The Three Tribes
In the Land of Hi-Fi Audio, there live three main Tribes. Each one is distinguished by their musical listening habits, values, time perspective, and practices in music playback. Each tribe has different goals stemming from different attitudes to music. They each use a different means for replaying recordings. Each tribe can benefit by learning about the others' cultures.
The Vinyls – First discovered by Columbia Records in 1948, the Vinyl folk prefer to listen to spinning plastic recorded discs that replay analog music by means of transduced microscopic movement. The musical fidelity can be quite good but their records are fragile – prone to wear, damage, contamination, loss and breakage. However, there’s often some fancy artwork in the packaging. Though production in this medium is strictly limited these days which tends to reduce variety and historical coverage of available music.
This elder tribe tends toward nostalgia, listening mainly to older music that was popular in past years. Not surprising, considering their media is nearly extinct, yet they are quite attached to it. Especially the ones who only listen to music composed by dead European white guys.
The Buds – These earbud-listener folk were discovered by Apple, Inc., in 2001. Their digital music files are stripped down to take up less space when stored in little portable devices that look like transistor radios. They kind of sound that way, too. This group accepts low musical fidelity to make room for larger collections of music files. The music distribution industry likes these guys because they are willing to pay by the song to download music. Many in this tribe have never heard high fidelity music playback even though they wear clothing outdoors. Mostly younger, this Tribe tends to listen to music presently popular or recalled from their adolescence.
The Ops – The first tribe developed a new branch around 1982. These Optical descendants also listen to analog replay from plastic discs but their media is a smaller format that’s optically encoded, called CDs. The oldest tribe and their newer branch are collectively called the Plastic Spinners, or just Spinners for short. The second tribe is called Earbud Listeners, or Budfolk. The Spinner spin-off is called Ops and their tastes are a mix of what the Vinyl Spinners and Buds like.
The Comps Arrive – This new Tribe recently migrated away from the first two. Like the Spinners, they care very much how good their music sounds. This Tribe listens to digital files like the Budfolk, yet they mostly prefer music replayed into spaces they inhabit like the Spinners. They collect large music files on computers and networks because they believe music worth listening to needs higher resolution so it sounds more authentic and more enjoyable.
Massive digital memory has become inexpensive. Digital playback devices are very sophisticated yet common now. So this third Tribe doesn’t consider larger files as inconvenient as low fidelity music.
These folk listen to files through decoders fed by computers in a way that’s technically similar to the Buds. However, their high definition decoders (called DACs) feed into amplifiers and speakers such as the Spins use. This group is called Computer Audio people or Comps. They listen to all sorts of music from many genres and eras.
Where Do You Fit In?
Spins, Buds, and Comps – which tribe do you belong to and what are your musical listening tradeoffs? Do you value music that sounds better or larger collections of music files? Have you discovered Streaming Audio yet? Is your enjoyment mostly backward-facing, comprising sentimental nostalgia for a bygone era and lost youth? Or do you tend to listen to what your friends think is popular and enjoy mostly secondary associations to music – like a sense of belonging to the crowd you hang with, or a sweetheart’s affection – more than the music itself?
By sorting all these attributes out, you’ll know what really matters to you most about music. Then consider that the more recent music playback technology the Comps use can work for anyone to enhance musical pleasure and enjoyment. The other Tribes can take advantage of modern developments in digital audio technology that open up a new world of listening pleasure and enjoyment.
Technology Shift Begins – All three tribes have computers these days. Starting from scratch, all it takes to get access to more hi-fi music than you can listen to in a lifetime via streaming or recorded sources is a computer, one of those DAC decoder things, a pair of excellent amplified speakers, and internet access. Easy peasy.
What the Spins Get – Spins already own an audio system “back end” – amplification and speakers. That means they can easily modernize to gain access to more music. The Spins can include an alternative digital source – a computer and DAC – into the same audio system they use for spinning plastic and enjoy the best of old and new worlds.
They can preserve any music they have on records or discs and even improve their music by removing most of the vinyl surface noise. Lower noise factor in playback means less interrupting stimuli so it helps the brain focus on music with less fatigue.
The Ops can apply a digital technology that accesses more music on compact discs than than their analog players do. With this extra musical data added to high resolution music files, the fidelity of their playback markedly increases. And it was already darn good to begin with.
Both sub-tribes of Spins can preserve their digital music forever in digital files, improve it, and stop fiddling with plastic in moldy sleeves or bulky boxes, and quit storing it, loading it into players, and hauling it when they move. Those attractive artworks are still available in the digital versions of their recordings. Both musical fidelity and convenience improve simultaneously.
What’s In It for Buds – The Buds can easily discover what authentic music sounds like. They have the option to stop downloading forever and still have all the music they can possibly enjoy. Some idol-worshippers might even turn away from trends as their musical tastes mature. Yet they can still listen to their old collection any time.
It's not well understood why we keep hearing the Buds "gained convenience" by accepting stripped-down, squashed music files. Most probably have a computer, so just the DAC and amplified speakers are needed to try entry-level digital Hi-Fi. There's even one speaker type that has both the DAC and amplifier inside for a one-component solution. Connect a USB turntable and you instantly spin vinyl in the digital realm.
Buds may discover new reasons for listening as they delve into high fidelity and differentiate their preferences. They may become unwilling to settle for collecting what’s popular in bulk and begin to prefer authentic music itself because it carries greater emotional range and intrinsic appeal that endures.
All the Tribes Shall Dance
Real high fidelity music is delightful listening in itself. Since music is encoded emotion, more authentic-sounding music has greater emotional weight and sounds more like what the composers and performers intended.
Spins, Buds, and even Comps with an adventurous spirit about music have much to gain. A whole new world of listening pleasure awaits. All Tribes can broaden their listening and develop more sophistication by sampling new and different music via online streaming from the Cloud for tiny monthly costs – equal to nine downloaded songs or one cheap used record or disc.
While streaming, you can save as many songs as you like for offline playback using high density network storage or right on a device’s memory. You can’t copy the files but you can share the music while it’s playing. When you play from local storage “no physical media” means far greater convenience, capacity, quality, economy, and durability. Now who gained in convenience? Could be you.
Computer audio has come into its own. Digital file playback has arrived. The main way it can be distinguished from vinyl and CDs in blind listening is by its highest fidelity and total lack of noise from dirt and dings. You’re collection is no longer limited by lack of production in your physical medium. A whole new world of newer recordings and re-mastering opens up.
Finally, after all this Tribal history, digital file playback makes music good, available, and cheap – for everyone – all at the same time.
The Golden Age of Audio is right now. Let the dancing begin.