An inconvenient truth: Why music sounds bad

The Audiophiliac thinks the root cause is that bands mix their music to sound "good" over tiny wireless speakers, streaming music services, and cheap earbuds.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

CNN recently reported on the "death" of the home stereo system, and while that's an exaggeration, few people -- young or old -- have "stereos" anymore. CNN was asleep at the wheel on this one; precious few folks have had stereos for decades. Music is now almost always consumed in cars, and over phones and plastic computer or Bluetooth speakers. If there's an imminent "death" on the horizon, it will surely strike MP3 players and iPods. Phones have already taken over as the portable music players of choice. Do you know anyone who still uses a MP3 player, one that's not also a phone?

Today's bands and record labels know their audiences aren't listening at home on a stereo, so they have to make sure the music's volume never changes. That way the listeners can hear it well enough in the noisiest of places. That's why engineers compress music, compression boosts the softer sounds, and flattens the really loud bits, so it all comes out sounding the same. From a whisper to a scream, it's all equally loud. Adding a little extra zing to the mix helps it cut better over the lowest-fi Bluetooth speakers, especially when there's lots of competing sound on the beach or park or other settings. And since most BT speakers are just one speaker, mono is well on its way to replacing stereo over speakers. They haven't figured out how to lose stereo over headphones just yet, but given enough time I'm sure it will happen.

Of course, folks who occasionally listen in quieter places, over decent speakers or headphones, are rightfully appalled by the sound. They voice their outrage on various forums, including this blog , but we more attentive listeners are just a tiny minority. Most folks happily consume overly compressed and processed music, and sadly, I can't see that changing anytime soon. That's reality; the engineers will continue to skew their mixes by pumping up the midbass and adding sizzle to the treble, so the sound cuts through the murk. Subtlety doesn't make sense anymore.

The brightest ray of hope for good sound is the continuing vinyl sales boom, but again, the overall number of vinyl listeners is small. We can be pretty sure that those lucky few are listening to their LPs at home, and not on a bus, plane, car, or on the beach. That distinction is a crucial one, and that's why vinyl is less likely to be enjoyed as background sound.

That's my current theory about why so much music sounds bad; feel free to post your opinions in the Comments section below.
About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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