Does sound quality matter any more?

There was a brief golden moment in our recent history, when quality and quantity lived in harmony in the music world. That moment has, well and truly, left the building, and won't be back for a long while yet.

There was a brief golden moment in our recent history, when quality and quantity lived in harmony in the music world. That moment has, well and truly, left the building, and won't be back for a long while yet.

Naturally, I'm not talking about the artistic merits of music — that's just too subjective a question to answer right here, right now. No, what I'm talking about, is music formats.

For a brief period of time, starting around the mid-1990s, when CD sales overtook cassette tape sales, the dominant music format was also the best quality music format. Some would argue that LPs are still preferable. Yes, vinyl recordings generally have a warmth that CDs don't and yes, there's a heart-tugging charm about it that the humble CD just can't match — but a well mastered CD is (almost) flawless.

From the moment Napster marched onto the internet and blew open the gates to pirating nirvana, compressed music has stolen the compact discs' lunch and it ain't ever giving it back. Overnight, it seemed, Napster was flooded with music of all genres, from all periods, in MP3 format. And, the highly compressed MP3 format was perfect for the internet, which many of us accessed via the wonders of the dial-up modem.

At three to four megabytes per song, MP3 files didn't take too long to download. Combined with a price of zero dollars and zero cents (quite a discount to the AU$8 asking price for a CD single), the trade-off in sound quality was judged by many to be worth it. With the advent of the iPod and then the iTunes store, this trade-off became legal.

Thinking practically, this exchange of quality for convenience makes (almost) complete sense. In a palm-sized device (back then it was an iPod, nowadays it's a smartphone) we could carry around more music (plus podcasts and audiobooks) than what most of us could ever hope to fit onto our shelves. And, seriously, the days of cramming a few CDs into a backpack, awkwardly switching between them on the bus and suffering through track skips at every pothole, isn't quite as romantic as it sounds.

Now that our internet speeds have increased, several times over, and compression technology has resulted in a less noticeable compromise, we've reached the point where, for many of us, sound quality doesn't matter any more.

Given the choice of a larger lossless audio file or a smaller compressed file, of about iTunes quality, most would choose the latter. This isn't because it would take too long to download or that we'd run the risk of filling up our hard disk. No, we'd rather use some of that saved space on our smartphone for more music, more photos, more videos and more apps.

There will always be a small minority for whom LPs or FLAC files will be king, but, in this writer's humble opinion, for the great majority, the thought of upgrading to high-quality audio won't occur until our mobile devices come shipped with between 384GB and 512GB internal storage as standard.

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About the author

Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.

 

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