Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Ears Have It

In this Sunday's NYT Magazine, an article caught my ear. Anthony Tommasini wrote in Hard to Be an Audiophile in an iPod World, what I've been thinking since first delving into music done the iPod way. "Music has become portable, wearable. The reproduced sound, if not rich and deep, is clear and lively. That’s good enough. Recorded sound as a re-creation of reality has almost been dropped. In the article, Mark Katz, an assistant professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music", published by the University of California Press in 2004 points out that ads today for MP3s and iPods seldom make claims for the beauty of the sound. Instead typical ads depict stylish people with iPods as accessories to clothing, clipped on jeans, belts and shirts"

I'll leave the "music as a fashion statement" argument for someone else. It's the sound quality issue that drew me into the article. First let me note one warning that Mr. Tomassini posted before he launched into the somewhat (not thoroughly) lousy sound quality of the iPod/MP3 vehicle. "Any discussion of recording technology has to note one intriguing quirk in the story: Few musicians have been audiophiles. More than the average music-loving amateur, working musicians understand the big gap between recorded music and the real thing. They can listen through the inadequacies of any recording and focus on what they want to hear."

The gist of the article is that convenience is king and that the quantity v. quality battle over sound quality has been won by the quantity side, headed by the iPod/MP3 proponents. Where does that leave the rest of us trilobytes?

Well, for one thing we can proudly say that we are not nuts and that, yes, the sound quality is a step down when you seriously downsize sound-reproducing equipment. So, a Bronx cheer in the general direction of all those iPoders who have given you hell regarding the state of your hearing.
On the other hand, since this shrinking clan of trilobytes is getting ever-smaller, it is best to lay low as it's not politically correct or personally self-protective to tell the iPoders that their perceptive qualities are going downhill. Like all things human, the cycle will come around and someday soon vast arrays of large sound-producing boxes will be in our homes again.

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Comments:
While I agree the sound quality on the ipod is not as good, it's still very good. When you combine that with the vast improvement on the quantity of music one is able to enjoy with such great ease, the weights are out of balance in favor of the iPod for folks on the go. What I don't get though is the poor quality junk that people download to their cell phones as ring tones and "music to enjoy until your party answers the phone." Blech. That is not even music to my ears.
 
Gwynne,
Spoken like a true iPoder!
And, as you are one and I was one, I will not argue with you the merits you speak of.

One person's garbage is another person's treasure and I'm not saying whose is whose.
 
As my cochlea wear down, I find myself getting increasingly impatient not just with the mp3 player, but the car stereo as well. I want immersive sound, dammit -- not some (increasingly) distant representation!

It's curious to note that Sony, in their zeal to commit the largest music biz blunder in history, opted to develop the Super Audio CD. Now, I'd be the first to say I won't regret it if I never hear another performance by the Rolling Stones. BUT ... I could be persuaded to give the disc a spin if it actually sounded like they were performing in my living room.

This is not where the money is, of course. Quality, schmality. People would rather hear the first four bars of "Satisfaction" as a cell-phone tone.
 
WP,
I don't know about you but the Stones in my living room doesn't sound like the most tempting of offers. I hear they're lousy guest and you have to clean up and fix up, in a major way, after they're gone.
I've got a low end (like bottom end) Sony SACD player and a few SACD's. I've played the SACD version of "Kind of Blue" on that CD player and a regular CD version on a regular player and there is a noticeable difference, specifically more clarity and depth. However, both listenings went through headphones as my speakers are no where in the class that the sound reproduction capabilities are capable of.

As a footnote to the whole iPod thing, my daughter's iPod, only a couple of years old and handled quite daintily by her went kaput recently. Rather than replacing it, I simply gave her my Nano, without feeling a pang of pain. The only thing I miss is the sleekness of the presentation.
 
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