Rolling Stone: The Death of High Fidelity

by Volker Weber

"With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse," says Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. "God is in the details. But there are no details anymore."

People have always neglected speakers. Or headphones.

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When is the fidelity "high" enough? People really enjoyed and were thrilled to listen to the scratchy, hollow, needle & spindle recordings on "gramophones" and the like in their day.

For me, there's a threshold below which I don't enjoy the music. There's also a threshold above which the differences are lost to me. I'm not terribly musical however.

I have noticed that friends who are the most musically gifted seem to be much more tolerant of "low" sound quality. It always seemed to me that without thinking about it they were able to fill in the details in their own heads as they listened, ignoring the imperfections. It is as if as long as the clarity is such that the note, pitch, tone, timbre, and whatever else goes into such things were apparent that their own knowledge and feel for sound polished it up for them as they listened.

Andrew Pollack, 2008-01-06 19:38

You beat me to it - again - but I may blog this issue myself later. As a reformed audiophile, I have a strong opinion on the matter. I'll just mention that Donald Fagen is a personal hero of mine and leave it at that for now. That "God is in the details" was going to be my quote of the day...

Ah well. Carpe diem and all that.

Chris Linfoot, 2008-01-06 19:51

I am still constantly amazed at the production quality of albums like Aja: many of these records are nearly as old as me, and they shine (whereas I, sadly do not :-D )

Ben Poole, 2008-01-06 20:41

Of course there's some truth to what they're saying, but methinks it is overstated to a great extent.

A lot of people have trashed the latest Bruce Springsteen album, Magic, because of the compression. It's still, IMHO, the best thing he's done since Darkness on The Edge of Town, and the best new album of 2007. Yes, it's very compressed, and maybe increasing the dynamic range would make it better, but there is still a tremendous amount of detail in the music. And if it weren't compressed, I'd probably have to be fiddling with the volume on the iPod too often. Given that most of my listening is while multi-tasking, I think the compression makes the experience better, not worse.

I liken some of this to the reaction to Bob Dylan going electric. People complained it was "too loud" and therefore it lost the subtlety and emotion of folk music. Big deal. It didn't lose the subtlety and emotion, and it added a whole new vocabulary to music as we know it. But it pissed off people with a prejudiced idea of what music should sound like.

Pet Sounds was a great record, and it pre-dates the over-compression of source material by decades; but almost everybody listened to the songs primarily on AM radio, and via abysmally poor speakers. And that's not to mention the poor turntables, terrible phone cartridges, and oh yeah... those 8-track players. And with Steely Dan, it was primarily FM radio that most people listened to, and FM has always been compressed to get the most out of the signal; and most people who bought the album still had only marginally better audio equipment. But everybody recognized Pet Sounds' greatness, and the quality of Steely Dan, even if they didn't hear god in the details.

I'm also reformed audiophile, although I was always an audiophile on a budget. I used to always have the best speakers I could afford and comfortably fit in my living space, an excellent (but not obscenely expensive) phone cartridge, and components chosen for their audio specs more than their features. That changed with two things: CDs came out, and I got married and had kids. It changed even more when I got my first car CD player. I found that clean source material plus a "good enough" audio chain was all I needed. Anything else was overkill. Yes, listening through excellent speakers is still a pleasure, but only when I'm not multi-tasking and I'm in a totally quiet listening room; and with life getting in the way, and kids making noise, when do I ever get that?

Richard Schwartz, 2008-01-06 21:09

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