128 "Loudness Normalization and Permitted Maximum Levels" that really should be discussed more and made known to the audiophile public - https://tech.ebu.ch/docs/r/r128.pdf.]
B. Encourage those interested in vinyl and LPs. I know this might be ironic coming from me since I feel LPs are inferior sounding compared to digital in general. But the "beauty" of vinyl is that it has limitations with excessively loud recordings, necessitating lowering average volume and potentially increasing dynamic range. It forces people to stay at home, make space for a turntable, and teaches them to slow down and listen with discipline. This is all good and necessary for the audiophile hobby because it potentially exposes music lovers to focus on fidelity (or the lack of). It also readjusts listening preference to a more dynamic sound. In time and with better equipment, I suspect many will "rediscover" the quality of digital in a good home system. Remember not to go crazy and claim that LPs are the "ultimate" in sound quality :-).
I hope the audio industry doesn't end up being greedy, start producing bad quality vinyl pressings, and jack up prices to squeeze every penny of profit from the music consuming public. That'd be shooting themselves in the foot with the first sign of life in the physical music market. Already I see many new pressings (typically of old music) priced very high and I'm really wondering just how many actual sales are going on in many of the brick & mortar stores around where I live.
BTW: Based on this recent UK report, it looks like the vinyl renaissance still is fueled by an older demographic rather than having broad support from the younger generation.
C. Hardware manufacturers / Playback programmers: Implement the "Mobile Boost" button! Dynamic range compression should have always stayed as a feature in the hardware. It would be nice if this is a feature on all digital audio players, easily accessible on phone music playback software, and back in car audio as well. Somehow find a way to make this a desired feature. I think it's good to just call the button something like "Mobile Boost" instead of confusing or other fancy terminology (even the old "Loudness" label I think may be too vague). Let it be associated with exactly what it's used for - mobile applications. Maybe even allow a few levels of compression so the end user can choose how much he prefers. Make sure to include a paragraph on this in the user manual to describe the rationale, and hardware reviewers continue to remind folks the benefits of such a feature if we see such a thing implemented again in portable audio.
D. Encourage the release of different masterings. Unlikely to happen perhaps, but this is the most direct solution because it gets to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the CD and lossy versions can be louder and dynamic compressed for mobile purposes and hi-res versions can have better masterings as I had suggested a number of months back ("Standard Resolution" and "Advanced Resolution"). The release of modern albums with DR7 (like Elton John's recent Wonderful Crazy Night) in 24-bits at jacked up prices ($21 on HDTracks when you can get the 2 CD Deluxe with 2 live tracks at $15 on Amazon) is a slap to the face of high resolution adopters.
Recording engineers, producers... Loudness standards like EBU R128 as noted above seem reasonable, don't you think?
E. Stop with blaming sound quality on lossy formats. It's ridiculous comparing MP3 128kbps to lossless these days. Enough with using MP3 as the perpetual scapegoat and claim that it's evidence of "convenience trumps quality". It's disingenuous to do so these days since high bitrate MP3 sounds fine though of course not ideal, and the public is satisfied. When audiophiles go around and start exaggerating about how "bad" MP3 is but unable to definitively show a difference with a FLAC or hi-res file compared to say a 256kbps MP3, it shows just how out of touch some audiophiles have become by perpetuating a myth that the public is just going to shrug off and walk away (again, Pono/Neil Young's promo material is an example of this unsophisticated sideshow that damages credibility ultimately). Apple switched to DRM-free 256kbps AAC back in 2009. Amazon MP3 appears to vary between 192-320kbps. No self-respecting high school student these days downloading music off the internet would go lower than 192kbps (my kids are growing up so when I visit family friends, I make it a point to ask the teenagers). Endlessly protesting about lossy encoding will not improve overall sound quality just as much as promoting 24/192 is not going to do anything either in the absence of actual recordings worthy of being called "high resolution".
As you can see, the suggestions above apply to the various levels of the music chain. Producers, artists, and engineers can do their part. The common audiophile can do his/her part to educate and demand better recordings (especially if they're going to pay good money for so-called "hi-res"). The audiophile magazines have a large influence on the readership as well as can shape purchasing behaviour and promote honest, reality-based advice. Hardware engineers and those who write software can implement easily accessible downstream audio compression (that "Mobile Boost" button) for those who prefer to listen on-the-go so studios don't feel they have to release albums with high compression built-in.
As the audiophile press laments the "death" of sound quality and high-end audio, wondering how they're going to reinvigorate the hobby, I suggest that in the big picture, good sound quality is not uncommon. In fact, I would argue that sound quality is better than ever... It just depends on where you look. And where is it that we hear extremely dynamic, nuanced, detailed, and intelligible audio these days? Why, the local movie theater of course! Just look at the shift from lossy DTS/AC3 to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Marvel at the shift from multichannel and now to object-oriented positional 3D sound (like Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D). The sound on Blu-Ray movies are fantastic works of sonic reproduction! To a large part because we know movies are targeted for the controlled setting of a theater and this translates beautifully to the home theater as well. In time, this same thing will translate into the sound quality of VR systems which are aimed to mimic reality. I think the future of sound technology is bright indeed and in the multimedia setting, production quality typically already is much better than what the 2-channel music studios seem to be aiming for.
One day, perhaps sound quality akin to the "absolute sound" can be achieved artificially. Ironically, it may not be something the audiophiles today would recognize or expect. Rather, it will likely be when we embrace and engage the full range of sensory experiences which "looks" nothing like a man staring at his electronics (even if it’s with the seductive warmth of tubes), listening to artificially reproduced music in 2 channels, alone in his soundroom.
The year is 2116. The world remains imperfect. War, environmental concerns, pestilence, famine, and inequality remain. However, much of the world has achieved a standard of living significantly better than in the last century when humanity went through turbulence as it worked its way through the Great Monetary Reform, learning to accept moderation, and shun extremist ideologies.
It has been more than a decade since Neural Tapping technology has achieved memory and emotional ‘inception’ for those who choose to go through the complex yet refined interface implantation process. Despite long ethical debates, not surprisingly, most adults have accepted the procedure once they reach the age of consent, typically in the mid-20’s, as the procedure requires that brain neural arborization reaches maturity.
A “retro” (an individual of unconventional appearance and penchant for the esthetics of previous generations) flips through her small collection of 12” vinyl albums and handful of 45rpm singles with pride knowing that few in the world still appreciate the bygone era when life was simpler and people could just enjoy the basic sonic signatures etched in these plastic disks. She then connects the Neural Link, reclines in her favourite vintage La-Z-Boy recliner as the lights dim, and selects her Stim/Sim Program.
In an instant she is transported back to the subjectively genuine sights, smells, and sounds of an early 21st Century jazz club, reveling in the joys of the experience.