If you grew up musically in the 1970s and 1980s, you probably spent a lot of money on audio equipment. And I mean a quantity.
If you’re a guy – and this has been a predominantly male thing – a significant portion of your disposable income went into things like speakers, amplifiers, turntables, cassette decks, and later on CD players for the home and your vehicle.
Striving for perfect audio quality was an obsession. We wanted devices that were not only loud, but also clear, accurate and free of any distortion. The conversations were peppered with phrases like “frequency response up to 20 kHz”, “quiet flutter and wow”, “watt RMS” and “signal-to-noise ratio”. The technology of the recording studio had improved so much that the recordings sounded better than any other that could ever be produced in the real world, and we dreamed of having devices that could reproduce every nuance recorded in the music.
And even as we basked in glorious high-fidelity audio at full frequency, we knew that if we could just afford better gear, it could still be better. Such is the siphonic life of an audiophile.
However, something had gone wrong in the late 90s.
The first problem was a growing problem known as Loudness Wars, an insane pursuit of the perceived volume of a recording. Labels believed that songs from a CD had to jump in the ears of listeners in order to get their attention. This has led to greater popularity and higher sales. Instead, however, there was additional distortion, increased listener fatigue and a complete perversion of all the work that was actually expended on the recording.
Regardless of whether they had their say or not, The Red Hot Chili Peppers became one of the biggest offenders and released over-compressed music on their album Calibration Album (the single is so squeezed that the thing has almost no dynamic range). Metallicas Death magnet is almost inaudible because of the distortion caused by the insane compression.
Radio stations were also guilty of having deliberately set the modulation of their broadcast signal to 115 to 130 percent in order to be louder than their competitors and thus attract more attention. I’m not sure if this has ever been proven, but it certainly caused a lot of audience fatigue. And when these stations played CDs that were mastered for maximum volume, the effect was even worse.
The other problem was the rise of MP3s and some other digital file formats. In the late 1990s, we started making digital copies of our music everywhere. This was made possible by compression algorithms that were used to remove the music that the ear cannot hear. Using the science of psychoacoustics, algorithms shrink the original WAV files by up to 90 percent, allowing thousands of songs to be stored on a computer hard drive. The old iPod Classic can hold up to 160,000 songs. You could never do that with massive WAV files.
Fine, but this creates digital artifacts that can make the music sound harsh and thin to some ears. But because these digital files are so portable, we were willing to trade high fidelity for convenience.
Since then, several generations have grown up who have not experienced music as it should be heard. You have never known music with anything other than “good enough”. What is the problem if it sounds okay from the earbuds or the computer speakers? Did you hear music that was played back with the correct fidelity?
Neil Young tried to light a candle in this darkness with his pono player, a digital music device in the shape of a Toblerone bar that played lossless (i.e. uncompressed audio). It was stiff. So were several Sony devices that I tried. They sounded great – I remember being amazed at the detail on a recording of Bob Marley Legend Album – but were very expensive. And who wanted to carry around a separate device to hear better audio quality through earphones?
Apple didn’t help by not allowing iTunes to play uncompressed files. And none of the cell phone manufacturers.
Then the music and consumer electronics industries began to wake up. What would be the next shiny thing they could offer consumers to upgrade? The result was a push for Hi-Res Audio, music files that were not only uncompressed but also recorded at higher bit rates, meaning they contained more audio information than the best CDs. The most common of these lossless file formats is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec).
While you can buy FLAC encoded music, you will need playable software or a device that will send the signal to audio devices. But there is another option.
Both Tidal, Jay-Z’s streaming platform, and Deezer, the Paris-based streamer, offer premium tiers of uncompressed files. Full frequency music is sent to every device you use through the apps.
For starters, Spotify turned that idea on its head, claiming that the 320 kpbs (256 kpbs if you’re listening on the internet) stream was fine. But last Monday it reversed course, promising a new level called HiFi later that year. Fantastic, isn’t it?
It depends on. Can you tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed music? Will it be worth the extra money every month?
There are a number of factors starting with your ears. How good are they? Hearing decreases with age and certain frequencies seem to disappear. And how many hours have you spent in noisy surroundings (think of concerts) or listening through headphones at a volume that is far too high?
Second, what kind of speakers / headphones / earbuds are you using? If they are cheaper, you will save your money. You cannot reproduce any of the extra nuances in the stream.
And finally, are you really a HiFi connoisseur? Even if you consider yourself an audiophile with excellent hearing, can you really pick the FLAC song in a crowd? I would suggest trying the Digital Feed ABX test which was designed for Tidal when it got high resolution. The more attempts you complete – and it’s often better to take the test multiple times on different days – the better the idea of whether hi-res listening is right for you.
The results can be surprising. You may not hear any difference at all. The music may have details in it that you can hear now. Or the music can just be feeling better.
Me? I’m just glad someone is trying hard to make the music I love sound as good as it did in 1979 in 2021. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for News Gob.
Subscribe to Alan’s “A Running History of New Music” podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play