No one in their right mind does that. It’d spoil the thrill of avoiding beef juices running down the ticklish inside of your arm towards your dry clean only vintage knitwear. If you want to enjoy a cheeseburger, eat one in the company of friends, over a craft or root beer, and most definitely use your hands.
Similarly, it becomes absurd to think of presenting Kyoto’s finest Kaiseki, a tradition of micro seasonality, precision and simplicity, on a styrofoam tray with a chip fork on it, swimming in industrially produced ketchup (I can’t use tomato before that word, because I’m pretty sure the primary ingredient is sugar) and malt vinegar.
A 192kbps mp3 is just fine when all you want to do is email a friend with a low bandwidth internet connection a work in progress snippet from a new composition. 320kbps AAC is completely passable when the need to replace ambient noise around you with music of your choice arises. A scratchy vinyl record, like an old friend that has naturally acquired smile lines and wrinkles, is no second rate choice because vinyl lovers adore the visceral, physical ritual of listening to music this way as part of the enjoyment of music itself.
Let me illustrate my point with this fine looking graph.
Perhaps I should find a one with higher resolution you say? Ah, well, then you can’t dismiss the pursuit of higher definition.
A, for the purposes of drawing a line somewhere, is where you’ll find someone listening to iTunes downloads on laptop speakers. B is a record on a home stereo in the living room. C is a full range (yes, that does mean that if you don’t have a full range system, complete with at least 10” subwoofers, you are most definitely missing out on some of the frequency spectrum your stereo can’t possibly reproduce) system, playing back 192kHz 24bit audio files in an acoustically treated room. None of those listening experiences are inherently wrong, but some are more commonly found, and more easily attained than others. It all depends on what you want from music, and what sort of listening experience you are after. I’ve previously suggested that once we’ve had a few full range listening experiences, such as being at a well amplified gig, or at a concert in an acoustician designed concert hall, or having listened to music on a decent hifi, we channel that experience as we listen to music on low grade, partial range systems. That’s why you can find someone bobbing their head to a baseline and kick drum they can’t feel, let alone hear, as they play music back through a phone speaker. They might not hear it, but they can sure imagine it, and that’s half the experience. Listening is an activity in the present that references, and can even transform the past (and in many cases also transforms the future too). If you are studying the intricacies of your favourite recording, listening intently to the full range, depth and width of a recording, mp3s on a phone speaker just won’t do.
Not all music is recorded with utmost attention to detail and audio quality, as evidenced by grungy garage or punk recordings, and the hiss of tape running over folk singers captured by simple field recorders. Audio fidelity is like a timestamp, placing music in a particular era. You’ve only got to listen to Neil Young’s Greatest Hits to hear the development of recording technology and production standards, and the effect it has on the overall sound. In fact, I prefer the sound of his older material, it’s much more rounded and warm, and easier to listen to, over the more recent higher fidelity recordings.
If we were all still watching TV on 14” CRTs from the 80s, and trying out the latest DVD, Blue Ray and filmed for IMAX 4K video playback systems, we may well be dismissive, and insist that VHS is perfectly fine, thank you. Here I believe lies a currently problem with the general public, and even music making artists, postulating that we don’t need anything more than 44.1kHz and 16 bit audio (the limits of a CD, which became a norm because it made life easier in the 90s when there needed to be a single format to rerelease yesterday’s vinyl on), in their ridicule of Neil Young’s recent, and rather successfully Kickstarted Pono.
Aside from my studio, which I’m grateful to say does indeed have a full range playback system (two 3 way monitors and two 12” subwoofers), in an acoustically treated room (because otherwise, I’d feel like a complete fool for trying to master records without being able to hear in such detail), my listening options at home have mindfully given away quality for convenience, and I’m not alone. The digital audio revolution has made my entire CD collection available on a single device that fits into my pocket, or streamable from one end of the house to another, but in our fascination with convenience and availability of music a lot of us no longer have the hi-fis that adorned many living rooms in the 70s and 80s. I’m not romanticising, yesteryear’s hi- fis weren’t all great, but at least a lot of them were pretty good for the time.
Whilst the focus is still on the playback device (and getting music onto that device from the internet), making that device capable of high fidelity playback could be a great start to reinvigorating a desire for higher fidelity playback systems. If you’ve got good enough earbuds you can hear the audio interface in your iPhone output noise as you scroll through a website whilst listening to music (so long as it wasn’t mastered at a punishingly loud DR4). I’ve longed for a high resolution, portable playback device for years, so I’m happy that there’ll soon be one available, and I’m confident that even my own music, mastered down to 44.1kHz 16bit will sound better on it than with my other portable options.
Let’s not narrow discussion of playback quality by suggesting that there’s one definitive way, and that all others are without their merits. Listening to music has as many playback options today as reasons for existing in the first place, so celebrate that efforts are being made at the top end of the today’s quality spectrum, and hope that every bit of qualitative improvement will help the entire recording, audio technology and playback device industries move way beyond the point we’ve slipped back to since the internet became an ever more important music distribution channel.