The Rise and Fall of High-Fidelity Music

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when high fidelity was important to music listeners.  I first heard music on a 1955 Pontiac radio – AM mono in all its finest.  Later on I got a tiny 5 transitory radio with a single ear-bud.  The sound was terrible but I didn’t know it.  In 1962 I got a clock AM radio that I listened to for years.  That same year my sister got a portable stereo that I eventually stole.  In 1968 I bought a console stereo with my own money.  In 1971 I bought my first component stereo, and it’s been a series of component setups ever since.  Life was always about stepping up sonically.  Strangely enough, living in the 21st century means stepping down in high fidelity.

Currently I can listen to music on these systems in descending high fidelity:

  • Playing CDs and SACDs on a modest $1400 system with floor standing Infinity speakers
  • Playing CDs in the car
  • Playing CDs on my computer through Klipsch THX speakers
  • Playing ripped CDs on the stereo or PC
  • Playing Rhapsody downloads on the stereo or PC
  • Playing Rhapsody streams on the stereo or PC
  • Playing MP3s on my iPods or Zune portable player through ear buds

I have over a thousand CDs but I seldom play them anymore.  I have ripped 18,000+ songs to 256kbs MP3 files.  I have access to ten million songs through Rhapsody that I can save as 160kbs WMA files or stream live.  Right now I’m listening to the new Neil Young album Le Noise playing loud through my PC’s Klipsch speakers, the most common way I listen to music daily.  It sounds good, but not nearly as good as CDs on my living room stereo, and especially not as good as SACDs.

Why didn’t Super Audio CD catch on?  Probably for the same reason quadraphonic systems didn’t catch on back in the 1970s, because people had to buy too much extra equipment.  On the other hand, people are buying surround sound systems for their high definition TVs, and SACD could have easily integrated into such systems.

I can’t believe kids today love iPod quality sound.  Not only has the SACD quality music been rejected in the marketplace, but now people are rejecting CD quality sound in favor of digital download song quality.  A small percentage of music fans are returning to the LP and turntable, but I don’t know if that’s because of sound quality or nostalgia.

I remember when I was much younger going to audiophile stores and listening to very expensive equipment in custom sound rooms and dreaming of having the money to buy such setups.  Those $25,000 systems made recorded music sound as close to live as I’ve ever heard.  But those showrooms also featured a trick.  When the salesman puts you in a chair in the aural sweet spot and cranks up the volume, you aren’t doing anything but concentration on the music.  People seldom listening to music today with the same concentration they put into watching TV or reading a book.  Why?

Back then, in the 1980s, I assumed that one day those $25,000 systems would one day sell for $1,000 or even $500 because of the relentless drive of technological development.  And it would be cool if a $149 iPod Nano did play music like those $25,000 sound room systems, but they don’t.

When people started ripping MP3 music for their computers they decided that their sound quality was good enough.  People marvel at Blu-ray and DVD sound on movie discs, but they no longer want to sit in their recliner and just listen to music.  Music has become the background beat of an on-the-go-life.  People who really love music go to live concerts, and maybe that’s where they expect to hear high fidelity.

The real audiophile fanatics are usually classical and jazz music fans, and fans of those genres seem to be dying off, which might explain the declining interest in high fidelity stereo systems.  But what if some company started marketing a PC soundcard with a simple soundbar that had magnificent dynamic range and filled a bedroom or living with the sensation of being in a small club listening to music live?  Would such a gadget becoming a game changer like the iPod?

Everything is about carrying around tech, iPhones, iPads and iPods – but will we ever return to sit on our butts in the La-Z-Boy tech again?

If we can stream high definition movies over the Internet, why can’t we stream SACD quality sound?  How long will the MP3 file define the sound of music?

JWH – 9/29/10

4 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of High-Fidelity Music”

  1. I’ve been wondering the same thing. Why would I want a music collection of low quality music? If I’m gonna listen to music I want to be able to hear all the details.

    Mostly I’d listen to music in my car. But I’ve been less and less enthused about music lately, probably because my commute is only about five minutes right now.

    And at home I’d just rather read a book or watch tv shows on the computer than listen to music.

  2. There are nearly 7000 SACD available and they are being released continously (sa-cd.net). All audiophiles buy online (elusive disc, acoustic sounds, jpc etc). No stores carry a fraction of CD’s let alond SACD. There are multiple other high resolution propositions available for high bit rate and depth PCM recordings, via DVD-A, Blu ray audio (“Pure Audio”) and digital downloads (HD tracks, Linn and dozens of others) at up to 192/24 resolution. Apart from Super-Audio CD I listen to all my 1500 odd discs, from an NAS->audio PC-DAC-Power amp chain . I suggest you re-rip your collection of CD’s to a lossless format and not use the psychoacostic trickery of MP3. There is no excuse with todays cheap disk storage. Now it is possible to “de-embedd” the audio from SACD from players that send data over HDMI at high resultion using devices like those from Atlona. There is the prospect of multichannel DSD downloads using software playback around the corner. There are also devices that process DXD audio formatted data which may become available to consumers since SCD are being released from this recording format. There are several hundred SACD capable devices available for purchase anywhere in the world. Sony’s latest blu-ray players all playback SACD. On the contrary James, high resolution audio has never been more alive. All thats happened is you have stopped listening to the real thing.

    1. That’s great news Steve. I was reading the Wikipedia article about SACD when your post came in. I had only bought a handful of SACDs when I quit buying them because I thought SACD was a failed system. Your post is encouraging me to start buying SACDs again. I was listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted and Blonde on Blonde SACDs tonight, and felt depressed that I couldn’t hear all music with this clarity and spatial sense.

      I’ve been depending on streaming music for years because of its convenience, but I’m going to switch back for awhile to CDs and SACDs. I wish streaming music had more high fidelity, because it’s so much easier to just call up songs with a few clicks and taps on my keyboard.

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