Monday, 19 April 2010

A word about "Sound Quality"

Ever since CD's became a widespread media, there has been an ongoing debate about several tiers of so called 'sound quality'. Words have been thrown around such as 'pristine', 'warm', 'lifeless', 'punchy', 'tight' and many, many more. Then mp3s came out, and more and more of the recording industry became digital. Arguments still carry on about 'Analog vs Digital'.

These days, most of us listen to mp3s, or AACs, or wma's, or some sort of digital format. Apparently the youthful generation 'prefers' the sound of mp3s. So is there really any difference in all of this? How does it affect this thing we call music?

I could go on a diatribe about sample rates, bit depths, waveforms, harmonic distortion and endless other jargon but that'd be really really boring, and there are plenty of other places to find that information.

Instead, I'm looking at the argument from a consumer's perspective and, more importantly, the perspective of someone who just wants to listen to some damn music! That's most of us, right?

You've probably heard of Audiophiles; these are the people who spend thousands and millions on speakers, amps, acoustic treatment, cables and wires. They will spend thousands on a power cable because it could have some tiny beneficial qualities that make the sound coming out of their speakers or headphones just a teensy tiny bit better. They will most definitely have a collection of Vinyl's and possibly reel-to-reel tapes, or FLAC format music at the very least.

These people claim to do it all for the sake of music, but I'm afraid that on the most part, they're really not. I have no qualms with what people choose to spend their money on, but spending $1000+ on a power cable doesn't seem to me to be in the name of music. You could buy a lot of music with that money.

Audiophiles do what they do in the name of this ubiquitous thing called sound quality. They want the music they listen to to be clear, and as close to the original source as possible. Their playback system must have minimal noise, no audible frequency distortion, a balanced frequency response, tight low end and a shimmering high end.

Now, have you ever listened to your favourite music and complained that one or more of those things I just listed was lacking, or not present? Have you ever thought that any of those things got in the way of what you were listening to?

As an amateur producer I'm training my ears to hear these things, so I can hear deficiencies like these if I choose to try and pinpoint them. My point is that not many other people do. I notice more and more that when I'm in someone elses house their playback system has a muddy low end and it sounds small and boxy, I notice these things for sure. But I can still listen to music whilst I'm there and enjoy it.

You see, for me a good song transcends sound quality. I would rather hear a well written and performed song recorded on a dictophone than a pristinely recorded song played back on the best million-dollar speakers which was badly written, contrived and boring. Hell, sometimes I'm relaxing outside and I listen to music from the internal speaker of my iPod, possibly the worst speaker known to man. I don't turn my nose up at its lack of full-range frequency representation.

And I don't think you should either. Mp3s really do sound good these days, it takes a lot of lossy compression to severely impact the quality of songwriting contained within its ones and zeros. Hell, if you need to compress all your music to wma to fit onto your iPod, then go ahead. Whilst I'm always striving for quality within my studio setup (recording and mixing carries a different set of demands to playback, also something you can read about elsewhere) I don't really mind so much when it comes to listening back. Sure, I do love pulling out my expensive headphones once in a while to plug into my vinyl player and enjoy pure, analog goodness, but it doesn't mean I don't enjoy the same song played through a friend's laptop speakers in a noisy room.

Good music is good music, and a great song transcends any medium.

Regardless of quality, keep loving music,

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