Wednesday, January 03, 2007

High Fidelity?

This was posted a few months ago, but I'm finally getting around to writing my take on it. Here's the gist: with the iPod and various other MP3 players becoming more of the standard with listening to recorded music, is audio fidelity not a priority anymore? "Back in the day, high fidelity was a big deal, a significant aspect of the listening experience; any serious music fan was, to some extent, an audiophile," Michael wrote. "That's all gone by the boards. Now, music fans walk around with those awful standard iPod headphones – they don't care a jot about frequency response or stereo imaging, they only care about the convenience, portability and perhaps prestige of the player."

So that makes me ask: how come we live in a culture that prefers the pristine sight and sound of HDTV and DVD, but doesn't seem to care about audio fidelity of music? Are we just really accepting that computer-based stuff (ie, MP3s, YouTube videos) aren't up to snuff, but we prefer them because they're easy to handle?

Not to be snobbish about it, but audio fidelity makes a lot of difference to me. Case in point, over the holidays, I finally got the chance to hear Mastodon's Blood Mountain. The deal was, it was on an iPod through a home stereo via MP3s ripped at less than 128 kbps. The constant fluttering of the sound distracted me from the actual songs. Trying to feel the heaviness of the guitar riffs, the pulsing of the drums and the brutal-to-clear vocal melodies just wasn't happening. When I heard the album on CD last night in my car's stereo, everything was in focus. Even though the CD was a CD-R made up of MP3s ripped at 192 kbps, that made all the difference. The sound was full and in my face. Now I'm understanding the greatness of Blood Mountain.

These days, I listen to my iTunes library more when I'm at home. I'm very well aware that listening to music on my computer is no match for listening to my car's single-disc player or my den's multi-disc changer. Since I'm at my computer most of the day, it's convenient to not get up and change a CD out of my boombox. Since my moods are always changing, I like the accessibility of clicking from the Style Council to Against Me! to Killswitch Engage with ease. It's hard to argue with selection between a CD with twelve tracks and a hard drive with thousands of songs.

When I go on walks, it's important that my iPod is not blasting in my ears. I have to hear cars coming by, police/fire vehicles coming by, etc. Plus, I don't want to pull my headphones out and have my ears ringing. So it's important for me to have the iPod at a contained volume level. This sure beats having a portable CD player on me. Nothing worse than a CD skipping because I took a step up onto a sidewalk.

But if I want to really get into an album, I put it on in my den if I'm at home or in my car if I'm travelling. This way I can hear almost everything in the mix, especially the bass guitar. These are the the best ways of really judging an album before I pass judgment. That's just where I come from.

Still, seeing how advanced home theater set-ups have morphed in the last twelve years, it's strange to see how condensed music listening has become. Picture quality and surround sound are big deals. Movies and TV shows are now viewable on iPods, but they have yet to become commonplace viewing. I doubt they ever will. I might be comparing apples with tomatoes here, but think about it. CDs are still the best ways to listen to music. Then again, there are still plenty of people that prefer vinyl over everything.


Mr Atrocity said...

I can't agree more. I've had an iPod for years now and I do love its convenience and reasonable sound quality. It is however no way to get the best from a piece of music.

Decent hi-fi equipment will make any audio experience richer and deepen the emotional effect of the piece. you are taken further into it, there is greater subtlety and nuance. A well engineered recording played on good quality equipment is an astonishing experience and no amount of convenience or portability makes that worth giving up.

pimplomat said...

I believe most people, including myself, can't tell the difference between a song ripped at 128 versus 192. I know you've played examples for me in the past, but I just don't hear the difference.

HDTVs are doing well because manufacturers have made a concentrated effort to show people the differences between HD and regular TV. If audio makers made that kind of effort, then more people would want better audio devices.

Eric said...

I have zero MP3's that I've ripped from CD's at less than 192. Mostly rip everythign at 200kbps VBR. But when you burn those to a CD and then can feel the bass shake from your home system instead of earbuds? Good stuff.

Matthew said...

I always rip mp3s at 192 kbps or higher and can definitely tell the difference between that and lower-quality bitrate files. However, I need a quality set of iPod headphones (I use Shure E3Cs for mine) and speakers (Cambridge SoundWorks MicroWorks) if I'm listening at home to discern that. Thus, I think it's possible to balance sound quality with the convenience of an iPod if you care enough about it to bother. Furthermore, if I download an album at 192 and put it on disc, I can't tell the difference between it and an official release when I play it on my home stereo.

With that said, I still prefer listening to music on my home stereo (either on CD or vinyl) as opposed to anything else and that includes listening in the car.

Oh and I loved the Fugazi Idiot's Guide on Jefito (I wrote the Graham Parker one from a few months back). I've been a fan since I was a 16 year old hardcore kid and they put out Steady Diet of Nothing, though I kind of gave up on them after Red Medicine (though I did buy The Argument, which I liked).

I think you captured the essence of the band well, though you seemed to concentrate more on the music and less on the philosophies and lyrics behind them. I think you've inspired me to listen to some of their stuff tonight.

Eric Grubbs said...

Very nice Matthew! Glad my guide could be of some inspiration for you!