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Last Updated: Monday, 29 November, 2004, 14:43 GMT
Sound of music
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Paul Rubens

MP3 listener
Has the quest for storage eclipsed sound quality?
When did you last read anything about an MP3 music player that mentioned the quality of the sound it reproduces?

You'll find size, storage capacity, the type of music files played, even the pastel colour it's available in mentioned in advertisements and reviews, but chances are that sound quality won't get a look in.

Which is odd, considering that not so long ago wow and flutter, rumble, tracking error, signal-to-noise ratio and other arcane measures of sound reproduction quality used to be vital statistics for hi-fi buffs in their quest for the perfect sound system. No spec sheet was complete without them.

People spent vast amounts of money on hi-fi equipment, which invariably meant there was less to spend on records and cassettes. Their attitude was what was the point in buying music if you didn't have anything decent to play it on?

But when it comes to buying MP3 music players today, the quality of sound reproduction has become a bit of a red herring. Something fundamental has changed.

'Forget clarity'

Whereas in the past salesmen demonstrating a new hi-fi system might have said "Just listen to the clarity of the violins", today they're more likely to say "Look at the size of the hard disk on that one."

What's going on? Don't people care about sound quality any more? The answer is that quantity turns out to be more important than quality.

Music lovers today have the opportunity to amass huge MP3 music hoards the size of which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

It's easy to copy CDs, download music files from the Internet, or even clone a friend's entire music collections by attaching a portable hard drive to their computer.

It's quite possible to bag a collection of hundreds of albums in less than an hour, (much of it probably copied illegally) whereas five years most people couldn't hope to assemble such a collection in a lifetime.

What we are seeing is that quality isn't always top of the list any more
Clare Newsome
What Hi-Fi? editor
The reason it's so easy to copy, download and store all this music is that compression techniques like MP3 can make digital music files very small - without this compression a collection would rapidly become unmanageably large.

Compression usually involves a loss in sound quality, but the popularity of MP3 music players shows that most people simply don't care any more. What music lovers want today more than anything else is music - and lots of it.

The manufacturers of digital music players - Apple, Creative, iRiver and others - have been quick to grasp this. The main difference between a cheap and an expensive MP3 player is simply the amount of storage space it has.

It's not just sound quality that's lost its importance - the same applies to videos too. DVDs offer great quality picture reproduction, but many of the latest generation of DVD players can also play DivX files.

DivX is a video equivalent of MP3 compression, and the picture quality of films encoded using DivX is lower than DVD quality.

The end?

The great irony for the entertainment electronics industry is that now that very high quality sound and video reproduction is possible and quite affordable thanks to CDs and DVDs, many consumers no longer see quality as a very high priority.

They are happy to "downgrade" to MP3 and DivX quality to accommodate the deluge of digital content that is getting increasingly easy to accumulate.

So is this the end for the hi-fi equipment buff?

Clare Newsome, editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, says: "A lot of the tweaky geeky stuff is gone, and what we are seeing is that quality isn't always top of the list any more," she says.

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the hard-core sound quality freak. Vinyl and valves are very slowly beginning to make a comeback, as a small but increasing number of music enthusiasts rediscover the joys and sound reproduction of old fashioned analogue record players.

Could it be possible that talk of the demise of venerable hi-fi buff terms like wow and flutter, rumble, tracking error and signal-to-noise ratio may yet prove premature...?

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