Archive for the ‘audiophile’ Category

High Fidelity

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Back a few decades ago, when I was an undergraduate, and even when I finished studying and started working, many of my peers would spend considerable money on buying high quality amplifiers, record decks and speakers. This was definitely something that many of us in the 1970s aspired to — to own a decent “hi-fi”. This tended to be true whatever the genre of music that was of interest. My interests are chiefly classical, but the same applied to many of my fellow students and my contemporaries at work who were rock or pop enthusiasts. Money would be saved up to spend a not inconsiderable amount on audio equipment. I remember that my first hi-fi was put together some time after I’d started working and I spent about £150 on speakers, and another £100 to £150 pounds on an amplifier and about the same amount on a record deck including about £30 or so for the cartridge and stylus. (I wonder how many people still remember the process of fixing a cartridge to a tone-arm and periodically replacing the stylus, as well as adjusting the “balance” and other forces on the tone arm.) Subsequently I added an FM tuner, a tape cassette deck (hardly hi-fi, but convenient for recording things from the radio) and much later moved to the era of CDs and so bought a CD deck to add to the system. These sums of money might even seem large now — 30 years later without even allowing for inflation.

Getting good quality sound reproduction seemed to be very much the thing for so many young people who had at least some spare cash. In some cases, one saved up for good quality equipment but was unable to afford much actual music — only a few LPs to show off. Certainly I built up a collection of LPs very slowly over many years.

These days the demand seems to be very much one of quantity over quality. Many younger people that I know have iPods or other MP3 players packed full of music — in some cases more than I possess after decades of collecting LPs and CDs, which suggests that much of it has probably not been paid for. Furthermore, in order to pack so much music in, the bitrate is often set very low — in some cases lower than the speech podcasts that I listen to.

We’ve gone from having small amounts of carefully looked after music, played through high quality equipment to having large amounts of, possibly stolen, music that is compressed and played on devices that are amazing, but attached to typically low quality little ear pieces. Furthermore, there is some anecdotal evidence that many people no longer know what real instruments and real music sounds like. I remember hearing a report from a US university which had regularly given audio tests to its incoming students with samples of music that were high quality, and those that were compressed and/or badly recorded, and in many cases the students “preferred” the compressed or badly recorded.

While technology has advanced enormously, it seems that many of us are listening to music that even if it was recorded with great care, is now compressed and a shadow of what it could be.

I know that as I’m getting older my hearing is becoming far less acute, but to me music is worth making an effort for and is not just something that happens in the background. It is also something that I want to hear at as high quality as possible. While I’m truly amazed at how good simple earpieces and an MP3 player are, they are no substitute for a CD played on good equipment. Indeed, there has even been some effort to produce various forms of higher definition CDs (there are still some audiophiles that feel that CDs are not as good as vinyl LPs played on top quality equipment), or even using the greater capacity available on the various DVD formats. However, all of this super audio activity seems limited to a very small market of dedicated audiophiles.

In the UK we have had something of an insult in the desire to move to digital radio. We have been lucky in the UK to have sources of excellent classical music on radio — BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a vast repertoire of music to a very high standard with many live broadcasts, such as the Promenade Concerts. With a decent aerial and FM tuner and a reasonable audio system these broadcasts are absolutely brilliant. However, digital radio in the UK, like the general attitude to audio, is one of quantity over quality. In an effort to pack in ever more radio stations, the bit rate is severely reduced — and this on a system that uses MP2 for its compression (not MP3). Furthermore, for many of us, the digital signal is so weak that it simply disappears all together or comes complete with burbling noises while the FM signal gives us clear and high quality sound.

We have the technology these days to have high quality audio in our homes, and even on the move, and to potentially enhance radio beyond the analogue FM standard, unfortunately we seem to have gone for quantity over quality with a result that seems strange to me and to all those other folks who spent so much time lovingly putting together high quality audio equipment.