Whatever happened to the audiophile?

UPDATE: 8 SEP 2011 – The Register follows up on the loudness wars – “It is a standard sound engineer complaint, as well as of serious listeners. And, those that have simply listened and (easily) heard the difference. It was propelled by increased CD listening in cars (to further standout over more background noise). Louder and faster records on radio and jukeboxes are earlier variants. Louder ads on radio and TV is another.”

This video, which I think I saw at the time I wrote my original article highlights the difference between the sound engineering of today and yesteryear:

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgBack in the 1970s my parents had friends who had stacks of hi-fi separates with gold contact wiring and speaker stands on metal spikes. They were only playing Perry Como on vinyl, but that was their idea of fun, so good luck to them. When the CD emerged on to the market with its claims of superior quality and scratch resistance, the hi-fi enthusiasts split into two camps: those who clung to their “warmer” but crackly analogue vinyl and their hissy tapes and those who went digital and got optical wires to hook up their shiny new CD player to those spiky speakers.

Manufacturers propagated the upward spiral for both camps marketing ever more elaborate systems and even selling green pens to colour the edge of a CD to prevent laser leakage. Personally, I grew up with a “stereogram” and a personal radio-cassette and was quite happy with it, whiling away countless hours listening to prog rock, Jean Michel Jarre, Talking Heads, and the occasional Perry Como album.

But, was it all for nothing? Within another generation the notion of digital audio had been compressed using the audio equivalent of the lossy image format jpeg and music fans were listening on pocket devices or watching Youtube clips with embedded music on poor-quality computer speakers and really not caring either way, whether the sound was great or not.

Jerald Hughes of University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg writing in the International Journal Services and Standards has a nice table showing the technical specification of the human ear and comparing it to the various analogue formats:

Audio system Frequency range/Hz Decibel range/dB
Human ear 20-22,000 110+
Vinyl LP 30-15,000 50-60
8-track tape 45-8000 45
Cassette tape 50-12,000 45-50
Chrome cassette 50-16,000 60
Reel to reel 30-20,000+ 66+

So, the only system that ever came close to the full range of human hearing was reel-to-reel and I don’t recall seeing many of those around even among the most extravagant separates hi-fi aficionados of my parents’ acquaintance.

So, how does the CD fit into this picture?

Audio system Frequency range/Hz Decibel range/dB
Human ear 20-22,000 110+
Compact disc 20-22,000 90+
DVD audio 10-95,000 144

Not bad? It really was a golden era, then, apart from that lack of “warmth” and “colour” that the analogue stalwarts claimed. And, with DVD audio quality (and SACD, superaudio CD) far outstripping even CD. These latter formats are well-known to devoted adherents of jazz and classical where dynamic range and complex frequency content tends to be more common than in rock and pop, although there are serious mastering problems with many modern recordings in all genres.

Today, there are almost as many audio “formats” as there are audio files. One can choose a download or rip at almost any rate, a lossy or lossless compression algorithm, and countless other options and codecs to playback a music file on myriad devices. But, consumers in general, have gravitated towards a quality that is much lower than the human ear is capable of discerning and much lower than top-end equipment is capable of reproducing. It’s as if the hi-fi nuts never existed…

Perhaps that’s the point though, my generation was perfectly content to listen to vinyl albums duplicated on cassette tapes (remember: home taping is skill in music killing music, it never did) and today, the kids are quite happy to listen to downloaded 128kbps mp3 files through the cheap earbuds that come with portable music players.

Human senses and sensibilities have limits. It’s not that the human ear cannot receive the finest of musical details, it most certainly can, it’s just that most people perceive satisfaction in listening to a good-quality mp3 and are not worried about the top notes or the quiet moments that might be lost in the compression process that squeezes their collection of thousands of songs on to a sliver of silicon embedded in a case no bigger than a thumbnail.

Audio cassettes were popular because they were convenient – mix tapes, copying albumbs, recording off the radio all infinitely simpler with cassettes than with a reel-to-reel machine. In the post-digital era of music on chips rather than disks consumers are trading-off audio quality for convenience just the same as they ever did. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Research Blogging IconJerald Hughes (2009). Emergent quality standards for digital entertainment experience goods: the case of consumer audio Int. J. Services and Standards, 5 (4), 333-353

I spoke to Hughes who confessed that he too is a prog-rock fan, and admitted that the first album he ever bought with his own money was the YesSongs triple live album. He also told me he is still listening to his Technics direct-drive turntable with hyperelliptical stylus through Bose 501 speakers and said, “it really IS ‘warmer’…”


23 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the audiophile?”

  1. I agree with the guys above, we (The Audiophiles) are alive and thriving. Spurred on by the mass of ‘clearout’ sales on ebay, from people wanting to ‘downsize’, we gather all manner of old school music reproduction equipment in an effort to best present our thousands of vinyl rarities. From my own point of view I collect 60’s speakers, equalisers and tube amps … anything to hear Ben Webster play in that lovely soft, breathy fashion.

    Cheers and all the best

    Col :-)

  2. I have always wondered why someone hasn’t come up with a “phono” filter for well recorded (a key pre-requisate) CD or other digitally encoded music. You could make it sound just like a vinyl record. You could add in the “warmth” and also the distortion in frequency response from the needle as it gets to the inner low radius area of an LP, and also put the same needle inertia distortion effects at high frequencies LP’s have. It’s interesting to read how the old producers used to mess around with sound when creating LP’s. Things just as nasty as the amplitude compression that goes on now.

  3. On earphones, I have to note that it makes a huge difference for listening experiences of any kind. I bought some studio recording reference standard phones with totally flat frequency response (Beyerdynamic DT 48) a few years back. They’re big, metal-framed, full ear-enclosure, heavy magnet drivers–and they don’t fatigue my ears *at all*. You can listen for hours without strain, because of the strict frequency balance across the entire sound spectrum–most consumer headphones are quite bass-heavy and usually higher-treble heavy as well. I actually carried them on quite a few plane trips (also needed a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter plug), despite the ‘schlep’ factor, because the isolation and quality was so good. So even if you’re listening to heavy metal the whole way, the quality earphones will pay off in quality experience.

  4. @Jerald I think we could easily collapse into a discussion of the relative merits of different musical genres if we aren’t careful. While much of pop and rock essentially doesn’t suffer, there are some artists whose work can be described as being just as dynamic and exquisite as any jazz, or even classical. However, that doesn’t tend to be the music listened to by mass audiences, it’s a long-tail effect and those of us who enjoy exquisite more than loudest suffer because the industry (hardware and music) follows the market rather than chasing the tails…

  5. There’s a related issue, which is the actual content that comes from the studio after the mastering engineer has completed his work. In order to be more prominent in music videos and for radio airplay, there has been a steady progression in pop music towards greater and greater compression, closer and closer to the 0 dB signal ceiling that is possible. The basic theory is, “Loudest track wins”. You may occasionally notice the same phenomenon in television commercials, which are often far louder than the programs they interrupt.
    The result is pop music tracks with a dynamic range of 10 dB or even less, with no audible detail of any kind. Music of this kind suffers little, if at all, from MP3 compression used in moderation, or from lower-quality earphones. So the source material itself of pop music is also evolving towards lower quality, purely for reasons of prominence during broadcast. For jazz and classical, of course, it’s a very different story.

  6. @CCCCpppp:

    The A/D converter can potentially suffer from jitter. Although in the most pristine studio settings this is a consideration, individuals recording for fun or on their own won’t notice any artifacts from jitter, unless they have **really** cheap equipment. Anti-alias filtering could also be a problem, but most recording microphones don’t have the ability to capture frequency content above 20kHz anyway, so it’s a minor issue.

    The filters for D/A are another story. All consumers needed D/A converters for playback, and the early models did a poorer job of reconverting the stair-step waveform stored in PCM coding back to a smooth function.

    Non-lossy compression, absolutely. Or better still, don’t bother to compress. Save the uncompressed data, the hard drive is huge.

    I do think early CD’s were designed to be the very best that engineers could imagine and manage at that time. Experiencing digital music taught us some things about signals, and about human hearing, that we didn’t know before. The harshness and shortcomings are often a matter of trade-offs made for the sake of better profit margins in mass production factory lines, something which plagues products of all kinds, not just CDs.

  7. Can’t comment on the mega-expensive Sure canal-phones, but I dropped a pretty penny on a pair of the original Etymotic Research ER4 canal phones years back, and would never travel without them – only problem is, the sound is so good I’ve been moved to tears more than once on a crowded airplane!

    Guess that puts me into the audiophool category :-/

  8. Very timely post given a discussion I’ve been having with my mid-to-late-forties peers, all about technology events that ‘blew our minds’. I’ll blog on that shortly but, on the sound front, for me the big event was the first time I heard music through stereo headphones plugged into what was then (1978ish) a fancy Ferguson stereo cassette deck my brother had bought for uni. (He was also an early CD player adopter shortly after). Point being, I too was a stereogram child, where the speaker separation on the unit was about 2ft., speakers were two paper cones, and graphic equalisation was via ‘bass’ and ‘treble’ knobs (we were poor but happy :-) ) So, stereo plus the higher frequency response of the phones on the tape deck worked some magic for me. I think the weak link in the chain has shifted, and suspect the expensive bits today are not source related. Today, I listen to music on-the-go on an N95 phone, but am very picky about film sound on my home cinema set-up; but think that again comes down I think to the speakers more than anything.

    Talking about shifting weak links, it’s interesting to compare the audio situation with what has happened in photography. In digital, sensors were the limiting factor for years; now with the best professional DSLRS, I believe the lens is the limiting factor again. Ho hum.

  9. My parents (and many of their friends) had reel-to-reel decks at home, but in their case it was less because of the sound quality and more because those were a great way to get six hours of unbroken music to play at a party.

    Another interesting follow-up post might look at the surging popularity of high-end headphones (canalphones, whatever). Do people who drop $500 on a pair of Shures use them to listen to higher-quality source material on higher-priced equipment?

  10. Dude, The Audiophool is alive and well.
    There is no limit to the insanity of some members of the audiophile community on the internet.

    Willing to part with enormous piles of cash in exchange for dubious, pseudo-scientific audio products, these guys are the ‘true-believers’ of the audio world. (Note the use of ‘true-believers’ as a pejorative).

    But the Audiophile of today is a new breed – quite different, I suspect, to the type of Audiophile you are talking about – who simply cared about getting a good sound.

    A website I really like is http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/ as they are a skeptical audio community and promote a scientific-based approach and don’t tolerate the woo.


  11. Thanks David,

    The audiophiles are still around, but drowned out in a sea of “mediocrity” which, as you point out, has always been with us it seems – I remember how poor tapes were, but convenience won out for most people!

    Something you don’t mention however is distortion, in all its guises – this adds a distinct signature to music, and differs from format to format (and from kit to kit). Ironically, it’s probably distortion that gives some of those old formats their warmth, as well as some of the older technologies for playing them back. I used to have a tube (sorry, valve) amp, and loved the sound with a passion – it was warm, expansive, seductive… But compared to a top-notch solid state amp, you could hear the distortion that led to a very distinct audio signature.

    That was fine by me – treating the format and the equipment to play it back through as instruments in their own right removes a lot of angst about technical performance. What does worry me though is a tendency to sacrifice a deep appreciation of music and its reproduction for simple convenience. But I guess that’s a factor of human nature rather than technology – and that’s something that has remained pretty constant against the shifting recording formats.

    Sadly, mediocrity will always win out :-)

  12. I too enjoyed the article. I never went through the vinyl age in the 1960s for some reason, probably financial, but at age 13 my parents bought me a Fidelity Argyle reel to reel tape recorder which I used to tape music off a plastic Perdio Picadilly radio and also my friend’s vinyls, particularly the (original) Seekers who I still love particularly Judith Durham, a fantastic voice. I used to love having to thread the tapes onto the spools. A bit of name dropping there!

    When ‘musi-cassettes’ came out in the 1970s, I bought an ITT KB radio cassette (mono then) which was great particularly for recording the top 40 on a Sunday from the FM radio. Then in 1976 I progressed up to an Hitach stereo radio cassette (one deck) with Vu meters and later upgraded this by connecting it to a Sony twin cassette deck with Dolby B and LEDs. I felt quite professional at the time using the Vu and LEDs and bought the high quality Chrome cassette.

    As you say, we are now into the digital and post digital age and somehow I missed out on the CD age instead still relying on the cassettes which I still like despite odd times when they got jammed and required a pencil to reengage the wheel. I have recently relented on CDs and now do enjoy DVDs and hopefully will get into iPods or cheaper equivalents before getting back to vinyl reborn, this time for me my first. A bit like life really, roundabouts and swings.

  13. So it’s the A/D converter that makes most CD’s sound worse than some records?
    Or anti-alias filtering?

    MP3, etc.: Why not lossless compression? (How much music can one really assimilate?)
    Youtube: wastes bandwidth on video instead of better sound. Why isn’t there a sound-only tube?
    –Because music is more about identity than listening. And our ears have been trained to accept less. If the sound really mattered, wouldn’t early CD’s have been made to sound better than vinyl in every way?

  14. Most DAT’s, because they came out of studio technology rather than consumer quality, had higher quality A/D converters (reduced jitter) and D/A filters (soft-knee reconversion back to analog reduces the perceived ‘harshness’ of digital, but the basics of the digital formats are the same. For PCM coding (which all DAT’s used), sample rate and bit depth determine the basic possible response characteristics, which then might be degraded by jitter, poorly designed conversion circuits, and of course the final result depended to an enormous extent on the accuracy of the amplifier (true Class-A???) and the quality of the speakers (try electro-static flat-panel speakers sometime). DAT was likely to please right out of the box, unlike early CD players, because the quality of the components was so much higher.

  15. @Abram Thanks for sharing your hi-fidelity dreams. Yes, I overlooked a mention of DAT (and come to think of it mini-discs and probably several other formats). Maybe antiquities for the follow-up post at some point.

  16. Enjoyed the article because i went through all those phases, from Vinyl-8track-CD. I have a monster Sansui system I bought overseas in the 70’s when I was in the military. Some equipment is in boxes, like a reel to reel that I can’t find tape for. I still dream of owning a pair of McIntosh MC-501 amps and a pair HQ speakers to match them with. When I was stationed overseas I worked part-time for a Nakamichi and B&W speaker dealer. It was a the greatest gig I ever had, listening to Nakamichi Dragons coupled with Onkyo amps and B&W speakers. I own an ipod but hate that we live in an mp3 world. I do miss the golden days of audio. I also to say that you neglected to mention DAT (digital audio tape). I own a DAT machine with optical cables for music transfers. It was suppose to be the next great thing after CD, but DAT was expensive and it never really caught on. My DAT, like my Reel to Reel sits in storage because it’s difficult to find tape for it, and when I do the cost is insane. But DAT was wonderful.

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