Audio fidelity is overratedApril 8, 2010
For most of us, more audio fidelity isn’t better. It’s a bar. And above that bar, you’re fine.
My car is old-school enough that it doesn’t have an MP3 input, which means I listen to everything on CD. That means I’m regularly swapping between purchased CDs (LPCM audio) and burned MP3s – it’s not quite an A-B comparison, but it’s close. Could I tell the difference if I was sitting quietly in a soundproofed room? Maybe. Can I tell the difference over engine and traffic noise on my factory-installed car stereo? Not a chance.
In general, advances in reproduction of music have been about making it more accessible, not about making it sound better. From live musicians to player pianos, from record players to iPods, most consumer-oriented music technology has led to music being available to a wider range of people, in a wider range of environments. And Paul Lamere made a related point in a discussion earlier this week: “The audio fidelity you can buy for $100 today is a lot higher than what $100 would have gotten you thirty years ago.”
Note that I can think of two counterexamples to this general progression of increased access and lower quality. One was deliberate: the move from AM to FM radio, which sounds much better but generally has a shorter range. The second counterexample is really more of a side effect: the move from vinyl to CD, which was clearly mandated by the convenience of the shiny little discs. I know that many people argue that vinyl sounds better than CDs. I’ve never done the comparison myself (although I’m sure that many people reading this post have), but I can readily believe that a pristine LP on an expensive system would sound better than a CD. But in the real world? I have CDs that I’ve been listening to regularly for well over a decade, and they sound as good as they did when I first ripped off the cellophane. I doubt that would be true for a record. Digital fidelity is not to be sneezed at.
So this idea of being prescriptive about audio fidelity—”Oh noes! You’re storing all your music at MP3s! You’ll regret it!”—doesn’t seem to be in line with what people actually do with music, which is to readily trade fidelity for accessibility. Kryder’s Law being what it is, it’s increasingly possible to store lossless versions of music on your hard drive—but how many people will take advantage of more hard drive space to simply store more songs? I love music, but I have no illusions about being an audiophile. Based on the overwhelming evidence, I’m not alone.
The open question remains: how low can you go? A friend of mine finds satellite radio intolerable because of the high degree of audio compression low bitrate [see EDIT, below] (many people are oblivious, including me, although I do find it intolerable that there are 200 channels and barely anything worth listening to). As streaming becomes an increasingly viable alternative to downloading, is something similar going to happen with audio on mobile devices?
Feel free to flame me for being a audio Philistine in the comments. Or just share what you think.
EDIT: Mike corrected me in the comments, below: satellite radios use a lower bitrate, not a higher degree of compression.