Hi-Fi and Less Fi

I’ve written here before about some of the extremely dubious products that are marketed as being capable of improving the sound reproduction of a stereo system, including fancy wire, and even volume control knobs.  The New York Times recently had an article that illustrates what you might call the flip side of this phenomenon.

Whereas the people who buy these questionable, and typically very expensive, gadgets, are looking for better sound, even by means that violate the laws of physics, many music fans today are apparently satisfied with relatively mediocre sound reproduction.  They apparently favor the convenience of the iPod and other ubiquitous MP3 music players.  But, as I pointed out in that previous post, in order to keep their size down, MP3 files are compressed with a lossy compression algorithm, which severely reduces high frequency response, down by about 30 dB at 15kHz.  (That previous post has graphs comparing the original frequency distribution of a sample of music with the frequency distribution from an MP3.)   As the Times puts it:

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.

As I’ve mentioned, I have spent a fair amount of time as a semi-serious amateur musician, and  I know what a live performance sounds like.  Even with my middle-aged ears, I can easily hear that my old-timer’s stereo system produces much better, more realistic sound than an MP3 player.

What I think is a bit sad is that I suspect some younger listeners may come to prefer the (unrealistic) MP3 sound, mainly because they don’t know any better.

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.

If all someone has ever heard is low-fidelity sound reproduction, he or she may come to believe that’s what music is supposed to sound like.  I know from my own experience that serious musicians work hard at getting a good sound; they spend huge sums on quality instruments (have you priced a Stradivarius lately?).   It would be a shame to lose that appreciation.

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