Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I Killed High Fidelity. And So Did You.

This is an interesting piece on the death of high fidelity sound (link via ALD). Robert Levine covers a wide swath of ground and blames everything from the ubiquitous mp3 to grunge rockers in the 90s to the inescapable sound competition in common listening environments (the car, or the kitchen).

I'm somewhat conflicted on the whole issue. On the one hand, I very much enjoy a larger, more spacious sound (here I lament what compression does to the 80s New Wave band Split Enz). On the other hand, I find the whole DVD Dolby Digital Surround Sound ("5.1" on-the-verge of evolving to "7.1") phenomenon to be just a bit too much. I am not at all keen on turning what might otherwise be a perfectly functional family rec room into a personal planetarium because, frankly, that sort of sound envelope gets me feeling queasy after a while.

I propose the industry meets me halfway. I used to love listening to my records on an old pair of 70s-era headphones. I can recall a particular chimes track on a Rush album that began at the right ear, then seemed to travel over my scalp to land at my left ear. The new Donald Fagen DVDs are engineered for spatial effect, but I don't get that same sense using headphones. Is the difficulty with my headphones? Is this "loss" a function of age? Or are there headphones that can simulate some of the Surround Sound effect, but not enough to induce me to reach for the barf bag?

Fagen has a lot to say on this issue, of course. I find the "Classic Albums" documentary on Aja endlessly fascinating, particularly when Fagen and fellow Dan-man Walter Becker go through a particular cut track by track and explain how the sound layering works. Fagen's Morph The Cat won a Grammy for its 5.1 mix. Levine's article has some fun contrasting sound files, so here is how Fagen's most recent CD sound levels contrast with his earlier work. This is the title track from Morph:

And this is the title track from his 1982 album, The Nightfly:

While I do enjoy the 5.1 tweaking that the latter track has received in DVD format, I'm also disappointed I don't have a "louder" CD version to play in my car. Ah, well: caveat emptor. Such are the pratfalls inherent to a consumer culture.


yahmdallah said...

Y'know, you're right about the surround mixes. I usually stick to the PCM mix on DVDs, if it's available. Once in a while I'm in the mood for big all-around sound, but not as a matter of course.

The one exception to this is they were encoding some classical CDs with regular old dolby 2.0 surround mixes, so if you turned on that filter on your receiver, you sounded as though you were in front of an orchestra - or on the piano - etc. That's better as it doesn't go for "wow" but rather ambiance.

Trent Reimer said...

It takes Audacity to post pictures like that. ;-)

A while ago I took a look at some surround systems and realized I wasn't interested in stashing speakers all over the place. Factor in consideration to my deteriorated hearing and I am ready to settle for some good old fashioned mediocrity.