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Digital music portends death of hi-fi
By RON HARRIS, Associated Press Writer
SAN FRANCISCO - Music lovers remember a familiar advertising image
from the past: a man reclined in a chair, head back, blown away by
music from his high-fidelity sound system.
Like the Marlboro Man before him, Maxell's pitchman is now a relic.
With their ability to store vast libraries of music in your pocket,
sleek digital music players have replaced bulky home stereo systems
as the music gear of choice. But the sound quality of digital audio
files is noticeably inferior to that of compact discs and even vinyl.
Are these the final days of hi-fi sound? Judging by the 2 billion
songs downloaded from Apple Inc.'s iTunes service, the ubiquity of
white iPod "ear buds," and the hundreds of thousands of folks file-
sharing for free, the answer is yes.
"In many ways, good enough (sound quality) is fine," said Paul
Connolly, an art installation specialist and longtime audiophile
from Sugar Land, Texas, who's now in the process of digitizing his
2,400 CD collection in Apple's lossless digital audio format.
"The warmth and the nice distortion that the album had was
beautiful," he said. "But do I long for the days of albums? No. Do I
long for the days of CDs now that we've gone digital? No. It's a
Justin Schoenmoser, of San Francisco, also traded in his rack system
for an iPod. Currently working abroad and toting along his iPod, the
convenience of carrying thousands of songs in a gadget smaller than
a pack of cigarettes outweighs the sacrifice of quality.
"The last time I had a full-blown home stereo system was in the mid-
90s, and it was a gift from my parents," Schoenmoser said. "As I
converted most of my stuff to digital over the last 5 years, I
finally got rid of all my old equipment."
A song ripped from a CD at 128 kilobits per second — the default
setting for most software — retains only a fraction of the audio
data contained on the originally mastered disc. Whether you
downloaded the track from iTunes or copped it off LimeWire, the song
remains the same. The small digital music file is a highly
compressed shadow of the originally mastered recording.
And regardless of how advanced your home audio setup is, if you're
pumping a low-rate MP3 or iTunes file into it, you're getting a low-
rate rendition of the original song out of it. It's listenable, but
still lacking the luster of a CD played on the same system.
Some experts say the sound quality lost in the process is
undetectable to most untrained ears. But Michael Silver can hear the
Audio High, his high-end stereo shop in Mountain View, sells things
like a $5,000 needle for your turntable and stereo cable at $2,700 a
"It doesn't compare," Silver said of the sound quality offered by
today's portable digital music players and their compressed audio
If his high-end gear is like a Ferrari for sound, and run-of-the-
mill stereo equipment is a Honda, "a moped is an iPod," Silver said.
That difference in sound quality, perceptible or not, hasn't saved
some of the bigger traditional stereo and music sellers.
Tweeter Home Entertainment Group Inc., a Canton, Mass.-based
retailer of mid-to-high end audio equipment, is closing 49 of its
153 stores nationwide. Slumping sales at Sacramento, Calif.-based
Tower Records led that former industry juggernaut to declare Chapter
11 bankruptcy protection in August. And Circuit City, the nation's
No. 2 electronics retailer, is laying off 3,400 of its most experienced clerks.
Year-to-date data from a recent Nielsen SoundScan report shows sales
of prerecorded CDs in the United States down 20 percent from last
"Everybody has a certain amount of money to spend. It's not that
they're choosing not to spend it on the old-style audio. It's that
something new came along," said James McQuivey, principle analyst
for media technology at Forrester Research Inc.
"The MP3 player integrated the collection of the music with the
playback of the music," he said. "Now all of it's seamlessley hidden
away on a hard drive somewhere."
With the networked household ready to fill the void left by the
demise of rack stereo systems, McQuivey sees a steady stream of new
devices on the horizon that will erase any lingering drawbacks to
Santa Barbara-based Sonos, Inc., for example, sells a system that
allows you to use a handheld device to navigate streamed music from
your PC to an existing amp and speaker or home theater setup, sort
of a hybrid between the old guard and the new.
"A CD is not relevant to me anymore," said John MacFarlane, founder
and chief executive of Sonos. "The iPod and that type of portable
music player has even accelerated that trend."
Even when consumers do buy CDs these days, "the first thing you do
is rip your CDs and put them on your iPods," MacFarlane said.
MacFarlane isn't even convinced that casual listeners can hear the
difference between CD-quality sounds and the dumbed-down MP3 files,
which he calls "good quality, not perfect."
"When Philips and Sony first made the CD, they didn't cut any
corners because they were careful to preserve everything that was
there, even if you couldn't hear it," MacFarlane said. "That 128 is
pretty darn good. A lot of Ph.D.s went in to making that 128 kbps
work well and sound well.
Schoenmoser, the globetrotting Californian, agrees.
"I honestly can't really tell the difference between CD, tape and
digital," he said. "I'd even accept a lower quality as long as it's
digital and portable."
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