Editor's Introduction: In 2013, lossy compression is everywherewithout lossy codecs like MP3, Dolby Digital, DTS, A2DP, AAC, apt-X, and Ogg Vorbis, there would be no Web audio services like Spotify or Pandora, no multichannel soundtracks on DVD, no Bluetooth audio, no DAB and HDradio, no Sirius/XM, and no iTunes, to quote the commercial successes and no Napster, MiniDisc, or DCC, to quote the failures. Despite their potential for damage to the music, the convenience and sometimes drastic reduction in audio file size have made lossy codecs ubiquitous in the 21st century. Stereophile covered the development of lossy compression; following is an article from more than two decades ago warning of the sonic dangers.Editor
My topic today is not the hardware that we use to reproduce sound, but the delicate precision instruments we use to detect it: our ears. Our enjoyment of musical sound is important enough to justify spending thousands of dollars on recordings, electronics, loudspeakers, and concert tickets. What is it worth to preserve your hearing so that you can continue enjoying great sound 10 or 20 years from now? I've been conducting an experiment for the last 30 years, at a cost of less than a penny a day. It began when I was 17.
I had a wonderful chuckle while reading the reviews of the Finial Laser Turntable in the May 1990 issue of HFN/RR. Perhaps I should preface this by saying that, in the entire quarter-century since I became intensely involved in audio, I have always found the LP an unsatisfactory playback medium for music. As a regular concert-goer in Boston and an addict of WGBH-FM's simply miked, virtually unprocessed live broadcasts of BSO concerts direct from Symphony Hall, I never learned to ignore the many anti-musical distortions endemic to LPsthe ticks and pops, the inner-groove congestion and tracing distortion, the harsh mistracking of high-level climaxes and overcut grooves, the persistent static in dry winter air, the constant slight wow due to off-center spindle holes, the muddy bass due to resonances and feedback, the universal cutting engineer's practice of blending low bass into mono (which wipes out low-frequency hall ambience).
DatelineChicago, May 30, 9:00pm. Exploding fireworks lit up the sky above the Chicago river as 200 leading high-end designers gathered in the Hotel Intercontinental for Stereophile's 30th Anniversary banquet. After a repast of four gourmet courses and five wines, the time came for after-dinner speeches to celebrate Stereophile's past and high-end audio's future. Publisher Larry Archibald described his adventurous transition from the high-end car business to risky publishing. Introducing J. Gordon Holt, he praised JGH's uniquely lucid writing and his unflinching insistence that equipment designed to reproduce music should be judged on its ability to do just thatthe unconventional view that launched high-end audio.
Someday we may speak wistfully to our grandchildren about the "golden age" of digital audio when consumer formats (CD and DAT) contained a bitstream that was an exact bit-for-bit duplicate of the original studio master recording—not a digitally compressed, filtered, copy-resistant version whose sound is "close enough" to the original. Digitally compressed formats such as DCC and MiniDisc represent, in effect, a return to the pre-CD era when consumer-release formats were always understood to be imperfect copies of the studio original. Even the most ardent audiophile accepted the fact that LPs and mass-produced tapes did not, and could not, sound as good as the master tapes they were derived from.
What is the angular separation of your loudspeakers as viewed from your favorite chair? Whatever your answer, it's wrong. Of course I don't mean that it's a factually incorrect answer, just that any single value of subtended angle cannot be ideal for all recordings.
I've been wondering whether we who write about audio will ever agree on a sensible way to express the scale of the differences we hear. If magazines like Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound lack credibility among the broader audience of music lovers and hi-fi shoppers—and we do—one important reason may be our habit of greatly exaggerating the importance of differences that in fact are very small. A subtle improvement, one that most people wouldn't notice except in a carefully arranged comparison, is often described by audiophile reviewers in language that makes it seem like the contrast between a whisper and a thunderclap.