Have You Heard? All Your Music Can Sound Better

Twenty Years Later this All Fits in a Pocket

 Mass music distribution has been all about profits and convenience for some time now.  That’s bad for listening experience quality.  Instead of music optimized to sound real, big distributors offer obsolescent compressed music files – trimmed and squashed versions of the master recordings.  iTunes downplays musical listening quality, offering only comparatively small selection in higher density resolutions.  

There’s a trade-off – at $1.00 per track, more of the smaller compressed music files fit into your player device but they sound quite crappy compared to master quality.  You may not even notice how bad.

Apple iTunes’ anemic music files are mere vestiges of the masters but oh-so-convenient and profitable.  Apple and competitors have trained music listeners to default to low fidelity (low-fi) compressed sound and to buy song file downloads. The listening majority now accepts low-fi music to get more downloads that are cheaper and more convenient.  This scheme is far more profitable for Apple.

Are you the bulk-oriented type of listener?  Or have you heard music playback that sounds so real it’s difficult to distinguish from the original performance?  If not, or if you don’t know, then you may be among the many people who have never heard high fidelity music music (hi-fi.)  If you’re interested, and you follow through on what you read here, you’re in for a major musical taste upgrade.

There’s a gentle revolution in progress that will change your musical world if you actually love music or are interested in learning how to love music.  To love something for real you must know it first.  You can only love something deeply as it’s real self.  So you might need to correct your course to see what the hi-fi sound does for you.  Professional musicians who are true artists accept nothing less.

When music playback is master file quality, which is another way to say hi-fi, you hear the music like the mastering engineers do, as it was played, as it’s glorious, real self.  The listening experience becomes far richer, deeper, more emotional, and much more like hearing music the composers and performers intend.  Then it’s no longer simply about the personal meaning you find in certain music selections.  You also respond more primally to the music itself.  When you listen well to great music, played back in high fidelity, it feels like the music you love loves you back.  Even rock n’ roll.

Musical Pleasure Topped Up

Musical Pleasure Topped Up

 Do you know the relevant history and considerations?  Some years ago, much of the music distribution industry faced a fundamental conflict.  On one hand, they felt paranoia over potential creative rights violations (music file piracy.)  On the other hand, they lusted for profits from mass music sales. They needed a way to sell music yet still control distribution to avoid piracy.  The dilemma ended when they bought into the Apple iTunes distribution scheme.  

Also consider the Apple music player devices -- several generations of low-fi, download-pimping iDevices to stuff all the crappy-sounding music you can download into. They had plenty cash for marketing to make it all seem so hip to have gazillion music files to carry and compare to your friends’ collection sizes.  Bigger is not better for pleasure unless you’re talking about the files rather than the collection.

Do you listen with earbuds?  Private listening has its place but it’s so solitary.  When you want to share music with friends, earphones make it inconvenient.  I see ads now with groups of young people all wearing “DJ” earphones while dancing.  This is weird earphone marketing beyond belief.  Everyone wants to pretend to be the DJ. Is wearing the cool headphones more important than the music itself and the connection to your partner?  Headphone dancing reverses the cart and horse and isolates people.  What happened to playing music into the room with speakers so everyone can hear it and dance together? 

The social aspect of listening has morphed into social competition that sells more downloads – as in “I have 24,372 songs on my iPod.  How many do you have?”  The iTunes’ music tollgate was designed cleverly to leverage social pressures to assure every person who listens pays to maximize profits.  Apple has made billions this way by alienating us from our music.  And from each other.

What will happen if hi-fi sound becomes convenient?  This is coming (for many folks it’s already here) and my prediction is -- digital technology will restore authenticity to music playback for the masses as the snobby audiophile market finishes disappearing.  Something anyone can have is no longer attractive to rich snobs.  Stereo bling will be dead, no longer able to help the 2% feel superior. Everyone still listening will insist on a new standard, convenient music that’s real -- hi-fi.

Data storage, the Internet, and local networks are getting better (more pervasive, faster, bigger, cheaper, and more convenient) all the time. That’s how digital technology rolls. Memory gets massive.  Today’s best DAC (digital to analog converter) chips with such faithful music reproduction are now affordable for the masses.  Technology is a world of more and better and what’s next.  Things that are inconvenient at one stage become non-concerns in following technologies. 

In the meantime, you may not be able to store 50,000 songs on your present digital device in HD quality, but you can get a fabulous sounding HD music player from Astell & Kern (A & K.)  It has unlimited storage capacity because it uses removable memory.  (Uh-oh.  Physical media.)  Fill many SD cards and you can carry all your music and play many 16-bit or 24-bit formats.  Just choose bit density depending what your hearing is good enough to resolve.  Then spend a wad the size of a second mortgage on hi-fi downloads and have a big library.  Those with piracy in their souls have recourse to bit torrents.

The first A & K players were too expensive to be a good value at over $700 and the second-generation product is well over $1000.  They are selling into the dwindling snobby audiophile market where the traditional strategy dictates overpriced gear that sells in low quantity.  It’s priced high to feel exclusive and stroke buyers’ egos.

It’s no surprise the company that makes the A & K player has interests in HD download distribution.  That player is nice technically but again, more exploitive toll gating flaws the business concept.  Still, as with iPod, etc., the hardware pimps for the music file sales, where lie mass opportunities. They left out other digital source possibilities that we’d be better off to have in the perfect player, which doesn’t exist yet.  So it’s looking like music pirates versus corporate pirates.

Playback that's Boring Leads to Snoring

The far more exciting trend is mass sales of hi-fi music to the rest of us.  Audiophile gear producers are having a hard time understanding, and adjusting to, the deep impact of digital audio.  They keep thinking in old strategies with new industrial designs.  Then, no matter how good a product concept is, an obsolete strategy makes the cake fall flatter than a slammed oven door.

Do you need a Rolex to tell time?  No?  Well, neither do you need a beautifully built pimp device to play great-sounding music.  Any computer or tablet will play those same files.  Though if you insist on 24-bit quality, have the coin, and don’t mind settling for the small selection you can find available for download, why not pop for the A & K?  It might impress someone until a kid with an iPad dials in the same hi-fi streaming via the web right beside you.

Unfortunately, the music selection available legally in HD download formats is limited and more expensive so you may not find enough to satisfy. Personally, I won’t pay $24 per digital album no matter what is in it.  You can always buy and rip CDs.  It has been a while since I’ve been willing to spend time buying, ripping, and re-selling CDs or even storing and managing a local music database.  But I see how a true music lover might want, or even need, to do all that.  You do have the option to just say no to downloads.

A much better development is coming along well – streaming hi-fi audio – the ability to access the music you love in an HD format from “the Cloud.”  Cloud streaming brings mind-boggling-gigantic and easily accessible caches of great and varied music in all genres, online, listenable in real time, and savable in the background as you listen.  All for a song.  As always, the Internet offers opportunity to do the greatest good for the greatest number or to abjectly exploit people for profit.  It seems even hi-fi has an ethical dimension.  Where do your values stand? 

I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track.  Apple has adopted a lossless hi-fi format and now comes Apple Radio.  How will they toll gate a streaming source?  The bits are out of jail now.  For details on web music streaming, see my other post, “The Great Alternative to Paid Music Downloads.”  Even if you must keep downloading you can still enjoy streaming music fully.