Did you need yet another reason to bemoan the record industry? Not only does much of the actual music suck, but the sound quality of our recorded music is the worst since the Edison steam cylinder. Robert Levine writes in Rolling Stone that there are two big reasons why recorded music sounds so bad. The first is what producers call “dynamic range compression.” This effect irons out all the quiet parts of a song, making the experience one long, loud groan. Why is it done? Well, silence is for wimps. If your song’s louder than the other songs, then people will listen, right? Engineers have inadvertently stumbled into a loudness war, wherein they continually master their recordings louder and louder. Anybody who breaks with convention and makes a recording with more range loses out.
The second problem Levine brings up is that we’re listening to MP3s. MP3s strip recordings of sounds barely audible to humans. This is done so you can fit more songs on your iPod. Now, Levine and other audiophiles deplore MP3s for massacring the sound quality of music. But it’s not so clear that most people can tell the difference between the medium-quality MP3s that most of us listen to and higher quality MP3s that preserve barely audible sounds.
Dave Munger at the popular science blog Cognitive Daily put this to the test. He asked his readers to listen to music encoded at different qualities to see whether people could tell the difference, and only a few people could actually tell the difference between medium-quality and high-quality MP3s. Which suggests that the distinction matters only to people with quite sensitive ears.
This is good news, and it brings to mind an insight about snobbery. People have different capacities for sensation. There are people called supertasters who, perhaps because they have more taste buds (the actual mechanism is unclear), can taste more than other people. For supertasters, certain foods taste extremely bitter. They tend to hate olives, for instance, and would probably be disgusted by the kimchee, coffee, and beer that I delight in gobbling.
But I think there’s a difference between discernment—having good taste—and being sensitive—or tasting more than others. We might think supertasters, in pursing their lips at olives and anchovies and other heavenly things, are simply picky. By the same token, the fact that people who have better ears than mine can tell the difference between the MP3s I listen to on my computer and the unadulterated joys of vinyl doesn’t mean that I should think less of my cheap MP3s. Those MP3s, with their poor sound quality, let me listen to 14.7 days’ worth of music on my computer wherever I go. And I will surely sacrifice miniscule benefits in sound quality so I can have more music.