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

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