Will hi-fi be a thing of the past?

April 20, 2007

Digital music in our gadgets, be it Mp3 or other digital format, is different from the digital music we are used to listen to in CDs. The main difference being their size – not in minutes but in information. In CDs you have roughly 70 minutes of music in 750 Mb. With digital formats used today on our players, we get about 9 hours with the same space.

But the price of it is that music information must be compressed. Many formats started cutting out only the sounds beyond human hearing range, but compressed digital files are reducing a lot more today.

And the following question is easy: is digital music really loosing quality? Is the hi-fi sentenced to death?

Ron Harris, writer for the Associated Press, wrote the following article “Digital music portends death of hi-fi” where he focuses just that.

Read, relate and tell us: is digital music condemning hi-fi? Do you think it’s a fair price for what we get in return?


Digital music portends death of hi-fi

By RON HARRIS, Associated Press Writer

Music lovers remember a familiar advertising image from the past: a man reclined in a chair, head back, blown away by music from his high-fidelity sound system.

With their ability to store vast libraries of music in your pocket, sleek digital music players have replaced bulky home stereo systems as the music gear of choice. But the sound quality of the digital audio files they play is noticeably inferior to that of compact discs and even vinyl.

“In many ways, good enough (sound quality) is fine,” said Paul Connolly, an art installation specialist and longtime audiophile from Sugar Land, Texas, who‘s now in the process of digitizing his 2,400 CD collection in Apple‘s lossless digital audio format.

Justin Schoenmoser, of San Francisco, also traded in his rack system for an iPod. Currently working abroad and toting along his iPod, the convenience of carrying thousands of songs in a gadget smaller than a pack of cigarettes outweighs the sacrifice of quality.

A song ripped from a CD at 128 kilobits per second — the default setting for most software — retains only a fraction of the audio data contained on the originally mastered disc. Whether you downloaded the track from iTunes or copped it off LimeWire, the song remains the same. The small digital music file is a highly compressed shadow of the originally mastered recording.

Some experts say the sound quality lost in the process is undetectable to most untrained ears. But Michael Silver can hear the difference.

“It doesn‘t compare,” Silver said of the sound quality offered by today‘s portable digital music players and their compressed audio files.

That difference in sound quality, perceptible or not, hasn‘t saved some of the bigger traditional stereo and music sellers.

And Circuit City, the nation‘s No. 2 electronics retailer, is laying off 3,400 of its most experienced clerks.

“Everybody has a certain amount of money to spend. It‘s not that they‘re choosing not to spend it on the old-style audio. It‘s that something new came along,” said James McQuivey, principle analyst for media technology at Forrester Research Inc.

“The MP3 player integrated the collection of the music with the playback of the music,” he said. “Now all of it‘s seamlessley hidden away on a hard drive somewhere.”

With the networked household ready to fill the void left by the demise of rack stereo systems, McQuivey sees a steady stream of new devices on the horizon that will erase any lingering drawbacks to going all-MP3.

Santa Barbara-based Sonos, Inc., for example, sells a system that allows you to use a handheld device to navigate streamed music from your PC to an existing amp and speaker or home theater setup, sort of a hybrid between the old guard and the new.

“A CD is not relevant to me anymore,” said John MacFarlane, founder and chief executive of Sonos. “The iPod and that type of portable music player has even accelerated that trend.”

Even when consumers do buy CDs these days, “the first thing you do is rip your CDs and put them on your iPods,” MacFarlane said.

MacFarlane isn‘t even convinced that casual listeners can hear the difference between CD-quality sounds and the dumbed-down MP3 files, which he calls “good quality, not perfect.”

“When Philips and Sony first made the CD, they didn‘t cut any corners because they were careful to preserve everything that was there, even if you couldn‘t hear it,” MacFarlane said. “That 128 is pretty darn good. A lot of Ph.D.s went in to making that 128 kbps work well and sound well.

Schoenmoser, the globetrotting Californian, agrees.

“I honestly can‘t really tell the difference between CD, tape and digital,” he said. “I‘d even accept a lower quality as long as it‘s digital and portable.”


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