Monday, October 23, 2006

Happy Birthday iPod

Happy Birthday iPod. 5 Years old today. A revolution has taken place before our very ears – or so some would have us believe. If the iPod revolution is indeed a revolution it is one of miniaturisation, storage capability and, of course, of sales & marketing. Any revolving in terms of musical or auditory transmission has been in a decidedly backward direction. One can’t help but feel that comparatively recent developments, like DVDAudio and SACD, although still turning, are grinding in terminal entropy like the buckled remnants of a bicycle accident. Whatever happened to hi-fi?

I’m all for choice: but the choices are being made for us. Take hi-definition TV for instance. The medium offers the possibility to radically improve picture quality to previously unimagined standards. And what do we get - 180 channels of pap, whose quality is inferior to a decent PAL TV signal? Similarly, DAB is outperformed by FM radio.

The quality of most consumer goods is determined by the price and quality of the goods you buy. If you buy a cheap watch on the market it’ll be unreliable and won’t work after the first week when the battery runs out; if you buy a Rolex, you get the best watch money can buy. The same has always been true of audio reproduction equipment. If you bought a cheap receiver or player and were happy with the qualitative compromise: that was your choice. But now, we’re moving into an era where compression algorithms and low bit rate encoding are threatening to condemn everyone to inherent compromise. Yes, you can still buy CDs, but for how much longer? Even now, few high street shops have anything but the latest derelict chart toppers on the shelves. The classical department in my local FNAC has now been consigned to the 4th floor, which it shares with religious books and iconography.

So what’s my gripe with compression when millions the world over are as overjoyed as they are awed by being able to cram their entire record collection into one tiny hand-held pod.

I don’t believe audio compression is intrinsically bad, but it is a complex business that rarely receives more than scant attention. Most current forms of lossy compression are based on ill-founded assumptions about the human auditory system. It is widely assumed for example, that a certain amount of masking renders some sound inaudible and therefore unnecessary. Compression algorithms commonly treat stereo signals as highly redundant but a stereo signal carries more than twice as much information as a mono signal because it also contains a phantom image. Consequently, spatial information, ambience and reverberation are lost in translation. These might not be seen as especially important features of rock, pop, trip hop and trance - music that has already suffered severe audio compression - but classical and other acoustic recordings are left substantially worse off as a result.

Evidence seems to be mounting that more and more people are finding compression systems an unpleasant disappointment even though they may not realise quite why. One of the most notable and negative attributes of poor quality audio is its power to bore. Any audio professional will tell you how tiring it is to listen to a second rate reproduction system. In fact, background listening - although anathema to the serious music lover - is one of the best ways of assessing audio quality and the technical success of a recording.

So if the prospect of another 5 years of podding fills you with dread – never fear, the next commodity fad is already twinkling in Steve Jobs’ eye.


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