Dumbing Down of Audio
The Dumbing Down of Audio and Video
There was a time only a select few people had a hifi system; everyone else had a transistor radio or three-in-one type systems of very dubious quality. Now, according to all the mainstream advertisements and media, we all have a hifi system and according to some brands, an audiophile one at that. All that for under $500-! Well, really, we all know that is not true but the majority of consumers out there think they can have a top-end sound system for very little money.
I bet when you tell your friends that you have a $1500- CD player or $3000- speakers, they have a comment along the lines of that you got ripped off and their whole system cost $500- and sounds great. But if you gave them a good listen and they were honest, they would agree that music sounds much better on your system.
Some of the reasons for this are the marketing and sales tactics. Most average consumers just have not heard a decent audio system in their lives. What they hear is dictated by the major electrical chain stores that often have “listening” rooms with many amps and even more speakers lined up in a row. This is the top-end as most consumers see it. Much of the product there is okay for the price but you certainly cannot have a decent listen to them and the sales person will often push you towards whatever they make the biggest commission on.
Ambient noise, passively radiated sound (when a speaker is playing, it will also cause all the other speaker drivers in the room to vibrate even if they are not connected; this will muddy the sound) and usually a lack of knowledge about the products are all common in these types of stores. The product range is usually dominated by several brands only; to listen to smaller but likely better brands you will have to go to a specialist hifi store. They smaller brands do not have anywhere near the marketing budget and due to the higher price of better quality products, they have very little way of getting the larger market share they deserve. And the circle continues; the general public tend not to visit decent hifi stores, instead going to the same place they buy their toasters and hence end up with often very poor sounding audio systems.
What about compression? When CDs came out, they were not compressed, they were only restricted to 16 bit / 44.1kHz resolution. But over time this has been found to be not quite adequate for high-end audio. Attempts to bring out higher resolution system (DVD-A, SACD) haven’t really succeeded as well as hoped, probably due to non-mainstream exposure and the explosion of portable music devices. Current hifi equipment has however evolved enough over the years to actually give very good playback from standards CD’s.
So how about the audio quality of these very popular portable devices? According to the boss of one of these companies, under $1000- will get you an audiophile system worth $10,000’s.. Can you really believe that? I haven’t heard it yet myself but I certainly don’t think so! Literally the laws of physics dictate it can’t be possible. Of course the audio quality has improved for such devices over the years but they still have a long way to go till they reach the levels you and I are accustomed to and of course by then real hifi would have improved even further. Copy protection (DRM: digital rights management) is coded into a lot of the audio, especially the music that can be downloaded off the Internet. This copy protection further erodes the quality. This coupled with the high compression of MP3 and other propriety formats just cannot compete yet with uncompressed audio of analog or CD sound. The equipment often used for playback is not designed for audio quality, rather usually for portability, battery life, appearance and mainly saleability. Consumers don’t understand the levels spend reproduction can reach, so audio quality is often left far behind.
All this compression hasn’t left video alone either. DVD is a vast improvement on VHS and even an overall improvement on Laserdisc; however a trend we have been seeing is the addition of more and more so called extras to the package. While putting these on a second disc sometime happens, it does add to the overall cost. But jamming so much information on one disc has its downside. That is over compression. The data on a DVD is compressed by varying amounts, the more info needed to be stored on a disc, the more compression that is required. Some discs have come out with as little compression as possible on purpose; they sell themselves as the highest quality possible on DVD by using the full space available on a disc and with the least amount of compression possible. The image quality of these movies is generally much better than those jammed packed full of extras.
So where are we heading? One would hope that technology moves fast enough that soon everyone will be happy, top quality reproduction and inexpensive, easy to use devices. History doesn’t always suggest that will happen, sometimes better formats have vanished, like Beta video tapes and even now DVD-A and SACD are very rare. Hope is not lost; there will always be smaller manufacturers around the world building top-notch hifi gear for the fanatics whom aren’t driven by profit and shareholders.
Written by Leon Gross, originally published in Audio & Video Lifestyle magazine.
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