"It sounds awful."
A good friend of mine spent a lot of money a few years ago on an aftermarket sound system for her beloved 1966 Mercedes sedan. Now, she's not a happy camper. A quick listen confirmed things. The sound quality was a notch or two above AM radio (hey, no offense AM).
A look at the gear and the installation left me a bit puzzled as the equipment was of good quality and the installation was a work of art. Perhaps a crossover failed, an amp fried or some cabling came loose. I asked her how it sounded when she first bought it. "Fantastic, but now it just sounds…blech." I thought "blech" was pretty charitable given the expense of the system. Yes, all the speakers seemed to be working, we could get more than enough volume and there was prodigious bass, but…
When I asked her to play some different music, she grabbed her iPod Shuffle to skip to another track. We listened to a few more songs from her collection, some sounded a bit better and some a bit worse. But none of them sounded that fantastic.
I retrieved a CD from my car (Thomas Dolby's wonderful "Aliens Ate My Buick") that I often use as a reference and the system sound came alive. Her jaw dropped and a huge smile lit up her face. "Wow! You fixed it. What was the problem?"
There was nothing wrong with the system; the problem was GiGo (Garbage in, Garbage out). Her music library was comprised of low resolution compressed music she purchased online. I held up her tiny music player. It is truly an engineering marvel. However, its diminutive size graphically underlined the toll that convenience and instant gratification had taken on her enjoyment. In squeezing her music down to fit into the miniscule player, she had lost some essence of the music.
Ironically, while the recording industry has evolved to better-than-CD quality High Resolution Audio, most listeners are only hearing worse than CD quality "lossy" music (which has been data compressed for portability and easy downloading).
So how does one avoid GiGo in today's music listening landscape?
1) Stop buying music that has been compressed in a lossy format. That includes AAC (most notably used in the iTunes store) and MP3 (used by Amazon, Google and most other services). Instead, look for retailers offering formats like DSD, FLAC and WAV. At a minimum, buy the CD. You can easily create a compressed version for listening on your phone but still have an uncompressed digital CD for home listening. You'll also be in a good position in the future when your music player isn't limited to lossy, compressed music files. Remember, once the music has been compressed with a lossy system, you can never restore what was lost!
2) Get a player that can handle High Resolution Audio formats from companies like Astell&Kern, FiiO, Pono and Sony. They start at under $200 and you will immediately understand what you've been missing, the sound is amazing!
Even if your current player or phone can't play High Resolution Audio (Hi-Rez Audio) like the old Mercedes system, most new AV receivers, Blu-ray players and computers can. In the not too distant future, we will see widespread support for Hi-Rez audio on most phones and portable players. In turn, retailers will offer uncompressed music and this sad chapter of compromised music listening will be history. Hopefully, many will offer a reasonable “upgrade path” for previous purchases and you won't be stuck with a compromised music collection or having to recreate your library from scratch.
As for my friend, she now only buys the “real deal” and she's eying a new portable player. I wish I had one of the new crop of Hi-Rez capable smartphones like the HTC M8 that can play Hi-Rez files (alas my carrier contract is many months from upgrade time). I'd love to see her jaw drop again listening to full fidelity even from a cell phone.
By Buzz Goddard - CEA Audio Board member and Guitar Junkie