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MP3 vs. CD has replaced the digital vs. analogue dispute. 1/19/10

Music Ramble

MP3 vs. CD has replaced the

digital vs. analogue dispute

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

To: BGRASS-L@LSV.UKY.EDU ("Bluegrass music discussion")

On 1/19/10, Ron Block <ronblocktwo@AOL.COM> wrote: “But for sheer enjoyment, mp3s can't beat cd quality. There is just so much more nuance, life, and kick in a cd. It stands to reason - mp3s, good ones, are about 1/10th of the size of a song in wav format.”

Actually Ron, good MP3s (320 kbps) are about 1/5 of a wav in size, but that still means there's plenty tossed out (whether audible or not depends on who is listening).

Interesting, though, that here we are, 27 years after the launch of CDs, debating the loss from wav (or CD) to mp3, whereas 27 years ago, audiophiles were screaming about the loss in sound-quality of digital (ie, wav/CDs) compared to analogue (LPs and R2R tapes, and certainly the master tapes). The "nuance, life, and kick" (at the very least least) of an LP on a good system was lost when compared to digital, so they felt. This was coming mainly from the Classical music world, which was central to the development of the CD (another big difference between the LP>CD and CD>mp3 transitions). In fact, the initial standard of 76 minutes for a CD (before it became 80 minutes) was supposedly because that was roughly the duration of the Beethoven 9th Symphony.

Part of the hue and cry was that, over time, listeners raised on digital would never really know "good" sound and the whole world of audio standards would be lowered. But there were plenty of folks (me included) that considered the CD’s elimination of all background noise and off-center LP pressing problems and the skips and bumps that came with LPs, or that developed with repeated playings, to be such a boon to the overall enjoyment of the music (especially classical, even if some people thought digital was a step down), that the secondary benefits equaled (at least) any supposed (and not universally accepted, anyway) losses in the basic quality. The developers of the digital system did believe that, besides the convenience, the sound quality was superior. A famous advertising phrase used by the classical label, Philips, back then when CDs were new was "Perfect Sound Forever."

What a difference 27 years makes. Nobody saw (or claimed) the mp3 as an improvement in sound quality, but a huge improvement in convenience, with a loss of quality "nobody would really notice." And, based on the popularity of mp3 and the continuing decline in CD sales as they head for extinction, it does seem that people don't notice, or don't really mind. There are still those who trumpet analogue over digital, but in relatively small numbers, and the argument has now shifted from analogue versus digital to compressed (mp3) versus non-compressed (wav/CD), both digital. I can't help but wonder what the argument will be about in 2037.

But I have to think that the old guard (those who are still alive, anyway!) who argued against digital back then might say "I told you so."

I guess I'm just lucky my ears are 50 years old now -- it all sounds fine to me!

Dave Royko

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