The quality of digital audio

I often remark on the poor quality of digital audio; it drives me nuts.  Having been in the live music world and the digital world, I have always had a hard time with poor audio quality.  There is something profound that happens with sitting inside, or directly in front of an orchestra, or any large, non-amplified band (rock bands are fine, but when you sit 5 feet from 90 musicians playing Beethoven, there is a big difference). The hush of bows on strings, the click of clarinet keys, the slight breath before a horn blast – the acoustic vibration of the intervals as they pulse around you the lushness of a fully balanced and blended sounds that engulfs you; the sense of people making the music – of sharing in that. Incredible – trans-formative – and completely engaged.  Unfortunately recorded music can’t beat it. Maybe one day, I don’t know – but not right now. And digital music and compression of digital music just further reduces the musical experience.  

Wired has a great interview with the founder of Bose, Amar Bose about the quality of recorded audio and the state of digital audio reproduction.  Here is the comment I like best:

 I bought a violin record to play […] and said, “Oh my gosh, that is nothing like the way real music sounds.”

’nuff said. If don’t agree, then you’ve never actually been around live music or actually listened to it. 

But here is the comment I find most meaningful for online distribution of digital music:

Sadly, there’s a heck of a lot of emphasis on people developing gadgets to get to market quickly, which have incredible troubles interconnecting to other gadgets. You are in the stage that hi-fi audio was in the 1950s, with so many systems that the consumer is confounded by the complexity and doesn’t care to know. They care to use the thing, not to know how in the heck to connect it to this and that. However, I do believe that will pass, as it did with hi-fi.

And what he means in terms of audio quality is that it suffers – greatly – in the name of time to market.  Note I did not say commerce. I actually believe (contrary to what many people believe) that consumers want higher quality products. They want products cheap, but they will always prefer higher quality over lower quality. And this goes for audio as well. If a consumer can get better audio at the same price/cost, they will always choose the better quality. But in the race to time to market (and honestly, we’re not that different) we skip over audio quality.

So, I think that while we’re not near to recreating the live experience, we can at least offer consumers better quality at the same price. There is an additional cost – longer download times, but we’re talking about a couple minutes. We’re banking that users will wait – so we’re offering files in 320kbps MP3 format.  Not great, but far better than 128 or even 256.

Posted on October 1, 2007 in Technology

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