A Documentary on the Decline of Sound Quality. Blame Technology.

Earlier this summer, I sat down with a high school student who was working on an essay about how the Internet has affected the music industry. At some point in our conversation, I asked her how she listened to music.

“Earbuds mostly,” she said.

“That’s it? You don’t listen through speakers?” I countered.

She thought about it for a second.  “Sometimes I listen through the speakers of my laptop. That’s fine.”

“That’s fine? You’re okay with quality of that sound?”

“Yeah.  It’s good enough.”

Good enough.  I’ve heard that a lot over the last couple of years–and it really, really bothers me.  Musicians, producers and engineers agonize over mic placement, room acoustics, outboard effects, mixing and mastering to create full frequency sonic masterpieces only to have them squished into MP3s and listen them through cheap earbuds or bad speakers.  That’s just…wrong.

If you’re of a certain age, chances are you lusted after some kind of huge speakers that could bump out massive quantities of bass.  I really, really, really wanted a giant set of Cerwin-Vegas like these for my basement bedroom in my parents’ house.

Cerwin Vega

But something has changed since then. There’s a generation of music fans for whom high-fidelity just doesn’t matter.  Why?

In a word, technology.

The convenience of MP3s and portable music players has trumped any desire for properly accurate reproduction of music.Why bother with all that expensive gear? And if you grew up with MP3s and rips from YouTube, you have no idea what glorious hi-fi sound is like.

A new documentary entitled The Distortion of Sound explores this phenomenon.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38536 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “A Documentary on the Decline of Sound Quality. Blame Technology.

  • >> There’s a generation of music fans for whom high-fidelity just doesn’t matter. Why? In a word, technology. <<

    I agree it's about tech. But I'm not sure it's anything new. In the 1960s, it was transistor radios. "Good enough," and they provided mobility. In the home, though, stereo systems promoted hi-rez listening. On the other hand, cheap, self-contained turntable-speaker units degraded sound quality. I'd say, overall, that today's earbuds and even laptop listening is generally better than convenience systems of previous generations. Still, as you say, a huge amount of studio work is lost to nearly everyone.

  • Don’t worry Allan! Hi-fi nuts still exist, but we no longer dwell in our parents basements blasting Blue Oyster Cult at a bajillion decibels. Car audio is a gateway drug to incredible sound quality and obscene volume. My current setup is well over 3000watts total, 6 mids, 2 stand alone tweeters, a colossal 100lb sub woofer, and it’s capable of true 7.1 surround. Just wait till these kids wearing earbuds grow up and buy a car!


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