Issue 239 January 2014
Dodging A Bullet
Editorial By Robert Harley
As our previous
issue detailed, we're on the threshold of unprecedented access to a large
catalog of music in high resolution, along with better and cheaper hardware on
which to play back those high-res files. Acquiring and playing high-res will
be simple, affordable, and ubiquitous. And it's not just digital throwing the
party; there's never been so much great new vinyl. This is a fabulous time for
fans of recorded music.
It's easy to take for granted this fortunate state of
affairs. But it didn't have to turn out that listening to high-quality sources
in stereo, and without an accompanying picture, became today's dominant
paradigm. In fact, we could easily be living in a very different world.
Let's consider where the industry and mass-market
sensibility were headed fifteen years ago. In the final decade of the 20th
century, audio was being subsumed by home theater. For the average consumer,
enjoying music meant listening through a dual-purpose, but decidedly
theater-oriented, system. With the consumer's budget spread out over five or
seven channels, quality was sacrificed for quantity. Satellite speakers, along
with subwoofers designed for reproducing the sound of a T Rex's footfalls
rather than doublebass pizzicatos, were the new standard. Marketing campaigns
convinced consumers that stereo was passé in the age of 5.1-channel and
7.1-channel reproduction. The electronics giants, chip-makers, and
surround-sound creators conspired to produce a series of short-lived surround
formats simply to churn out new product, exhibiting a shamelessness that even
General Motors' Alfred P. Sloan — the father of planned obsolescence —
couldn't imagine. Young listeners were indoctrinated in the idea that music
should be accompanied by video. Dolby Digital, with its bit-rate one-tenth
that of CD, was proposed, with straight face, as a serious music format simply
because it was already the surround standard for video. The sonically dreadful
HDMI interface was poised to obsolete all other digital-audio connections. We
had the technology to deliver higher-quality audio in SACD and DVD-Audio, but
a format war relegated SACD to a niche format and DVD-Audio to the dustbin.
Even with as much potential as DVD-Audio offered, it was inextricably linked
to video and theater — it required connection to a video display for disc
navigation, for example. Storage was expensive, driving consumers to
low-bit-rate coding schemes. The term "CD-quality" was applied to MP3s without
irony. PCM at 44.1kHz/16-bit was considered the gold standard, the reference
to which all other formats aspired. DAC technology was relatively primitive
and expensive. The LP was all but dead.
And then a miracle happened in the form of the iPod in 2001.
Although many audiophiles love to hate the iPod for putting convenience ahead
of quality, this revolutionary device undoubtedly derailed the trend toward
multichannel audio — sound accompanied by video, the constant churn of
rapidly obsolete surround-sound formats, the consumer disillusionment these
things engendered, and the idea that an audio system was a subset of home
theater. The iPod and iTunes paved the way for computer-based music in
general, and with it, a return to the stereo listening experience. Moreover,
the iPod made music listening simple again by eliminating the absurd tangle of
cables behind a theater system, the never-ending parade of soon-to-be-obsolete
surround formats and its alphabet soup of acronyms, and the consumer
electronics industry's greatest shame, the multiple remote controls with their
dozens of confusing buttons, each controlling its own "dumb" component. If my
experience with neighbors and acquaintances is any indication, music played
back through home-theater systems was usually despoiled with some default
surround-sound processing engaged, along with an added layer of "enhancement"
such as "Concert Hall" or "Rock Club." Turning off such processing was
understandably too challenging for the average consumer.
Yes, the iPod perpetuated the sonic compromises of
low-bit-rate coding. But Apple's device, and file-based music in general,
changed the paradigm of a generation by putting front and center the core
values of music listening. By doing so, the iPod indirectly opened the door to
the LP's glorious renaissance. Do you think that so many young people would
have gravitated toward the LP without the iPod to show them the value of
two-channel music unencumbered by home theater? Without the iPod's
introduction in 2001, we could all be lamenting the fact that the record
companies' highest-quality releases are reprocessed multichannel audio carried
on a video-based format, and transmitted over encrypted HDMI.
I'd say we dodged a bullet.
Click here to subscribe
to The Abso!ute Sound.