Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Audio train spotters

Me as a student being very careful with a vinyl record
(this was just before I bought my decent deck & amplifier)
When I was a student I took my music reproduction seriously. While I couldn't afford top of the range equipment, I did eventually save up money from my holiday job to buy a nice record deck, and treated my vinyl collection like they were made of, well, vinyl. (You had to if you didn't want clicks, pops and bangs as you played them - remember that, folks.)

When CDs came along I heaved a sigh of relief. No more dust removal and clicks and pops. No more delicate handling. Clean, digital sound wherever and whenever I wanted.

Now I'm somewhat older and probably wiser I really don't give a monkey's about the quality of my sound system. When I was student I used to sit down and listen to music in a chair carefully positioned to get the best stereo placement. Now, to be honest, I don't sit and listen to music as a sole activity anymore. Ever. I have it on while I'm doing something like driving or boring admin or tidying up (I can't write with music on, it's too distracting), and as long as there's reasonable tone and volume I'm not particularly fussed about the perfection of reproduction quality. Frankly, I probably wouldn't notice if I had left and right channels reversed.

So I was a bit saddened to see in the excellent Observer last Sunday, in the same section as my piece on lightning, an article about some called Pete Hutchison who is bringing out new vinyl records that cost around £300 each. Hutchison is quoted as saying that digital music 'is the great con. They said that CDs were indestructible, but they weren't. They said it would sound better, but with the MP3 we are at probably the lowest point in the history of sound. It's a compressed file. If you try to play an orchestra over a proper sound system on MP3, it's just garbage.'

Now the first bit is just silly. The music industry did perhaps over-stress the robustness of CDs, for example showing how they could still be played after they got jam smeared on them. But you have to put this in the context that up to then we had lived with these nightmare vinyl discs that warped at the first sign on the sun, and that you only had to look at and they were coated in enough dust to make them sound like a bowl of Rice Crispies.

It is certainly arguable whether CDs or vinyl sounds better - and MP3s definitely are worse quality, because they are a compressed format. But again, a CD always sounds better than a vinyl record with lots of clicks and pops - which is pretty well every vinyl record, unless you dedicate all your spare time to keeping them pristine. And while it's true that in the early days, when storage was at a premium, people over-compressed MP3s and got fuzzy audio, at the kind of sample rate used these days, you have to be a real anorak of an audiophile to notice the difference.

Since most of us spend most of our time listening to music in the car or through earphones as we walk, or blaring out from a different room as we do the washing up, rather than in a dedicated music room with a perfectly positioned listening chair, let's face it, an MP3 usually works a lot better. Try playing vinyl in your car or on a record deck in a backpack and see where it gets you. And that's just the start of the convenience of MP3s in terms of being able to manage a huge library to great effect in a way that just wasn't possible with LPs. Instead of playing through a single LP at Christmas, for instance, I can pull up and randomize a playlist of 200 carols. Let's see you do that, Pete.

I much prefer to listen to my MP3s routed through my stereo amplifier and my Monitor Audio speakers. It is a vastly better sound than through earbuds or the computer's built in speakers. But taking that extra step of plugging a record deck in to get the final 3% improvement has very limited extra value for all normal listening. I'm sorry, Pete, but you are wrong - an orchestra sounds just fine from decent MP3s through a good system.

Don't get me wrong, as long as people want to buy Pete's products they are welcome to. It's not for me to say they can't, just that they are silly. The tiny minority who will are the trainspotters of audio, in the sense that they pursue something that has no value simply for the sake of the pursuit. They are people who are fanatically interested in the technology and the way it reproduces exact tonal qualities, rather than people who just enjoy listening to the music. One is tempted to say 'Get a life.' But it's probably too late for most of them.

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