Destroying the Perfect


On the Building New Law podcast, Seth Godin had this to say:

We always destroy the perfect before we enable the impossible. For example, sonically CDs are not as good as vinyl, and MP3s are not as good as CDs. But this degradation is necessary to get to the technological point of ‘every song in your pocket,’ and audio quality will someday catch up.

And we’ve seen it before. The eight-track tape: sounded like crap but you could play it in your car. Then came the cassette, also crappy but you could go for a run with a Walkman at your hip. Compact discs eventually improved the quality and kept the mobility. But there’s another level of convenience that no one anticipated, which is the convenience of library and access. This facet was the promise of “every song in your pocket,” and that means it was a step back to move forward, courtesy of relatively lo-fi MP3s.

Are we now at the technological point of ‘catch up’ Godin mentions? For many of us, the bandwidth is now there, and bandwidth has been the primary constraint. Is it time to seriously upgrade our stereo systems for streaming? From BBC News:

Qobuz, along with rivals Tidal and Deezer Elite, offers streaming of “lossless audio” that throws nothing away.

“Is MP3 as interesting as it was ten years ago? Not really, because bandwidth has improved,” says Malcolm Ouzeri, head of marketing at French streaming and download provider Qobuz, founded in 2007. “Now the industry is going towards more quality.”

The highest quality MP3 has a bit-rate of 320kbps, while a hi-res file can go as high as 9,216kbps. Music CDs are transferred at 1,411kbps.

There is also talk of Spotify launching a lossless audio option. Some users report seeing this option in limited test cases. And then there’s the adoption of the LUFS standard by Spotify and other streamers, showing a renewed attention to sound quality. But many of these services make hi-res an add-on option. The rumor is that Spotify’s hi-res audio will be available as part of a more expensive monthly plan, as Tidal currently offers. A Qobuz ‘highest quality’ subscription is presently £349.99 a year.

I’m not sure if hi-res audio will make an impact as long as it’s seen as an add-on for those with extra change to spare. Even the option titles – such as Deezer Elite – make hi-res seem elitist. I don’t know what the additional costs are to the providers, but it will be wonderful to finally enter a world where hi-res audio is a sole and affordable option as bandwidth grows and accelerates. Once we’ve arrived, the only ticket for entry will be our choice of speakers.

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Comments (5)

“For example, sonically CDs are not as good as vinyl”

Horse Hockey. Vinyl is at best a 10-bit medium. CD’s are 16-bit. To have a vinyl system that would compete with CD sound quality you would have to spend many, many thousands of dollars and then use a pristine, unopened copy every single play, as the quality degrades (however slightly) with every single time you drop a needle on it.

Oh, c’mon. Horses can’t play hockey.

Mark Waldrep has an great presentation on true HD Audio (and a lot of the Audio Snake Oil that comes with it) here:

I have also measured software instruments hitting above 30 kHz, so there’s something to it. As an ‘Audio Nerd’ I believe if it’s recordable, let’s record it – but that still doesn’t mean that HD audio is the salvation. For the present it’s just another revenue source bilking the Audiophools out there.

People want convenience and lack of friction. For them compressed formats are fine, and the technologists keep making them better so it’s win-win for the majority.

Perhaps Mr. Godin can find a new career in teaching Equine Puck Chasing.

The only time that a cd might be inferior to an LP is if the LP is a fantastic pressing played on a $3000 Linn LP12 with a $400 Denon moving coil cartridge and properly set up at that. Today’s skinny-pants hipsters buy those gnarly Crosley "turntables" for $70 and screw their records up while making untenable proclamations re. vinyl. They think all digital music sounds like the 96kbps Chumbawumba they downloaded on eMule back when they were 12 so their opinion is meaningless.

Also, I’ll bet the vast majority of schmoes can’t tell the difference between 44.1khz 16 bit and 192khz 24 bit. And if they did, it would be a percentage like .1% noticing.

Get off my lawn.

In Mark Waldrep’s presentation (link in my comment below) he states that he could play his recorded at 24 bit/96kHz files and a CD (16/44.1) of the same material and no one could tell the difference – that’s just how human hearing is limited.

This is the problem with so-called HD Audio – it isn’t.

I do agree with his point that if there’s material (frequencies) beyond our hearing that we can measure (also in his presentation) then why not record it – the technology to do so is affordable, drive space is cheap, and it truly futureproofs audio recording. What it winds up getting encoded to for consumers to enjoy doesn’t really matter – it’s what they want to listen to after all.

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