Home Music All New IPods, More Digital Music: A Generation Misses the Point

Yes, there’s a whole new line of IPods announced yesterday. They have phones, cameras, and frappe blenders attached to them.

What they don’t have is...music.

Whether you listen to digital music on an IPod or — my personal favorite–a Creative Zen XFi2-– it doesn’t matter. You simply aren’t hearing what was recorded. This is especially true for classical, jazz, and classic rock records. No matter how good the earbuds– from the Klipsches we heard last week in L.A. to my preferred Ultimate Ears— 50% of the music is lost.

Some digital music is called “lossless” but that’s not true. In order to get the big sound of a beautiful recording into something the size of pack of cards, precision has to be dumped. And it is. Further, to then force the music into those ear buds–ouch! Forget about hearing loss. The richness of the sound is simply gone.

I’ve been traveling for the last few weeks, so I’ve had the Zen and Ultimate Ears to entertain me. They’re fine; very good in fact. But they’re not intended for anything than on the go listening.

Today, finally resettled in my apartment, on went the solid state Conrad Johnson amp, the Rogue tube pre-amp. I let everything warm up. Then I put the Arif Mardin tribute CD, “All My Friends Are Here,” into the Creek CD player. The orchestra opened up, and Bette Midler‘s beautiful voice swam through the Sequerra Met 7.7 speakers. Nirvana. More CDs followed, including Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs” and Mozart piano concertos played Robert Casadesus, the Beatles, Sting‘s “Symphonicities,” and — when we were sure the amp was awake– a little Led Zeppelin remastered.

I write this now because I realize: compressed music is hurting my head. The musical palate is disappearing. Digital music is convenient, but it’s not an artistic experience. Yes. it’s grand to have 160 GB stored in a device. But it’s better to have a single great recording envelope a room. Kids, there’s nothing like it.

Please do click on the link at right for Dick Sequerra Speakers, or go to www.stereophile.com, or better yet, visit a high fidelity stereo store in your town (not Best Buy, etc). In New York, we have Stereo Exchange, Sound by Singer, Park Avenue Audio, and Innovative. Read www.audioadvisor.com. Lament not the IPod wheel. Celebrate the breadth and depth of music.

14 replies to this post
  1. Thank you. I’ve been trying to jump on the wagon for years now. I own iPods in many iterations, and my television (home stereo system?) now has surround sound. I’ve been playing all my music on it. I can’t take it anymore. I feel as if–how can I say this best–I’ve been eating twinkies for every meal and losing my best friend simultaneously ever since I lost the sound, the full sound, in music. Before I read your posting, I had just told my husband that I was going to pull my old speakers out of the closet, come what may. They may be old, but they were designed to reproduce sound for people who wanted to listen.

    And to Jack T., heartfelt thanks to you also. I could never put proper words to what you explained so perfectly. I recorded a children’s album two years ago (Sing the Sun, in case anyone cares to give it a try) and said that I wanted kids to be able to hear each instrument instead of being met with a great bash of sound. I wanted them to have songs that they would remember forever, not just for the melody and lyrics but also for the experience of listening to great musicians playing parts they could isolate and follow. Rich, full sound was critical. I had to leave L.A. and record in Nashville before anybody understood what I was trying to say. I wish I had had your clear analysis and summary at the ready. I felt like I was trying to describe a problem nobody else thought was a problem. Thank you.

  2. I agree with you to a point. Music quality is a relative beast. Your saying kids are missing something in the music by listening to headphones. I say your wrong. They can not miss what they dont know exists. If they have never heard the quality sound you speak of they dont care. If I put on a pair of crap headphones and they play music and entertain me for that time period then I have a total success. Most kids DONT CARE about sound quality because that is not part of the listening experience they care about. AudioPhile listening is based in a lost art from years gone by (and Japan) Kids today dont relate music with a quality listening experience. Its something they use to get through something (trips, school ect)
    I am a front of house engineer by profession and have raised 3 music loving teenagers I am also a huge audiophile.

  3. The sampling rate for CDs is 44.1khz. That is actually fairly low by today’s standards, for instance the sampling rate of most movie DVDs is 48khz, and for recording audio 48khz-192khz sampling rate. DVD-Audio and Blu-Ray use the higher 192khz sampling rate.

    IMHO the principle problem with most modern audio tracks, particularly pop music, is they are overly compressed and maximised. Leading to a dramatic reduction in dynamic range – in other words modern mastering of recordings leads to overly loud tracks with poor dynamic range (the difference in loudness between the most quiet parts and loudest parts)

    With higher bit rate (192kbp/s+) and sampling rate (48Khz+) MP3/AAC recordings (as used on DVDs/Blu Ray) combined with careful mastering, in double blind tests with the same equipment people should have difficultly telling the difference from a CD recording. In fact DVD-Audio, AAC, high bit rate MP3s and Blu-Ray have the potential to be way better than CDs.

    Not to rant but modern production and mastering hurts the music far, far, more than the way it’s encoded. Often mono, badly recorded, 1960s tracks have much better dynamic range than tracks produced on far better equipment today (because they’ve compressed and maximised the hell out of it).

    In short check out DVD-Audio, FLAC, high bit rate/sample rate MP3s, and Blu-Ray. Your equipment is very well suited to it, and unlike many you should hear the difference. Without getting into FFTs and the like the principle problems you’ll have with quality won’t be technical, rather modern mastering trends (e.g. recording for earphones rather than quality speakers).

    Rant over.

  4. I fell in love with music in 1966 – and at the time I was using a tiny transistor radio that I had to keep on my window sill to get a signal. I wasn’t getting all the nuances, sure, but I was getting great melodies, lyrics and rhythms. So I don’t worry about not getting highest fidelity. “Psychotic Reaction” and “Good Vibrations “still sound great, even on iPhone using ear buds.

  5. “Digital music is convenient, but it’s not an artistic experience. ”

    Well CD’s are digital too.

    Is your objection to the play back mechanism through the ear buds or the mp3 format or something else?

    BTW- love the Creative Xen line.

  6. Bless you for caring about sound quality. I largely blame the electronics manufacturers for cutting corners on it and making the retail experience ridiculously bad in featuring good audio from bad. Home theater in a box… riigghht.

  7. Roger, why don’t you help us fix that – Hanson’s last three studio albums are among the best ever recorded, and both 2003’s Underneath and 2006’s The Walk are masterpieces. Their live tours sell out consistantly. But lets’ settle this – Roger, take a moment and pick up a copy of their new CD “Shout It Out” (which, as for your claim of not selling CDs or downloads anymore, opened its first week at #2 on Billboard’s Album Chart), then sit back and watch the hilarious “Blues Brothers” tribute video for “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin'”(which has over 1 MILLION hits on MySpace), and then decide – I’ll bet when you’re done, you’ll find that they’re better than 90% of the other acts out there and will more likely to start praising their work…and instead of (incorrectly) insisting that they don’t sell CD’s or Downloads anymore, you can jump on the bandwagon and get behind the band! And check out the band’s site at hanson.net, and look at the rest of your press brethren – they get it, and eventually, you will too…heh heh heh…

  8. Actually Tara I’m paid nothing to endorse anything. I am frustrated that people are not listening to music on great systems–that aren’t expensive–instead of losing their hearing on small devices.
    As for Hanson, I know you love them. But they don’t sell CDs or downloads anymore. Their audience is loyal, but quite small.

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