Building Quality

The cover is cracked. It is time to rip it off, look directly at the inner workings, and begin to fix things for ourselves.—Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft argues that an intimacy with manual trades may revitalize a connection to the material world that has been lost by those who spend their lives in offices or cubicles, staring at computer screens for eight to twelve hours a day, unable to quantify exactly what it is they do. I'm digging it. It aligns, in many ways, with a philosophy John Atkinson has shared with me: Do doingfully.

Even here, in our cushy office, we take great pride in getting under the hood, taking a wrench to our pages, doing the best job possible. We feel an intense connection to the finished product. We know what we do: We make the sort of magazine we'd like to read.

But many people do not feel that sort of strong connection to their work, and that's a shame. This disconnect is somehow related to our culture's general tolerance for low-quality goods and services. When we feel a deep connection to our own work, taking good, strong pride in that which we build, we demand the same sort of quality in every aspect of our lives. We want and expect better tools, better experiences, better everything. Instead, it seems we increasingly settle for less, adapting to "good enough," sacrificing quality for "convenience." This new world is stripping us of our ability to think, to dream, to care, and we should be concerned about the consequences. We should demand better. We should want better.

A recent article in the New York Times helped inspire these thoughts. Joseph Plambeck's "In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back" (footnote 1) does a disservice to audiophiles, music lovers, and the generally curious by equating high-quality sound with astronomical prices, and making it seem that a good stereo is unobtainable by all but the privileged. He references the work done by Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, who found that an increasing number of his students preferred the sound of low-quality MP3s to that of high-fidelity recordings (footnote 2).

The article includes a picture of a stereo system in Stereo Exchange's big listening room, and notes the price: $125,000. But Plambeck doesn't mention that Stereo Exchange also offers more affordable gear, from such companies as NAD, Pro-Ject, Tangent, Rotel, and Totem. Nor does he mention that Stereo Exchange could put together an outstanding system for a total cost of $1000.

Music will always be a high priority in the lives of audiophiles. Although we invest great amounts of time and money in our stereo systems, few of us can afford to spend $125,000 on them. But we know how good $125,000 can sound. If we didn't, articles such as the New York Times piece could scare us away. The total cost of my own system, based on the components' retail prices when new, is around $6000, and I think it sounds pretty damn good. And, yes, a high-quality stereo can be pieced together for $1000—or less, if you take some time and shop wisely.

There are questions about Jonathan Berger's research that, to my knowledge, remain unanswered. What source and accessories were used? If the students listened only through a low-quality MP3 player with cheap earbuds, the results of the study may be null. Even a seasoned audiophile would be hard-pressed to note differences in sound quality when the only evaluative tools offered were faulty. This would be like a carpenter trying to build a house with a plastic hammer. Further, what types of recordings were used? Were they good recordings, or the usual overcompressed pop recordings? A poor recording might sound better when played through a low-quality system; higher-quality systems reveal flaws that bad systems mask. But hi-fi shouldn't be punished for what it does right.

Finally, were the students who took part in Berger's experiments taught what to listen for? My feeling is that, given all the information, and taught the difference between good and bad sound, most of the students would have been more attracted to the higher-quality music files. To assume otherwise would be an insult to the human spirit, and an insult to our abilities to think and to choose wisely.

Another thing: Jonathan Berger wonders if his students' preference for low-quality MP3s, with their "sizzle," bears a resemblance to older audiophiles' preference for the crackle of vinyl records over the digital "cleanness" of Compact Discs. Will the sizzle of MP3s, like the pops and ticks of our dear old LPs, be forever associated with the music this generation enjoyed in its youth? Will it continue to trigger fond memories for them as they age. I would hope not. We understand that pops and ticks are comforting to some people, but what audiophile would prefer a scratched-up, dirty, worn-out vinyl record over a pristine copy of same? The audiophiles who rebelled against the CD did so because they heard the format's early flaws, not because they missed the pops and ticks of their old records.

Put another way, the audiophiles who rebelled against the CD did so because they still cared. They hadn't been neutered by technology's conveniences. Those audiophiles—Matthew Crawford would call them "spirited men"—knew what they wanted and were willing to fight for it.

In the New York Times article I mentioned, Thomas Pinales, a 22-year-old who listens to music through an iPod and earbuds, is asked whether sound quality matters to him. He confesses that he would be interested in upgrading, but quickly adds, "I don't know if I could really tell the difference."

Our concerns about quality should extend beyond our love for hi-fi. We should be concerned about the future of our civilization. Why is there this insecurity, this lack of pride? Thomas Pinales should know that, given the proper tools, he would indeed be able to tell the difference between good and bad sound. That knowledge—and, therefore, the joy of a quality experience—is within his grasp, if he wants it.



Footnote 1: Joseph Plambeck, "In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back," New York Times (May 9, 2010).

Footnote 2: See "iPod generation prefer [sic] MP3 fidelity to CD says Study."

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