In praise of–and a plea for–better sounding music.

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]

A few years ago, I was talking to a high school student about music. “What do you listen to your music on?” I asked.

She pointed at her laptop. “That,” she replied. “Through the speakers.”

I was aghast. “You that’s how you hear all your favourite songs? Through laptop speakers?”

She shrugged. “It’s good enough,” she said.

Good enough? What?

If you’re of a certain vintage (i.e. you grew up before the internet and MP3s,) you may remember spending an insane amount of after-tax dollars on a stereo system, hoping to build the biggest, baddest, loudest, clearest, most accurate audio experience within your budget. At one point, I had something in my bedroom capable of acting as a PA for a Black Sabbath set at Glastonbury. The stereo in my car was only slightly less powerful, but still capable of filling a decent-sized arena.

This kind of audio culture (and, okay, fetishization) was everywhere. All my friends — this was almost exclusively a dude thing — all dove into the deep end. We bought what we could afford and then spent many an afternoon in stores auditioning super-high-end speakers and other gear. It cost nothing and we spent the entire time listening to our favourite recordings played back in their best possible glory.

That all came crashing down with the rise of the MP3. Encoders crushed files to one-tenth of their normal size, making it possible to transmit them down old copper telephone wires. MP3s were also seen as the solution to a storage problem on PCs. Computer hard drives were pitifully small by today’s standards, so ripping an entire CD in its original .wav format was a non-starter. One of my old 1 GB HDDs would have barely held one CD. Instead of just storing a couple of dozen songs in .wav, on such a drive, you could store thousands of MP3s.

We marvelled at the magic of this technology. The selection! The portability! The libraries and playlists we built! The file-sharing! Yes, the sound wasn’t quite as good as our old records and CDs, but the tradeoff between convenience and audio quality was worth it. We were okay with substandard audio. And outside of a niche community of audiophiles, that’s where we’ve been stuck for a couple of decades.

Keep reading.

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.

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