The hazards of chipping away at high performance. 2001/01

Something tragic is happening in the world of high end audio. Not only is the concept of high fidelity (fidelity to the source material) being eroded, but even the quality of the source is faltering badly. This trend more or less started with the modern advent of surround sound, or more directly, sound for video. The very nature of having to deal with multiple channels of audio and the electronic 'steering' that is involved in the surround sound process necessitates a certain level of microchip use. As the complexity of these circuits has grown, the resulting sonic quality has slowly deteriorated. Digital processing has come down so far in price that even basic electronic devices have built-in analog to digital converters and the two channel receiver has all but disappeared. The big breakthrough for audio for video (with regards to high end audio) came when the major subjective listening press more or less legitimized its existence by increasing their coverage of the format and suggesting that there was some connection between acoustic accuracy and video sound. Since a lot of what drives 'classic' audiophiles is simply the toy factor, video was a natural area to move to. Video offers a much larger range of toys and system upgrades than does two channel audio, and for those who thrive on the equipment treadmill it was a new beginning to what seemed like a two channel dead end.

Now, before all the movie viewers and sound track aficionados get upset, understand that I am not saying that this format is not valid, it is, but the needs of video do not at all correlate with the needs for acoustic accuracy in audio. In terms of re-creating an acoustic event in the home, the greatest strides seem to have come from those systems that are the simplest: those that have the least amount of electronic processing and those that attempt to simply pass through them what has been supplied as the source. With each layer of electronic complexity that we have added, we have taken away a small amount of acoustic fidelity. No single point appears to be too damaging but the end result has taken us further and further away from the acoustic ideal. Many of our readers have had the experience of listening to complex and very expensive audio systems that fail to capture the essence of a musical performance. These systems are the end result of the constant chipping away at an audio standard in the pursuit of electronic wizardry. What is worse is the concurrent breakdown happening in the recording chain.

The same process that has eroded the search for high fidelity in playback systems is compounding the problem by eroding the very masters of the music we so much would like to hear. Recording devices and processes that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars are now priced at under a thousand dollars. Cheap digital technology (and the very large-scale chip integration that goes along with it) is enabling individuals to afford equipment and processes that, ten or fifteen years ago, only the biggest studios could afford. For the most part, I would say that this is a good thing, kind of the democratization of audio. In the same way, Macintosh, LaserWriter and PageMaker essentially opened the doors to desktop publishing. Suddenly, mere mortals had the necessary tools to produce a magazine. But having the tools is not the same as having the capability to produce professional results, and the same is true with audio equipment. Tools are just tools and the skill of the operator will ultimately have the greatest effect on the outcome of the product. As these new and wondrously affordable boxes are made more and more available to everyone, two things are happening: 1) not everyone is capable of using them well, and, 2) each little process takes just a little bit of the fidelity away. Again, it is not (or rarely is it) any single process that is to blame, but it is the daisy chaining of successive alterations that keeps the gap from fidelity to finished product so wide. If you were to make a copy of a typed page with the best copier available you may be able to produce a copy that is extremely hard to distinguish from the original. If you were to successively copy that page and another and another, each pairing would be hard to distinguish. But, after about 25 or so, the difference between what you have now and what you started with will be quite severe. This is what is happening with sound mastering and sound reproduction. With all the technology and money available to make a recording, it is shameful that few of today's recordings can stand up to the best of those that were made almost 50 years ago. As you steadily move from one data point to another without stepping back to see where you have come from or are going, you run the risk of destroying what you are trying to achieve.

I know that it is these same technologies that allow many more musicians to make recordings and put them out and from a creative aspect that may be a good thing. But more is not always better and things may be better in one area but not so great in another. Should we trade off quality of music for, not necessarily quantity of music, but quality of sound? Perhaps. But we should also be aware of what we are doing, and, if we already are aware, at least be honest about the agenda we are favoring. We are at a crucial stage with regard to home audio reproduction and the search for fidelity. It becomes increasingly futile to put together a system capable of unraveling the nuances that musicians are capable of creating, engineers recording, and media storing, if few recordings will ever rise to that occasion. Why have crystal clear, non-distorting, color-accurate glasses if we are going to live in a glass bubble that is made of dirty, distorted, visual-altering glass? I am not saying that we can not enjoy recordings such as these but I am saying that a very important and rewarding facet of listening to music in the home is being lost.

Standards are a precarious thing and without some diligence they can keep slipping. There is almost nothing that you can do as a listener except to deal with the issues and cry foul as necessary. The good news is that the same technology that is allowing for these standards to slip is also capable of putting quality in the hands of those who make the effort to use it well. But that's another story.

© Cadence Magazine 2001

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