Monday, May 10, 2010

Retweet: Sound quality in the mobile age

"Retweet" is now a word, so let's use it to name this feature where TNM points to a recent article that is worth revisiting. Here is our first Retweet:

This New York Times article from Sunday is one a favorite subject of mine: the quality of sound in the modern era. It argues that sound quality has taken a step back thanks to the rise of the iPod and digital downloads. It reviews the rise of the Audio DVD and Super Audio CDs, and shows how these formats, rather than growing and supplanting the CD, have actually contracted.

About 10 years ago, two new high-quality formats — DVD Audio and SACD, for Super Audio CD — entered the marketplace, promising sound superior even to that of a CD. But neither format gained traction. In 2003, 1.7 million DVD Audio and SACD titles were shipped, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. But by 2009, only 200,000 SACD and DVD Audio titles were shipped.
It's a very good article but misses one detail: the trend identified -- the sacrificing of audio quality for sake of portability -- has occurred in the (fairly) recent past. In the mid-to-late fifties the rise of the transistor radio allowed consumers to carry around a radio to listen to the ball game or their favorite AM radio station. The Brill Building Sound of the late fifties and early sixties, the Wall of Sound of Phil Spector were, in many ways, reactions to the way consumers were listening to their music -- mono, tinny, lacking in details. The first Stereo vinyl records came on to the market right along with the portable radios. But most consumers still bought those early Beatles records as mono, having heard the band for the first time through those small radios.

The Times article points out that there still many who are championing quality sound vehicles, and I have no doubt that the trend will reverse -- if it hasn't already. After all, Apple has increased the bit rate of its mp3s, pressured by Amazon and others, and this trend is sure to continue.