Articles in NY Times ~ In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back

MartinLogan Audio Owners Forum

Help Support MartinLogan Audio Owners Forum:

This site may earn a commission from merchant affiliate links, including eBay, Amazon, and others.


Well-known member
Jan 9, 2008
Reaction score
Conifer, CO
I've highlighted in red the points that caused me to say out loud " :wtf:" Do you think the iPod generation will evolve or devolve as they hit their 40's, 50's, 60's? Is it a matter of economics and buying power or a total loss of appreciation for realistic reproduction of music?

In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back



Published: May 9, 2010<o></o>

At the ripe age of 28, Jon Zimmer is sort of an old fogey. That is, he is obsessive about the sound quality of his music. <o></o>

<o></o>Joshua Bright for The New York Times
Mario Suazo, 11, listens to his iPod at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. <o></o>

<o></o>Joshua Bright for The New York Times<o></o>
An Ayre Acoustic sound system with Sonus Faber speakers at Stereo Exchange in Manhattan. Price: $125,000. <o></o>

A onetime audio engineer who now works as a consultant for Stereo Exchange, an upscale audio store in Manhattan, Mr. Zimmer lights up when talking about high fidelity, bit rates and $10,000 loudspeakers.

But iPods and compressed computer files — the most popular vehicles for audio today — are “sucking the life out of music,” he says. <o></o>
The last decade has brought an explosion in dazzling technological advances — including enhancements in surround sound, high definition television and 3-D — that have transformed the fan’s experience. There are improvements in the quality of media everywhere — except in music. <o></o>
In many ways, the quality of what people hear — how well the playback reflects the original sound— has taken a step back. To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks are engineered to be much louder as well. <o></o>
In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and convenience. This is the obstacle the industry faces in any effort to create higher-quality — and more expensive — ways of listening. <o></o>
“If people are interested in getting a better sound, there are many ways to do it,” Mr. Zimmer said. “But many people don’t even know that they might be interested.” <o></o>
Take Thomas Pinales, a 22-year-old from Spanish Harlem and a fan of some of today’s most popular artists, including Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. Mr. Pinales listens to his music stored on his Apple iPod through a pair of earbuds, and while he wouldn’t mind upgrading, he is not convinced that it would be worth the cost. <o></o>
“My ears aren’t fine tuned,” he said. “I don’t know if I could really tell the difference.” <o></o>
The change in sound quality is as much cultural as technological. For decades, starting around the 1950s, high-end stereos were a status symbol. A high-quality system was something to show off, much like a new flat-screen TV today. <o></o>
But Michael Fremer, a professed audiophile who runs, which reviews albums, said that today, “a stereo has become an object of scorn.” <o></o>
The marketplace reflects that change. From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. <o></o>
“People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.”
Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner. <o></o>
The songs themselves are usually saved on the digital devices in a compressed format, often as an AAC or MP3 file. That compression shrinks the size of the file, eliminating some of the sounds and range contained on a CD while allowing more songs to be saved on the device and reducing download times. <o></o>
Even if music companies and retailers like the iTunes Store, which opened in April 2003, wanted to put an emphasis on sound quality, they faced technical limitations at the start, not to mention economic ones. <o></o>
“It would have been very difficult for the iTunes Store to launch with high-quality files if it took an hour to download a single song,” said David Dorn, a senior vice president at Rhino Entertainment, a division of Warner Music that specializes in high-quality recordings.
The music industry has not failed to try. About 10 years ago, two new high-quality formats — DVD Audio and SACD, for Super Audio CD — entered the marketplace, promising sound superior even to that of a CD. But neither format gained traction. In 2003, 1.7 million DVD Audio and SACD titles were shipped, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. But by 2009, only 200,000 SACD and DVD Audio titles were shipped.
Last year, the iTunes Store upgraded the standard quality for a song to 256 kilobits per second from 128 kilobits per second, preserving more details and eliminating the worst crackles. <o></o>
Some online music services are now marketing an even higher-quality sound as a selling point. Mog, a new streaming music service, announced in March an application for smartphones that would allow the service’s subscribers to save songs onto their phone. The music will be available on the phone as long as the subscriber pays the $10 monthly fee. Songs can be downloaded at up to 320 kilobits per second.
Another company,, started selling downloads last year that contain even more information than CDs at $2.49 a song. Right now, most of the available tracks are of classical or jazz music.
David Chesky, a founder of HDtracks and composer of jazz and classical music, said the site tried to put music on a pedestal. <o></o>
“Musicians work their whole life trying to capture a tone, and we’re trying to take advantage of it,” Mr. Chesky said. “If you want to listen to a $3 million Stradivarius violin, you need to hear it in a hall that allows the instrument to sound like $3 million.” <o></o>
Still, these remain niche interests so far, and they are complicated by changes in the recording process. With the rise of digital music, fans listen to fewer albums straight through. Instead, they move from one artist’s song to another’s. Pop artists and their labels, meanwhile, shudder at the prospect of having their song seem quieter than the previous song on a fan’s playlist. <o></o>
So audio engineers, acting as foot soldiers in a so-called volume war, are often enlisted to increase the overall volume of a recording.
Randy Merrill, an engineer at Masterdisk, a New York City company that creates master recordings, said that to achieve an overall louder sound, engineers raise the softer volumes toward peak levels. On a quality stereo system, Mr. Merrill said, the reduced volume range can leave a track sounding distorted. “Modern recording has gone overboard on the volume,” he said.
In fact, among younger listeners, the lower-quality sound might actually be preferred. Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, said he had conducted an informal study among his students and found that, over the roughly seven years of the study, an increasing number of them preferred the sound of files with less data over the high-fidelity recordings. <o></o>
“I think our human ears are fickle. What’s considered good or bad sound changes over time,” Mr. Berger said. “Abnormality can become a feature.” <o></o>
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:<o></o>
Correction: May 12, 2010
[FONT=&quot]An article on Monday about the sacrifices in sound quality of audio in compressed computer files misstated the common unit of measurement for the transfer rate for digital audio formats. It is kilobits per second, not kilobytes. The article also rendered incorrectly the name of a New York City company that makes master recordings. It is Masterdisk, not MasterDisk.

related article
[/FONT]Good Enough is the New Great

"Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere," Robert Capps of Wired magazine wrote this summer in an essay called "The Good-Enough Revolution." Companies that had focused mainly on improving the technical quality of their products have started to notice that, for many consumers, "ease of use, continuous availability and low price" are more important.
High-definition televisions have turned every living room into a home cinema, yet millions of us choose to watch small, blurry videos on our computers and our mobile devices. Cameras capture images in a dozen megapixels, yet Flickr is filled with snapshots taken with phone cameras that we can neither focus nor zoom. And at war, a country that has a fleet of F-16 fighter jets that can cover 1,500 miles an hour is now using more and more remote-controlled Predator drones that are powered by snowmobile engines.

Lo-fi solutions are now available for a range of problems that couldn't be solved with high-tech tools. Music played from a compact disc is of higher quality than what comes out of an iPod — but you can't easily carry 4,000 CDs with you on the subway or to the gym. Similarly, a professional television camera will produce a higher-quality image than a phone, but when something important happens, from the landing of a jet on the Hudson River to the murder of an Iranian protester, and there are no TV cameras around, images recorded on phones are good enough.In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. Good enough is now better than great. ROBERT MACKEY
That was a very interesting article.I think as mentioned that they have turned music into a convience thing with little attention to sound quality.

I had read in one of my Stereophile magazines where producer T. Bone Burnett said the public was getting dumbed down with sound quality and related it to this.You go into an art gallery and see a beautiful original painting, take a picture of the painting with a high end camera, take a picture of that picture with a poloroid camera, now zerox that picture and that's what the public is getting for sound quality with their downloads, etc, etc.

On my end, I live in a small city with only one hifi shop. Then there are zellers, K-Mart , etc. Quite possible,most don't know that anything exist besides what they see at the big box stores, or Futureshop.Probably most people haven't had the opportunity to really hear how good music can sound, you know the soul moving experience, so good it draws you in and you are simply amazed.

I beleive most of the members on this forum experience what I just mentioned day in and day out, but the average person simply hasn't had the revelation yet as some of you told in your stories on the thread Your First ML Experience.

I think the public has been dooped into thinking the mp3's, downloads are good enough.Too bad , they sure are missing out on a beautiful , moving experience.

Last edited:
I am going to come as the proverbial "Kids these daze" crab but here goes...

it seems that now people are into mult-tasking at a level never seen. All studies that I have read show and prove that "multi-tasking is stupid"

Here's a little more lighthearted article about that

IMO, when your attention span is non existent and your ability to sit quietly and enjoy the silence and non-input is eroded away, then how can you ever learn to sit and make listening an event in it's own right?

I find it a shame. Most young folks can't turn off anymore. I am not sure where it will go. I see a couple of options:

(1)They learn over the years of maturing that tuning out to tune in to one thing is really a smart and reward experience.

(2) continue to "evolve/devolve" into a human frame trying to behave as a computer.

There is some work pressures that continue to want "higher productivity" and they foolishly measure multi-tasking as being more productive. I see this continuing to have an impact. After all, we tend to behave as we are measured.

To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.


a couple more articles on this subject,9171,1174696,00.html
What everyone is missing here is that the writer is making the assumption that the 5 (or 50) young people he observed are representational of the whole youth population.

Most of my daughters friends are really into music and many of them in the 16-18 year old bracket have half way decent systems, and some are even ripping lossless and wav files to their iPods. (granted I pushed a couple in that direction, but once they got it, they were hooked.)

So I could write an equally skewed article about how today's youth is "really in to music..."

High end audio has always been a fringe thing. Back in the 80's everyone had walkmen and boom boxes and listened to crappy cassettes. And the music industry sold about 600 million cassettes per year. No one was freaking out about the end of the music world then. Honestly, I'd rather listen to a 320kb/sec MP3 than a pre recorded cassette.

These articles have been saying the same thing for the last five years and they always quote the same sources.

There's more to the story...
What everyone is missing here is that the writer is making the
So I could write an equally skewed article about how today's youth is "really in to music..."

There's more to the story...

I say do it! It would be a great read.

Totally agree about the myth / effectiveness of multi tasking.

All one is doing, by multi tasking, is marginalizing one's ability to fully concentrate on one task at a time. And, as a result, the quality of the end product (the current task at hand) will likely be compromised as well.

And then, as I'm sure the research shows, there's the time the brain needs to "get up to speed" on the requirements of performing the particular task at hand, which is not "time efficient" and is not the case if one is fully committed to accomplishing one task at a time.

Frankly, I don't get it and don't want to.

Is this the result of information society? There is so much going on at any given moment, so many sources to follow. It's very human like to try to stay aware of one's surroundings. Given too much information it is impossible to concentrate to any single one issue properly, instead one scans around trying to figure out which input feed is most relevant currently.

I'm at the moment listening to music while reading this forum but I really can't give 100% attention to neither one. Listening to music becomes more like listening to sounds, you lose the emotional contact with the opus. (The Cure is not supposed to be in the definition of background music..) To really appreciate the quality of music and the quality of reproduction of it one needs to concentrate and put some effort in to it.
-my 2 cents-
Part of the problem is that there are so few opportunities to experience truly high-quality audio reproduction these days. So people really don't know what they are missing.

I try and give as many demos as I can to re-acquaint people with the notion that an immersive audio experience is a truly magical thing.

And while all are awed by the experience, it's marred by the impression that it takes >$100K plus dedicated room to achieve that result.

But even listening to lossless encoded material on high-quality earphones (such as Etymotics) from an iPod will show that quality is significantly better than the usual MP3 track on the stock earbuds.
But we should admit: audiophiles are part of the problem. We make it sound like you need all the fairy dust and magic incantations we constantly talk about to get good sound.

Manufacturers contribute to it by making it relatively hard (or very expensive) to have an easy to set up system that sounds great out of the box.

Until high-end audio makes a concerted effort to focus on ease of use and convenience, it will loose out to the platforms that ARE delivering those two attributes over quality.

Look at the volume of posts on this forum and AVS about setup issues, it's huge. No wonder adoption of lower-quality, but higher convenience solutions is rising.
It's easy buy a Naim UnitiQUTE, a pair of 800 dollar speakers and roll. It's even got iPod access to the digital bitstream, like the wadia 170.

3000 bucks for the whole system and you are on your way!
JonFo said:
Look at the volume of posts on this forum and AVS about setup issues, it's huge. No wonder adoption of lower-quality, but higher convenience solutions is rising.
Yes, but the guys here are die-hard fanatics who want to squeeze the last ounce out of their setups. I have helped a few people select systems that cost around $1,000, and the speakers were just placed in a convenient location, but sounded good nonetheless, so setup for the average person is not really an issue. It is only an issue for those of us who do not blink at spending that $1,000 on a pair of interconnects/crossover/etc.
Barnard makes a good point.

Most in this forum see things from a different perspective. I remember the first time that i saw a CD player that cost $1k. I was absolutely astonished and could not imagine why anyone would spend so much. After all, its just a CD player. I've since spent more than that on a used one:eek:

The thing is that everything evolves. Those who find that they truly appreciate fine sound reproduction will find themselves in a situation that we are now enjoying. I would not assume a general deterioration for the appreciation of quality based on those who have not yet reached a certain point in their lives.