Friday, July 26, 2013

Quality? No Thanks!

A few decades ago I remember thinking that most of the serious musicians of my acquaintance were not audiophiles. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but I recall seeing a couple of photos. One was of a Mahler enthusiast and audiophile who was sitting in front of his awesome home stereo set up. The other was of a famous musician--I honestly can't remember who it was, but it was someone like Leopold Stokowski or Pablo Casals. In any case, the musician in question was listening to a record playing on a small, cheap, box system. My conclusion was that the audiophile was listening to the quality of the recording and the musician was listening to the music.

Mind you, when I was taking a seminar on Shostakovich symphonies in graduate school, I soon discovered that when Shostakovich was writing separate lines for the cellos and the basses, my system wasn't clear enough in the bass to really distinguish them. So I went out and bought a set of Cerwin Vega speakers that solved the problem.

The reason I am mentioning all this is that the New York Times has an article about the New Audio Geeks that is rather interesting. Here is an important passage:
The Internet and digital technology have upended the music industry over the last decade or so, but high-end audio has arguably suffered an even greater blow. The industry’s very raison d’ĂȘtre — the nitpicky pursuit of superb sound reproduction, no matter the cost or complexity — is irrelevant to many music listeners today.
People download MP3s from iTunes or Web sites and play them on their smartphones or laptops. They share songs with friends by e-mailing YouTube links. Sure, the music sounds flat, tinny, supercompressed; it’s an audiophile’s hell. But convenience and mobility rule the day.
Flat, tinny and supercompressed... You know, if you are listening to Jay Z and Eminem, I'm not sure it makes much difference. But I'm pretty sure it is not the ideal way to listen to a Beethoven symphony.

The fact that vinyl seems to be reviving might be an indicator that some people are demanding better sound. That's probably a good thing, or at least the article seems to think so.

My standard of sound has never come from a speaker, though, but from the instrument. I spend part of my day hunched over a guitar, my ears about ten inches from the soundboard, so that's what my standard of what a guitar sounds like is. My idea of higher fidelity is splurging on more expensive strings.

But that's just me...


Craig said...

I have only had one friend whom I would describe as a genuine audiophile: analog pre-amps, diamond-tipped turntable needle, and the most incredible speakers I have ever heard. It was impressive, but not something that I myself would be willing to spend buckets of money to acquire.

In any case, circumstances are such that having a good quality stereo doesn't make a great deal of sense for me. I have small children: I can't listen to music while they're awake (because I can't do anything that requires concentration while they're awake) and I can't listen to music while they're asleep (because they're asleep!). Almost my only option is the portable music player through headphones while I'm out for a walk at night. It's not much, but beggars cannot be choosers.

And though I would not go so far as to say that recording quality does not matter -- clearly it does -- there is nonetheless something to be said for listening to the music rather than the recording quality. I have an old set of Vaughan Williams symphonies (conducted by Boult) that are scratchy and hissy, as though they're coming in over a short-wave radio, but I wouldn't trade them for anything!

Nathan Shirley said...

I think you hit the nail on the head Bryan. Audiophiles care most about sound quality, musicians care most about sound content (music).

There are two interesting factors that many people miss in the audio fidelity debates (besides the fact that the emperor often isn't wearing any clothes).

The first is that technology has made it very inexpensive to get great sounding audio equipment. For about $80 you can get a great pair of headphones, better than most very expensive headphones years back. Pick up a clean sounding CD player or quality MP3 player for about the same price and you've got yourself a great sound system. Double that price and you've got truly excellent audio quality.

Of course I'm talking about headphones, for speakers the price obviously goes up, but again, nothing compared with what you had to spend in the past.

The second factor is the "loudness war." Sure, Vinyl can sound very good, but its dynamic range is limited (not so good for classical music). Also its transient response is sluggish, so it can't reproduce high frequency well (many people like this "warm" aspect, though it isn't realistic) and sharp sounds like snare drum strokes aren't perfectly clear. Now, vinyl at it's best is far superior than cassette tape, no question, but CDs have them both beat. The problem with CDs is not the technology, but rather how the music industry abuses digital audio by crushing all dynamics out of popular music. Luckily most classical recordings have not suffered this problem as dynamics are so critical to that music. Google "loudness war" for more. Vinyl records have a limited dynamic range, but it is nothing compared to the artificial compression and limiting that the music industry subjects over 99% of all their releases to- the result is whatever dynamics the musicians played with originally are completely gone. Ever wonder why TV commercials are so much louder than most shows? Severe dynamic compression.

Even MP3s can sound fantastic, but usually they don't as people have overly compressed audio files and they are listening on tiny laptop speakers or their cheap little ipods. While I'm at it... even YouTube can sound great, but again lots of bad uploads and cheap speakers means it usually sounds terrible.

Well that's my long post for the month. Now back to work.

Bryan Townsend said...

I never know what is going to get folks worked up enough to comment!

Craig, your comment about the old Vaughan Williams recordings reminds me that my first hearings of a lot of the orchestral repertoire was an old set of LPs I borrowed from a friend's father. Scratchy with skips and played on an ancient mono cabinet. But still, the magic was there! I've never really been fond of headphones, but it sure it sure sounds like the portable system with headphones is your best option.

Nathan, really good point about how cheap an acceptable system is these days. I really will have to get a good pair of headphones one of these days! Very interesting observations about vinyl vs CD. Was this true 20 years ago as well?

I posted about the loudness wars way back on this blog:

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes, true 20 years ago as well. But if you go back to the 80s when CDs were still new, many of these early digital recordings were done poorly (bad A/D converters). So for example some of the Glenn Gould recordings from the early 80's were re-released on CD with better A/D conversion (where the master was tape).

If you do get good headphones, make sure you are plugging them into a good quiet system. Most laptops have very poor headphone jacks (built-in sound cards). For listening you need a decent D/A converter.

One thing you won't find is a classical recording engineer talking about tube preamps, vinyl, etc. They pretty much exclusively work digitally and the "mastering" process is minimal (a very good thing!).

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I recall a pretty serious musician claiming that vinyl on a high quality system sounded much better than digital--but that was back in the early days of digital.

Both myself and my recording engineer work on iMacs, so it's digital all the way.