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Opinion: Digital Music Sacrifices Quality for Convenience

posted Mar 25, 2011, 11:01 PM by Golden Knight   [ updated Mar 25, 2011, 11:03 PM ]

By Matt Ramirez


In recent years, the audio quality of music has grown progressively worse. In the age of MP3’s and digital downloads, the quality of music of today compared to the quality of music of the past has greatly diminished.

 In the early 1900s, vinyl records had replaced the old phonographs as the alternative for listening to music. At the time, the records were as close to live sound quality that a listener could get. Unfortunately, these records were big, bulky, and breakable. One had to worry about the needle which allowed people to play vinyl records on their turntables whether it was too sharp or too dusty. One also had to worry about heat and dust because it affected the pitch and even the stereo balance on the records which resulted in hissing sounds and sudden pops. Though it was the best quality of its time, it did have its many shortcomings.

 In the 1930s, the cassette tape made its debut. The great thing about cassettes was that you could record pretty much anything, even live radio. However, as great as the cassettes were for recording, they were terrible in quality. The film would sometimes have to be detangled with a paper clip or could be damaged by heat, which resulted in degraded sounds.

 CD’s hit the market in the late 1970’s and would soon replace the old vinyl records and the cassette tapes. As opposed to the needle or spool, CD’s use laser technology in order to play any audio files that are on it. The quality has far surpassed that of its successors. A disk is much smaller than a vinyl record and has better sound and recording ability than the cassette. CD’s did, however, prove to be fragile to heat, dust, and scratch marks.

 In the late 1990s, the Internet allowed for the MP3 to rise in music. This has probably been the worst mistake in the history of music listening. The way an MP3 file works is that it takes a song and compresses it to make the file smaller, thus resulting in freer disk space. Compression essentially increases the volume of the quieter elements within a mix while holding steady the peaks of the louder parts. By doing so, it excludes the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice.  Much of the information left out is at the very high and low end (MP3s do not reproduce reverb well for similar reasons). So, when the CD master tape is then consumed via MP3, the flattening effect is enhanced further. The result: an unsatisfying, brittle, indistinct, hollow experience with no kick.

 Just as the CD replaced vinyl, we all know that MP3 and other digital formats are quickly replacing CD’s as the most popular way to listen to music. Many have lost interest in high end stereo systems while younger listeners, most notably our generation, have grown so used to dynamically compressed music that the battle has already been lost. 

 So, the next time you decide to purchase a song or an entire album, ask yourself, “Do I want convenience or quality?” If you see me walking down the street with a Walk-Man in one hand, a pile of CDs in another, and my old iPod in the trash, don’t ask me why.