Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Death of Sound

Have you ever put a music CD into your computer’s disc drive? Try it. Check the properties of the disc. You’ll find that a full-length album is upwards of 500MB of data. Why, then, is that same album under 100MB when you pay to download it in MP3 or iTunes formats? Digital music vendors will give you a simple answer; that these are “compressed” or “lossy” formats. A sound engineer will tell you that these formats cut out certain sound frequencies, particularly extreme highs and lows. Obviously you’re losing something, but what does this actually mean to you as a consumer? The answer is partially dependent on how you choose to listen to music.

There was a time when consumers listened to music through stereos designed specifically for their current music format. Over the past decades, that has changed. More often than not, consumers listen to their music through built-in computer speakers or low-cost headphones, most of which are incapable of accurately reproducing high and low-end sound. If consumers are used to listening to speakers which are incapable of accurately playing back these frequencies in music, they don’t notice the difference when they switch from compact discs to low quality sound files. Considering the breadth of this phenomenon, many consumers are unaware that the crisp highs and powerful lows they hear through sound systems at movie theaters, concerts and nightclubs are actually intended to be present in the music they purchase.

By following a few simple steps, you can enhance your listening experience and get back to hearing music as it was meant to sound. First, be aware of your digital formats. The lower the bitrate of a digital file, the worse it sounds. If you still rip your music from CD’s, there are free programs available which allow you to transfer music in high quality formats like WAV and FLAC. Keep in mind many portable players can now support these formats.

Next, be aware of your speaker quality. Pay attention to frequency range (the larger range, the better.) High-quality specialty headphones are available from many different companies. While Bose is renowned for their sound quality, their headphones can run as high as $400. If you don’t have the cash, Apple offers in-ear headphones boasting excellent mid and high end with acceptable bass presence for $79. On the other end, Monster’s Beats line offers powerful bass with decent mids and highs in the same price range.

For those with desktop computers, adding a home speaker system can completely transform the way you listen to music. A subwoofer is bound to remind you that bass is an integral, dynamic part of music and not just a lifeless thud. As with headphones, there is a wide price range. A 2.1 system (that is, left and right speakers with a subwoofer) can run anywhere from $15 to $500. In general, any of these systems will be a large improvement over the speakers that came standard. Just keep in mind the investment here isn’t just about music; all of your computer’s sound will be improved and most of these systems can also be hooked up to televisions, DVD players and video game systems.

Finally, let your online music vendor know you care about sound quality. After all, if you’re going to pay for music online, shouldn’t you get the same caliber product you’d buy at a competing record store? Due to popular demand, iTunes, Amazon MP3 and many other online music vendors have increased the bitrate of their digital files in recent years with no increase in cost. There's still a lot of room for improvement, but it just goes to show---filing a complaint can actually make a difference.

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