The Art & Science of Sound -

In Defense of Quality, Or, How Ditching Lo-Res Made Me Like Music Again

By Jack Sharkey, November 14, 2017


Hearing is believing. The downside to that old adage is that if you hear low- quality sounds long enough you’ll start to believe high quality sound doesn’t matter.

Our ears are fickle instruments and they can be lulled into a false sense of quality. Not unlike the proverbial frog in a pot of water being slowly brought to boil (although arguably not quite as dire), our ears will get used to poor quality music over time and they’ll eventually convince our brains that everything is just fine.

The main adversary to quality musical reproduction is convenience, and in the past ten years we have been conditioned to believe convenience trumps quality. When iTunes was first released in January 2001, we were all mesmerized by this uber-convenient musical platform that allowed us to take tons of music with us wherever we went. Throw on a pair of earbuds or use one of those handy little car adapters and – boom! It didn’t sound very good but the novelty of having it with us everywhere was potent.

Of course, since Edison first recorded himself saying Mary had a little lamb the quality of reproduced sound has had its ups and downs. The history of reproduction technology is rife with really bad formats – 78 RPM disks, AM radio, 8-Track tapes, 45 RPM singles, MTV, and most recently the mp3 or any of its lo-res audio cousins. Luckily, smart people like Edison constantly strive to improve technology otherwise this Brandi Carlile track I'm listening to right now would be indistinguishable from Tom and his nursery rhymes.

In the 80s and 90s we all chucked our perfectly serviceable vinyl LPs for CDs and the music industry made tons of money. In the 00s we all chucked our CDs for mp3s and the music industry bemoaned the death of the music industry. From 2001 to 2011 we all ripped our CD libraries onto our computers in mp3 format (before we stopped buying CDs altogether) and in so doing sent millions of bits of information that made our music sound really good off to the bit bucket. We were so in love with convenience we forgot that the point of music in the first place is how it makes us feel and how it sounds.

But here we are at the end of the Twenty-Teens and we’re waking from the long lo-res international nightmare. All of that lo-res stuff is thankfully now just another bad format in a long history of bad formats.

Storage space has come way down in price and gone way up in capacity at the same time wireless technology has begun to improve. Today high-resolution music files are almost as convenient as mp3s. Okay, maybe you still can’t store a lot of decent sounding music on your phone but if you’re adamant about using your phone to control your music library you’ve got Tidal and Spotify Premium to help with that.

I recently began using a new, really powerful digital music player – Roon – with my LS50W speakers and my love for really crisp, articulate, three-dimensional music has finally been mated to the convenience of streaming. In fact, I spent three weekends this summer ripping every CD from my collection that wasn’t already ripped in a WAV or other high-res file onto a Seagate drive and a NAS server in FLAC or AIFF format, and music I’d been familiar yet somewhat bored with suddenly came back to life. The pure joy of actually hearing the attack and decay of both heads on a kick drum and the pluck of a Fender Precision bass as opposed to the pluck of a Rickenbacker (yes, there is a difference) came rushing out of my speakers. I knew all along how to listen for such things, I’d just been conditioned into thinking I could never hear those things while streaming my music. Dopey 70s songs and 90s grunge suddenly lifted out of the speakers like they’d been hit with a magic spell. My rip of Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain now had the plaintive immediacy of my vinyl original.

The Compact Disk was a marked improvement in the convenience and quality of music that we all seemed to forsake for the convenience of the digital music file, but our ears and emotions are always going to be drawn to sounds in their fullest and so we, as music lovers, will always be on the lookout for the best possible musical experience.  

Treat your ears and soul: Get yourself some high-res files of the same tired old lo-res files you’ve gotten used to hearing and listen to the music as it floats in the air – the way it was intended. You don’t need to go crazy – digital files at the same resolution as the good old CD are perfectly fine. Of course, the limits of the CD have long ago been surpassed and all of that tech is just lying around waiting to enrich your life, so my suggestion is to dive in as soon as possible. I promise you it will be like re-awakening the flame of a passion you’ve long forgotten exists.

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