The death of hi-fi?

A new article suggests that digital music is to blame for the decline of good-quality sound.

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Along with the album and the record store, we can evidently add high-fidelity sound to the list of things devalued by digital music. According to an Associated Press article, the struggles of audio equipment retailers like Tweeter and Circuit City, as well as the continued popularity of sonically sub-par digital file formats (e.g., MP3s), are proof of people’s waning interest in high-quality sound.

An audio expert quoted in the story likens the difference between the sound quality of an iPod and a high-end stereo system to the difference between a “moped” and a “Ferrari.” So why are so many people willing to settle? Because they like convenience and have bad ears, that’s why.

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In more delicate terms, the article points out that the sonic disparity between digital audio files and “better” formats is indistinguishable to all but the sharpest audiophiles. And even if they can detect some difference, most listeners are happy to accept a loss of quality for an increase in storage capacity and portability. A hi-fi stereo might sound great, but an iPod’s a lot easier to use on the stairmaster.

Not to reveal my latent dorkiness, but simmering underneath this article is a question I’ve thought about a lot. What exactly is “good sound” anyway? Frankly, I’m pretty much in the same boat as the guy quoted in the story who said, “I honestly can’t really tell the difference between CD, tape and digital.”

Sure, I notice if a file is damaged, but I’ve never seriously felt that my experience of listening to music was hampered by low-quality sound coming from my iPod. And I know this might come across as heresy, but I don’t even really understand why people go nuts over the sound of vinyl records. I have a record player. I can tell it sounds different. But better? I don’t get it. Isn’t sound a far more subjective thing than audiophiles care to admit? Even the terms used to describe sound — “luster,” “warmth,” “clarity” — could mean 1,000 different things to 1,000 different people.

Am I just an aurally impaired brute, my hearing ruined by exposure to shoddy sound? Or have I simply not been seduced by the world of subwoofers, pre-amps and Teflon-coated speaker cables? Either way, there’s no way I’m shelling out for a $650 vacuum-tube-equipped iPod docking station.

– David Marchese

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