That Really Sucks

Readers are constantly telling us that downloaded audio files suck. I tend to agree with them.

This is gonna hurt a bit, so let's get it over with quick (squeamish audiophiles should probably turn the page now): What the mass market selects, audiophiles perfect. That's the golden rule. And what the mass market is on the verge of choosing as the "next big thing" are downloaded digital audio files and hard-disk-based playback and networking devices.

Whenever a great idea comes along, it creates a huge vacuum that inexorably sucks everything toward it. Nobody planned it this way, but unhinged digital audio files, combined with a network and a hard disk, really sucks. Just ask the record labels.

Audiophiles continue to wrestle with vinyl, and have spent the last decade putting CD through finishing school. Both of these formats suck. A lot. We'd like to see SACD or DVD-Audio, or both, take over from there, but they suck only a little. If we're in it for the music, we've got to face reality: discs are losing suction these days, and those measly little downloaded audio files—whose contents are mere shadows of their former musical selves—are part of a mighty sucking wind.

Here's the top-secret formula for creating great suck: Come up with a key benefit whose advantages over what already sucks are so honkin' big and obvious to almost everyone across the board that people see it once and want it as soon as they can afford it. Goosing the digital resolution on the 20-year-old 5" polycarbonate disc is a subtle point for the typical listener, who will quickly figure out that, with SACD or DVD-A, they're being asked to trade CD's portability (footnote 1) and ease of use (these are big suckers) for maybe better sound (a little sucker, as far as most music-lovers are concerned).

The developers of DVD-Audio and SACD knew that just adding a few bits for the audiophiles while taking away fair-use rights wouldn't cut it with the hordes, so they included surround sound (lovingly referred to by some audiophiles as "Surround-a-Clown") to make their formats suck even more. Enthusiasts of multichannel audio aside, will the masses be swept off their feet? If multichannel could spontaneously ignite the public imagination (and pocketbook), wouldn't we all be listening to quadraphonic CDs or DTS 5.1 music discs today? As we know, quad sucked a little in the 1970s (but when disco hit, it sure sucked), and most folks didn't care enough about the quad effect to go through the trouble of setting it up, and vacuous software was hard to come by. Oh, and there was a format war then, too (footnote 2).

Convenience, price, and selection are what draw the mass audio market. To go from relatively bulky, expensive physical objects such as the plastic discs of yore, into the realm of tens of thousands of tiny little audio phantoms that can flit in seconds from music service to desktop to portable, all packed into a hard disk smaller than a deck of cards, is irresistible suck.

The proof is now unassailable. Apple's iTunes is sucking big time, cranking numbers every day that the proponents of SACD and DVD-A can only dream of. But those iTunes sales are a drop in the bucket compared to what's in store for downloading when one realizes that these initial customers are so far only US-based Apple OSX users—less than 3% of the computer market.

Here's the kicker: Apple's slick Hoover Deluxe switched on literally overnight. SACD and DVD-A are still struggling to come up with a way to easily connect their players to the rest of your stuff, let alone some clue of how to sell the masses on two confusing disc formats that are more restrictive to use than the last. In other words, after more than three years on the carpet, they've got two little minivacs on their hands that aren't even plugged in yet. They'll need to spend some serious suckin' money to compete with that 20hp shop vac of the audio world: audio downloading.

Issues inhibiting iTunes suckage so far? The limited size of the store's catalog, its digital-rights management scheme, its unavailability to international and Windows users, and its high price of 99 cents a track. Audiophiles are still quick to complain about the sound quality (footnote 3), but the average user thinks iTunes' AAC-encoded files are a step up from MP3, and hasn't been resisting how much they suck.

Online at this website, we've regularly covered downloading news and hard-disk/networked audio systems. In this issue of the print mag, Wes Phillips gets suckered into reviewing—horrors!—the Apple iPod, which he and millions of others find so seductive and fun to use. In a recent online poll of Stereophile readers, almost 60% of you are already listening to downloaded files. Of those who so indulge, almost half use an iPod to do it. As reader Dave Sheehan put it, "As toys go, it's a lot cooler than a stinking tube amp!"

So are we to be condemned as audiophile reprobates for discussing downloaded audio files and playback devices in these pages? It's time to recognize that downloading compressed-audio files really sucks, and that it's our job to make the process sound better. A lot of our readers are ready to go: In another of our polls, Paul McCarroll writes that he's thinking about a state-of-the-art music server for his home. Woody Battle says he'll bite when they offer a 250GB model that can store plenty of tunes at high sampling rates.

The mass market chooses, audiophiles improve. Our job is to fulfill the promise made by those audio tinkerers who find new and more compelling ways to make the reproduction and distribution of music suck. Downloaded music is not a format, it's a distribution channel. Apple's iPod is not a format, it's a storage device. As such, both are open-ended and can be continually improved. The mainstream has chosen the new way forward. There's that sucking sound again. Let's get to work.

Footnote 1: By "portability" I mean not only easy to pick up and carry with you, but also audio files that are easily transferable from format to format and from device to device. CD meets this crucial definition better than any of the new disc formats.

Footnote 2: For our younger readers: In the 1970s, first there were quad 8-track and reel-to-reel tapes, then two competing vinyl four-channel formats: JVC's CD-4 system, which worked a lot like FM transmission (45kHz recorded on a vinyl record), and Sansui's QS system (based on the CBS SQ system from 1969 and also recorded on an LP. Google "quad audio formats 70s" to learn more.

Footnote 3: Anti-audio-download passions run high among audiophiles: "Another backward step in sound quality? Go and wash your mouths out with soap!" says reader Terry M. Or, as reader Bill Contreras put it, "iPods and similar devices quite frankly represent all that I, as an audiophile, have come to despise. In the end, I would rather listen to no music at all than resort to listening to playback from a compressed-audio device."