Whatever happened to the audiophile?

UPDATE: 8 SEP 2011 – The Register follows up on the loudness wars – “It is a standard sound engineer complaint, as well as of serious listeners. And, those that have simply listened and (easily) heard the difference. It was propelled by increased CD listening in cars (to further standout over more background noise). Louder and faster records on radio and jukeboxes are earlier variants. Louder ads on radio and TV is another.”

This video, which I think I saw at the time I wrote my original article highlights the difference between the sound engineering of today and yesteryear:

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgBack in the 1970s my parents had friends who had stacks of hi-fi separates with gold contact wiring and speaker stands on metal spikes. They were only playing Perry Como on vinyl, but that was their idea of fun, so good luck to them. When the CD emerged on to the market with its claims of superior quality and scratch resistance, the hi-fi enthusiasts split into two camps: those who clung to their “warmer” but crackly analogue vinyl and their hissy tapes and those who went digital and got optical wires to hook up their shiny new CD player to those spiky speakers.

Manufacturers propagated the upward spiral for both camps marketing ever more elaborate systems and even selling green pens to colour the edge of a CD to prevent laser leakage. Personally, I grew up with a “stereogram” and a personal radio-cassette and was quite happy with it, whiling away countless hours listening to prog rock, Jean Michel Jarre, Talking Heads, and the occasional Perry Como album.

But, was it all for nothing? Within another generation the notion of digital audio had been compressed using the audio equivalent of the lossy image format jpeg and music fans were listening on pocket devices or watching Youtube clips with embedded music on poor-quality computer speakers and really not caring either way, whether the sound was great or not.

Jerald Hughes of University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg writing in the International Journal Services and Standards has a nice table showing the technical specification of the human ear and comparing it to the various analogue formats:

Audio system Frequency range/Hz Decibel range/dB
Human ear 20-22,000 110+
Vinyl LP 30-15,000 50-60
8-track tape 45-8000 45
Cassette tape 50-12,000 45-50
Chrome cassette 50-16,000 60
Reel to reel 30-20,000+ 66+

So, the only system that ever came close to the full range of human hearing was reel-to-reel and I don’t recall seeing many of those around even among the most extravagant separates hi-fi aficionados of my parents’ acquaintance.

So, how does the CD fit into this picture?

Audio system Frequency range/Hz Decibel range/dB
Human ear 20-22,000 110+
Compact disc 20-22,000 90+
DVD audio 10-95,000 144

Not bad? It really was a golden era, then, apart from that lack of “warmth” and “colour” that the analogue stalwarts claimed. And, with DVD audio quality (and SACD, superaudio CD) far outstripping even CD. These latter formats are well-known to devoted adherents of jazz and classical where dynamic range and complex frequency content tends to be more common than in rock and pop, although there are serious mastering problems with many modern recordings in all genres.

Today, there are almost as many audio “formats” as there are audio files. One can choose a download or rip at almost any rate, a lossy or lossless compression algorithm, and countless other options and codecs to playback a music file on myriad devices. But, consumers in general, have gravitated towards a quality that is much lower than the human ear is capable of discerning and much lower than top-end equipment is capable of reproducing. It’s as if the hi-fi nuts never existed…

Perhaps that’s the point though, my generation was perfectly content to listen to vinyl albums duplicated on cassette tapes (remember: home taping is skill in music killing music, it never did) and today, the kids are quite happy to listen to downloaded 128kbps mp3 files through the cheap earbuds that come with portable music players.

Human senses and sensibilities have limits. It’s not that the human ear cannot receive the finest of musical details, it most certainly can, it’s just that most people perceive satisfaction in listening to a good-quality mp3 and are not worried about the top notes or the quiet moments that might be lost in the compression process that squeezes their collection of thousands of songs on to a sliver of silicon embedded in a case no bigger than a thumbnail.

Audio cassettes were popular because they were convenient – mix tapes, copying albumbs, recording off the radio all infinitely simpler with cassettes than with a reel-to-reel machine. In the post-digital era of music on chips rather than disks consumers are trading-off audio quality for convenience just the same as they ever did. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Research Blogging IconJerald Hughes (2009). Emergent quality standards for digital entertainment experience goods: the case of consumer audio Int. J. Services and Standards, 5 (4), 333-353

I spoke to Hughes who confessed that he too is a prog-rock fan, and admitted that the first album he ever bought with his own money was the YesSongs triple live album. He also told me he is still listening to his Technics direct-drive turntable with hyperelliptical stylus through Bose 501 speakers and said, “it really IS ‘warmer’…”