Declining Audio Quality In Music

We‘re getting less and less of a good thing.

Photo by Ingo Schulz

In the early 1980s, I had a friend who was a songwriter. He asked me to play guitar on a few demo recordings he was making. It was my first opportunity to record in a professional recording studio so, of course, I said yes. He booked time in the studio and we went in and recorded two songs.

Once we finished recording, the studio engineer played back the recordings. I was literally stunned by the audio quality. I had never heard recorded music sound that clear and realistic. It sounded amazing. The fact that it was me playing guitar on those recordings was a life-changing experience for me.

A few days later I got a cassette version of the recording. It was a pale imitation of the multi-track tape on playback. It sounded good, but the audio quality was not nearly as good as the original. It was a third generation recording. Multi-track tape to 1/4" stereo master tape to cassette tape copy. I learned a quick lesson in audio quality that day.

People who appreciate high-quality audio (music) are called audiophiles. They attempt to get the best possible audio quality by using high-quality (usually expensive) components in their music playback system. When I was a teen in the 1970s, a good stereo system was on the wish list of almost every teen I knew. Music was important to us and we wanted it to sound good. So we filled our bedrooms with stereo components and huge speakers. And every 20 minutes we got up and flipped a vinyl album over to play the other side.

Then Philips and Sony introduced CDs.

A Compact Disc (CD) — Image: Public Domain

There has been an ongoing debate about the audio quality of music since CDs first hit the market. When CDs were first introduced they were hyped as being a better sounding medium than vinyl. One that would never wear out. But that wasn’t always the case. People quickly discovered that completely digital recordings could sound harsh. Recording and mastering engineers hadn’t yet learned to record or master with CD media in mind. And the lack of natural tape compression often sounded sterile to those of us raised on vinyl and tape. Great debates concerning 16 bits versus 24 bits raged.

Frankly, most consumers didn’t care. They had come from vinyl albums that popped and clicked and skipped and scratched and warped and only got 20 minutes per side. Or from 8-tracks that sometimes had an annoying “click- click” interrupt a favorite song, or crosstalk between tracks. Or cassettes that needed to be rewound or fast-forwarded to get to a particular song, and had thin tape that frequently got chewed up by the player or pulled out of the cartridge. Plus they had worse audio quality than 8-tracks.

Compared to vinyl albums and tape formats, “compact discs” had the advantage of being able to hold a whole album on one side with room for “bonus tracks.” No flipping the disc halfway through was required. Better yet, they had random access. You could easily pick any song on the disc and listen to it. The audio quality was touted by some, but it was really convenience that won most people over to the new format. At least until the record companies got greedy and started charging $18 for a CD of 20-year-old music.

Then Apple introduced the iPod.

The first iPod — Image: Apple

The world changed again. Now you could put hundreds or thousands of songs on a single device. Which was mind-boggling. Sure, the audio compression (a codec that literally discards part of the audio to achieve smaller file size) and low bitrate (amount of data bits processed per second) used to jam so much music on a single iPod sounded pretty bad in the beginning. But people didn’t care. They loved the convenience and were willing to trade off audio quality for convenience. As storage got cheaper, the bitrates increased and files sounded slightly better. They still weren’t “studio quality” but since most people were listening on cheap headphones or earbuds, lower audio quality wasn’t as noticable. And a fair trade-off for convenience. Most people couldn’t tell the difference while walking their dog or jogging or riding a bus to work.

All Attempts At Higher Audio Quality Eventually Failed.

Pono Player, Neil Young’s attempt at a high-quality audio player. — Image: PonoMusic

Companys and individuals have tried to introduce higher quality music formats (Apple Lossless, FLAC, etc.) and players (DAT, minidisc, SACD, Pono Player) over the years but most consumers simply weren’t interested. Few wanted to buy their music yet again in another format or be bothered to convert it. They were often more expensive and not as convenient.

Then Streaming came along.

Streaming took convenience to a whole new level. No physical media was required for the user. Songs existed on a server somewhere. Your phone or computer became your stereo. But audio quality took another hit. All streaming services use audio compression to make audio files smaller so they will stream better. Spotify uses OGG Vorbis and Apple uses AAC codec to compress files. Both make audio sound worse. Most agree that Apple’s codec sounds better than OGG at the same bitrate, but they are still “lossy” formats that discard audio information. Spotify also uses a very low bitrate for its free standard streaming service. Lower than the original iPod bit rate. Tidal streaming service offers FLAC, a compression codec which claims to be lossless. So, in theory, the audio quality should be as good as a CD. But they charge double the price of Apple Music and Spotify to get it.

After his Pono high-res audio player failed, Neil Young launched a new higher quality streaming service he calls Xstream, that adapts to internet data transmission rates and should offer higher quality audio on high bandwidth internet connections. The service currently features only his recordings.

Vinyl. The Comeback Kid.

A vinyl record on a turntable. Photo by Lee Campbell

I should also mention that Vinyl has made a modest comeback in recent years. Vinyl is an analog format like tape. It uses a steady stream to capture audio waves. Analog audio is said to have a warmer sound than digital audio which uses samples (think individual frames in a film) of audio to create an audio wave. But vinyl is an imperfect media that also introduces imperfections in the music like speed distortions, clicks, pops, etc. I believe enjoyment of the tactile experience or nostalgia has probably spurred its comeback more than the actual audio quality, which degrades with each play.

Audio quality remains very important to those who make music, and should be for those who listen. Still, high-quality audio is pointless without high-quality speakers or headphones to do it justice. Do people care enough about high-quality audio to go to the trouble and expense? Or will convenience always win out?

It seems to me, most people will choose convenience over audio quality. My dream is that technology and data transmission advances reach the point where it won’t matter, and uncompressed 32 bit 96kHz audio becomes the standard streaming rate. It would be great, not just for audiophiles, but for everyone who enjoys music. Introducing the general public to details and nuances in recorded music they are currently missing. Although I fear that dream is a long way off. In the meantime, I will have to be content with convenience.