[Dixielandjazz] In mobile age, sound quality steps back-- NYTiems 5-9-10

Norman Vickers nvickers1 at cox.net
Mon May 10 08:02:14 PDT 2010

To:  Musicians and Jazzfans;  DJML

Here is Plambeck's third article from today's ( 5-9-10)  NYTimes.


Norman comments:

My wife and I were recently discussing the craze to get the largest TV
screen possible, now it's gone in the opposite direction, people watching TV
from their tiny hand-held devices.  Same way with sound quality.

I'm partially deaf but can hear difference in CD  vs MP3 quality sound.  


I'm reminded of the famous quote from H. L. Mencken "Nobody ever went broke
underestimating the taste of the American public."


I loved the kicker at the end, " Sometimes abnormality can become a


May 9, 2010

In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back


At the ripe age of 28, Jon Zimmer is sort of an old fogey. That is, he is
obsessive about the sound quality of his music. 

A onetime audio engineer who now works as a consultant for Stereo Exchange,
an upscale audio store in Manhattan, Mr. Zimmer lights up when talking about
high fidelity, bit rates and $10,000 loudspeakers. 

But iPods and compressed computer files - the most popular vehicles for
audio today - are "sucking the life out of music," he says. 

The last decade has brought an explosion in dazzling technological advances
- including enhancements in surround sound, high definition television and
3-D - that have transformed the fan's experience. There are improvements in
the quality of media everywhere - except in music. 

In many ways, the quality of what people hear - how well the playback
reflects the original sound- has taken a step back. To many expert ears,
compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than
music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks
are engineered to be much louder as well. 

In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological
success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod
32069546.html?tag=api&part=nytimes&subj=re&inline=nyt-classifier>  has meant
that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and
convenience. This is the obstacle the industry faces in any effort to create
higher-quality - and more expensive - ways of listening. 

"If people are interested in getting a better sound, there are many ways to
do it," Mr. Zimmer said. "But many people don't even know that they might be

Take Thomas Pinales, a 22-year-old from Spanish Harlem and a fan of some of
today's most popular artists, including Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. Mr.
Pinales listens to his music stored on his Apple iPod
32069546.html?tag=api&part=nytimes&subj=re&inline=nyt-classifier>  through a
pair of earbuds, and while he wouldn't mind upgrading, he is not convinced
that it would be worth the cost. 

"My ears aren't fine tuned," he said. "I don't know if I could really tell
the difference." 

The change in sound quality is as much cultural as technological. For
decades, starting around the 1950s, high-end stereos were a status symbol. A
high-quality system was something to show off, much like a new flat-screen
TV today. 

But Michael Fremer, a professed audiophile who runs musicangle.com, which
reviews albums, said that today, "a stereo has become an object of scorn." 

The marketplace reflects that change. From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced
their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to
roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a
trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period
increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. 

"People used to sit and listen to music," Mr. Fremer said, but the increased
portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. "It was an
activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to." 

Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the
background while the consumer does something else - exercising, commuting or
cooking dinner. 

The songs themselves are usually saved on the digital devices in a
compressed format, often as an AAC or MP3 file. That compression shrinks the
size of the file, eliminating some of the sounds and range contained on a CD
while allowing more songs to be saved on the device and reducing download

Even if music companies and retailers like the iTunes Store, which opened in
April 2003, wanted to put an emphasis on sound quality, they faced technical
limitations at the start, not to mention economic ones. 

"It would have been very difficult for the iTunes Store to launch with
high-quality files if it took an hour to download a single song," said David
Dorn, a senior vice president at Rhino Entertainment, a division of Warner
Music that specializes in high-quality recordings. 

The music industry has not failed to try. 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
ng_industry_association_of_america/index.html?inline=nyt-org>  Industry
Association of America. But by 2009, only 200,000 SACD and DVD Audio titles
were shipped. 

Last year, the iTunes Store upgraded the standard quality for a song to 256
kilobits per second from 128 kilobits per second, preserving more details
and eliminating the worst crackles. 

Some online music services are now marketing an even higher-quality sound as
a selling point. Mog, a new streaming music service, announced in March an
application for smartphones that would allow the service's subscribers to
save songs onto their phone. The music will be available on the phone as
long as the subscriber pays the $10 monthly fee. Songs can be downloaded at
up to 320 kilobytes per second. 

Another company, HDtracks.com, started selling downloads last year that
contain even more information than CDs at $2.49 a song. Right now, most of
the available tracks are of classical or jazz music. 

David Chesky, a founder of HDtracks and composer of jazz and classical
music, said the site tried to put music on a pedestal. 

"Musicians work their whole life trying to capture a tone, and we're trying
to take advantage of it," Mr. Chesky said. "If you want to listen to a $3
million Stradivarius violin, you need to hear it in a hall that allows the
instrument to sound like $3 million." 

Still, these remain niche interests so far, and they are complicated by
changes in the recording process. With the rise of digital music, fans
listen to fewer albums straight through. Instead, they move from one
artist's song to another's. Pop artists and their labels, meanwhile, shudder
at the prospect of having their song seem quieter than the previous song on
a fan's playlist. 

So audio engineers, acting as foot soldiers in a so-called volume war, are
often enlisted to increase the overall volume of a recording. 

Randy Merrill, an engineer at MasterDisk, a New York City company that
creates master recordings, said that to achieve an overall louder sound,
engineers raise the softer volumes toward peak levels. On a quality stereo
system, Mr. Merrill said, the reduced volume range can leave a track
sounding distorted. "Modern recording has gone overboard on the volume," he

In fact, among younger listeners, the lower-quality sound might actually be
preferred. Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, said he had
conducted an informal study among his students and found that, over the
roughly seven years of the study, an increasing number of them preferred the
sound of files with less data over the high-fidelity recordings. 

"I think our human ears are fickle. What's considered good or bad sound
changes over time," Mr. Berger said. "Abnormality can become a feature." 


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