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NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

A new article that tells the same old story.

"To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl."

Sigh.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/business...ia/10audio.html

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #1
I guess in the Mobile age, when newspapers are going bankrupt and blogs and websites can sometimes provide more comprehensive coverage of the issues and scandals, the amount and quality of research that goes into a story goes down so the article can be published quickly.

Maybe one day the "experts" will realize the teenager listening to a PMP might just be enjoying their music as much as the guy sitting in his chair in his custom designed room with $20K of gear.

As for all the money that has gone out of big audio, let me quote Gorden Holt, the founder of stereophile.

“Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand. As far as the real world is concerned, high-end audio lost its credibility during the 1980s, when it flatly refused to submit to the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal. [This refusal] is a source of endless derisive amusement among rational people and of perpetual embarrassment for me..”

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #2
R.I.P.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #3
Well, this is the sort of a tragedy that I am not surprised to see Mr. Fremer's name associated with.


[edit]
This is a pretty nice rebuttal:
http://createdigitalmusic.com/2010/05/10/t...rdened-by-fact/
elevatorladylevitateme

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #4
A new article that tells the same old story.

snip

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/business...ia/10audio.html



Well, I'd say the article is not *completely* BS.

Loudness war on CD media has been ruining sound quality, really. For more than decade.

For compressed music, well, HE-AAC for example is quite non-transparent. It's a compromise between acceptable quality over storage/portability. Depending on the purpose, this is ok... I was used to other highly imperfect media as well, like vinyl or compact cassette... Vinyl is even still in "audiophiles" grace, despite its obvious flaws.

Of course, the article attacks lossy compression overall, which is an overstated "problem". For many, 128k MP3 is transparent enough, even difficult to ABX. Then we are drawn to the old fallacy of "hollow", "lifeless" digital sound. "Corrupted" for lossy compressed, as if this would turn your brain into jelly 

I think that for some that accept the pops and crackles, or tape hiss for example, obvious compression artifacts should not be a big of an issue. Audiophiles of 2050 maybe will SEEK and collect for these...

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #5
I think the article is nearly spot on except for the crackle part. You don't need ABX to prove todays music sounds like crap. We need a new format and an industry for home listening - the movie industry has high end and its thriving. It doesn't matter if you can't hear 96/24 from 16/44.
wavpack 4.8 -b3x6c

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #6
Why do we need a new format for home listening?

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #7
I think the article is nearly spot on except for the crackle part.


And the part attributing it to lossy compression.  Which would be most of it.


NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #8
We need a new format and an industry for home listening - the movie industry has high end and its thriving. It doesn't matter if you can't hear 96/24 from 16/44.


The movie industry still had places to go (the jump from PAL/NTSC to 1080p is amazing) so it's easy to convince people to buy new technology. The audio industry has already reached high end in the 70s with the AudioCD format: once you reach transparency, what more can you do? How can you market your product if every real review proves that your new format sounds the same as the old?

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #9
We need a new format and an industry for home listening - the movie industry has high end and its thriving. It doesn't matter if you can't hear 96/24 from 16/44.


The movie industry still had places to go (the jump from PAL/NTSC to 1080p is amazing) so it's easy to convince people to buy new technology. The audio industry has already reached high end in the 70s with the AudioCD format: once you reach transparency, what more can you do? How can you market your product if every real review proves that your new format sounds the same as the old?


This is a very good point.  Where else can you go if the human ear cannot hear a difference the majority of the time between cds and 128kbps mp3 files?  Sure you can go to higher end formats, but when the difference is negligible, if not impossible to notice depending on the listener, the marketer has nothing to stand on.  The article did make one good point--the way in which individuals listen to music as background noise is very much true.  I'm as guilty as the next person that goes for a powerwalk with music in the background.  This is what sells, so again, the marketer's hands are tied if they want to make money.
foobar2000, FLAC, and qAAC -V90
It just works people!

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #10
You don't need ABX to prove todays music sounds like crap.


Why does music today sound like crap?  Do you mean the loudness wars?

While I would like music to have better mastering, I don't know how much of the population cares or would even care if they knew about it.  Even then, I don't think it ruins music as much as some people think it does otherwise people would have left audio en-masse.  I value good mastering as much as the next audio lover, but I still buy "loud" lossy files online and enjoy them quite a lot.

As for the idea that audio has to be mastered loudly so that various tracks have the same volume on a PMP, that's somewhat BS.  Both Itunes volume check and Replaygain can be used to normalize volume across tracks.  The "High End" has stubbornly resisted computer based storage solutions - maybe if they had embraced them things like Replaygain would have been standard and could have address this complaint.

As for the music as a single activity versus background activity, that is (IMHO) made more clear with this quote from the article "For decades, starting around the 1950s, high-end stereos were a status symbol."

Exactly.  Which means that the people who were able to purchase such devices also had the financial and economic means to sit around and listen to music as a singular activity, pay for music, pay for electricity, have the room space for such a system, etc.  Many "average joes" around the world could not afford the activity.

Since the 1950s the cost of listening to music has gone down a lot.  A PMP can be purchased for $20 and you don't have to have a special time or special room for it.  Many people live in circumstances where listening to a dedicated audio system would infringe on the activities being done by other people in the same home.  A PMP may be the only way they get to listen to music and have their own space for it.





NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #11
Why does music today sound like crap?  Do you mean the loudness wars?

I find the vast majority of modern rock/pop releases to be terminally boring. I thought perhaps I was just getting old and the generation gap was kicking in, but maybe it *is* because of the lack of dynamic range.

While I would like music to have better mastering, I don't know how much of the population cares or would even care if they knew about it.  Even then, I don't think it ruins music as much as some people think it does ...

Bad mastering most certainly *does* harm music, when it's played on a decent system. Example: my wife likes Coldplay. She bought their album X&Y, and on her iPod it sounds OK. But when played on our big system at home, it sounds absolutely dire. Even my wife agrees that it's just plain awful. Expose modern mastering to a revealing playback and its faults are laid bare.

As for the idea that audio has to be mastered loudly so that various tracks have the same volume on a PMP, that's somewhat BS.  Both Itunes volume check and Replaygain can be used to normalize volume across tracks.

It isn't the variation in average levels that makes portable listening difficult, but the fact that you're typically in a noisy environment. You *need* a restricted dynamic range in these circumstances, otherwise in order to hear the quiet sections you'd have to turn up the volume so high that when the loud bits come in you'll be deafened. That requirement isn't addressed by Replaygain and the like - you need to dynamically compress the material.

The tragedy is that in order to achieve this, the material itself gets butchered during mastering, whereas the obviously correct solution is for the playback device itself to have a compressor that the user can switch in (but only when it's needed).

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #12
Bad mastering most certainly *does* harm music, when it's played on a decent system. Example: my wife likes Coldplay. She bought their album X&Y, and on her iPod it sounds OK. But when played on our big system at home, it sounds absolutely dire. Even my wife agrees that it's just plain awful. Expose modern mastering to a revealing playback and its faults are laid bare.


But that exposes another aspect.  A lot of music we can enjoy as we conduct other activities can sound terrible when we just listen to it and do nothing else.  I take the example of a car radio.  Many people (me included) enjoy the radio as we drive around.  Yet, the same songs we enjoyed in the car are not enjoyable when we get home and listen on any stereo, let alone a revealing one.

Coldplay is, for me, and example of this.  I enjoy it during other activities.  But I can never just listen to it.

Quote
The tragedy is that in order to achieve this, the material itself gets butchered during mastering, whereas the obviously correct solution is for the playback device itself to have a compressor that the user can switch in (but only when it's needed).


Right.  I agree with you on this.  But if the "High End" had led the world into portable music instead of fighting it (and they still fight it!) maybe things like a dynamic compressor, replaygain, and so on would have been more common.  Such technologies could have been implemented in "High End" players and would have probably trickled down into the cheaper stuff.  All we got from the "High End" was lot of whining about portable audio and a half-cooked definition of "High Fidelity" and who listens to it.

On a different note, I do agree that bad mastering can kill music.  But the quantity of music being produced (and the money to be made with music) is much greater than before, and the sheer quantity of bad music is simply going to increase.

There was plenty of rubbish in the 80s and early 90s, when mastering was not as compressed.  This classic (video from youtube) is something I loved when it came out, but I now use it to remind myself that maybe pop music wasn't magical back then.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #13
Since the 1950s the cost of listening to music has gone down a lot.  A PMP can be purchased for $20 and you don't have to have a special time or special room for it.  Many people live in circumstances where listening to a dedicated audio system would infringe on the activities being done by other people in the same home.  A PMP may be the only way they get to listen to music and have their own space for it.



I'd go even as far as there are some technological 'advances' that brought something very new to the activity of 'listening to music'. Personalized playlists (albeit marketing/reviewer/marketing&reviewer bonds have reached a whole new level), being able to buy single tracks (compared to full album CDs) and the PMP/personal headphone combination shaped a very new way of listening to music.


NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #14
The audio industry has already reached high end in the 70s with the AudioCD format: once you reach transparency, what more can you do? How can you market your product if every real review proves that your new format sounds the same as the old?

That's a bold claim. The CD didn't show up until the early 1980's and most people now would not consider those early releases or players to be transparent. Since then we've commercialized delta-sigma modulators, integrated analog electronics and digital signal processing. As far as transparency is concerned, do you think we are really done?

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #15
...the PMP/personal headphone combination shaped a very new way of listening to music.


Which brings in another point.  Many "High End" people spend incredible amounts of money on speakers and associated audio eqiupment yet don't don't bother to address the basic problems of room design, sound damping, etc.  Even if you do, moving around in the room (even just reclining in a chair) can change the sound quite dramatically.

Nowadays even inexpensive PMPs measure well and you can purchase a neutral headphone which allows you to bypass the various headaches of using speakers in a room.  One can lie down, stand up, or do whatever they want and still get a "High Fidelity" experience.

I can fit "High Fidelity" in my hand and even take it with me when I go out of town.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #16
The audio industry has already reached high end in the 70s with the AudioCD format: once you reach transparency, what more can you do? How can you market your product if every real review proves that your new format sounds the same as the old?

That's a bold claim. The CD didn't show up until the early 1980's and most people now would not consider those early releases or players to be transparent. Since then we've commercialized delta-sigma modulators, integrated analog electronics and digital signal processing. As far as transparency is concerned, do you think we are really done?


I don't mean the mastering (which was bad in the early days of course) but the medium. I have yet to read about a blind test where 24bit/96kHz was successfully ABXed against 16bit/44.1kHz. For me the next logical step is to seek the limits how low we can go without sacrificing transparency. Better electronics and signal processors are always welcome but the AudioCD medium leaves little to be desired.

EDIT: Sorry for mentioning the 70s, you are right of course since Red Book Audio CDs were not available until the 80s.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #17
Coldplay is, for me, and example of this.  I enjoy it during other activities.  But I can never just listen to it.

Yes, I agree that there is some "music" around that can be tolerated in the background but not actively listened to. Like you, I find Coldplay to be in this category.

But that's not the point I was trying to make. The mastering on X&Y is just plain bad. Even if it were music I liked, it would still be painful to listen to on a decent system. In fact, it would be even *more* painful, because the tragedy of what had been done would be all the greater if it were actually worthwhile music.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #18
@cliveb - Yes, you are right.

I think point I failed to communicate is that is seems the loudness wars have become yet another of the many complaints made by people who want to claim that audio quality going down from its heyday in the 50s (or whenever).

Dynamic range compression can spoil music and make certain music unlistenable on a system that reproduces the FR well.  But music can still be compressed (albeit to a lesser degree than average RMS volume of -6dbfs) and can sound good on a nice home system and during an evening walk.  Music doesn't need an average volume of -35dbfs with 25db swings to sound acceptable or enjoyable.

I was recently talking to somebody who prefers vinyl.  His reason for doing so is "dynamic range" and how CDs are all "compressed."  So I gave him a CD that is known for having a great recording, plenty of dynamic range, etc.  He listened to it for a while then gave it back and said "It's better than some other stuff but CDs don't have the dynamic range of vinyl."

The point is, moaning about dynamic range has (partly) become yet another way for purists, the "High End" or whomever else to complain about the end of the world.  Sometimes it's not really about dynamic range, but just about being cranky and complaining about the downfall of "High End" audio and "High Fidelity."

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #19
I don't mean the mastering (which was bad in the early days of course) but the medium.

Bad sound in early CDs is often attributed to the ADCs and DACs. This was prior to oversampling and prior to sigma-delta converters. Some pretty ragged performance (low resolution with many annoying artifacts) compared to today's converters.

There may have been problems with mastering too. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that digital tools for mastering has not yet been fully developed and labels we're loath to do analog mastering and lose their DDD designation.

Looking back, it might be fair to say that there was a period where best analog equipment had better performance than the best digital equipment.

We're past that now. There have been significant improvement in digital recording and production since the 1980's. There have also been a lot of setbacks. The original 128kb MP3 clearly sounds worse than a CD. Satellite radio sounds bad. Some internet radio stations are unlistenable. The first digital cell phones were nasty.

In the light of this track record, I don't think it is credible to say that all audio has been awesome since release of the CD format. If you have nostalgia and a selective memory (with which most of us are well-endowed), it might even be defensible to do a bit of whining about how modern audio is no match for what we heard in the audiophile heyday - and publish it in the Times


NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #20
There may have been problems with mastering too. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that digital tools for mastering has not yet been fully developed and labels we're loath to do analog mastering and lose their DDD designation.

I read that many DDD titles were edited and mastered with digital equipment linked together through analog interfaces.  Is this true?
Is 24-bit/192kHz good enough for your lo-fi vinyl, or do you need 32/384?

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #21
Why does music today sound like crap?  Do you mean the loudness wars?

I find the vast majority of modern rock/pop releases to be terminally boring. I thought perhaps I was just getting old and the generation gap was kicking in, but maybe it *is* because of the lack of dynamic range.


Sorry, I must be pedantic about this.  Do any of us really get to hear the majority of modern rock/pop releases?  That would be quite a time-consuming feat.

I think you mean, the majority of pop/rock releases *that you hear*, are boring etc.  That, of course, is liikely a small sample of what's out there.

(But it was ever thus, in my memory:  most stuff I hear was mediocre or uninvolving.  Yet I am still sometimes struck by a tune I hear in a bar, or at someone's place, or even over a store's PA, and seek it out.  Sometimes it's even something 'new'.  The main difference is that those tunes I haer are rarely being broadcast, they're coming off someone's iPod)

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #22
I don't mean the mastering (which was bad in the early days of course) but the medium.

Bad sound in early CDs is often attributed to the ADCs and DACs. This was prior to oversampling and prior to sigma-delta converters. Some pretty ragged performance (low resolution with many annoying artifacts) compared to today's converters.


I've certainly read anecdotes to that effect, but I'm not aware of any formal tests of this proposition that early/mid 80s ADC/DACs sound routinely different from later generations.  Are you?  This strikes me as one of those audiophile and manufacturer  claims that should have been easy to nail down with test data, but no one ever bothered to do it. 


Quote
There may have been problems with mastering too. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that digital tools for mastering has not yet been fully developed and labels we're loath to do analog mastering and lose their DDD designation.


And that mastering engineers were used to analog sounds and methods, and had a learning curve.


Quote
Looking back, it might be fair to say that there was a period where best analog equipment had better performance than the best digital equipment.


When? And how long did it last?


Quote
In the light of this track record, I don't think it is credible to say that all audio has been awesome since release of the CD format.


I don't think anyone HAS said that.  There are always ways to screw up even with good technology.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #23
I don't have a citation but really all you have to do is look at the spec sheets for ADC and DAC components from 1980 onwards. Published specs continue to improve though at this point they may be beyond the performance of our ears.

It is my impression that the crossover happed in the early to mid 1990's. Prior to that there was still a lot of production being done on analog equipment. Part of this was because engineers and listeners were accustom to the sound of analog equipment but I think that counts. If you just want to talk about THD and SN specs, the window probably had closed on that somewhere in the mid-1980's.

Look at post 9 by me7. I think he's saying that all was treansparant when the CD was released.

NY Times article: In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

Reply #24
I think point I failed to communicate is that is seems the loudness wars have become yet another of the many complaints made by people who want to claim that audio quality going down from its heyday in the 50s (or whenever).


I could not agree more. There are tons of fine releases each year. And there have not been better times for informed buying decisions. In the past one was basically limited to magazines, radio DJs, and friends. Nowadays you can connect with similar interested people around the globe. There is also a much larger variety to choose from. For example, if you grew up with Metallica and feel scoffed by 3 bit of dynamic range on their latest release, just let them go. There is so much else to discover. If you want to complain anyway, send them angry fan mail (instead of your money). If your and their kind still belong together, they will listen. If not, you might just have grown apart - as it happens in life.

It might not be the world and all the good things, that is going down, but just the rotten plank you are clutching at. So stop complaining and learn how to swim!

 
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