Thousands of songs in your pocket: An audiophile's nightmare?

Will consumers who demand portable music always have to compromise on sound quality?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two trends say a lot about music today:

• Online music aggregators keep rising, pushing a blizzard of compressed, mostly MP3-format, digital tunes bought individually and crammed into hand-held players.

• Live-concert revenues keep soaring – thanks to mesospheric ticket prices, to be sure, but thanks also to long queues outside stadiums and more intimate venues.

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What they appear to mean, taken together: Listeners demand portability and a la carte song purchases. But at least some also want "fidelity," to experience a sound that's true to the full aural expression the artist poured out at the moment of a work's creation. Technology, artist advocacy, and buyer behavior will determine the degree to which listeners can have both, experts say.

The main issue: size. New technology can deliver ever smaller, more storable music files – but the process carries a cost in terms of sound quality. Most of what all those earbuds-wearers are hearing, say experts, is bass-heavy noise.

"With the growth of portable audio, people have been rushing to build their libraries; it's been more quantity over quality," says Jennifer Boone, who tracks audio developments for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.

A CEA survey earlier this year indicated that clarity and richness of sound were important to most audio-equipment buyers. It also betrayed some befuddlement.

"[Our] research shows that 56 percent of consumers have never even heard what they would consider to be a 'great audio experience,' " says Ms. Boone, "so they don't know how to evaluate [audio]."

Last month the CEA launched a campaign (www.greataudio.com) to educate buyers about available formats and devices, enlisting the help of the band 3 Doors Down to help reach an audience younger than the typical audiophile.

"They're really passionate about it," Boone says of the band. "It's really important to them that people are able to hear their music in the way it was intended when they were in the studio."

That's important to sound engineers, too. "You spend a long time training your ears and striving to perfect your craft and put out a better product," says Jeff Willens, an audio-restoration specialist at Vidipax in Long Island City, N.Y. "When you finally discover that these things are being listened to on cellphones and through pea-size earphones, it's kind of disheartening."

Mr. Willens cites a technological evolution with a serious hiccup. "For the past 100 years or so ... every new format that came along was an improvement over the previous one," from 78s to vinyl to tape and high-grade cassettes, he says.

After CDs arrived and files became digitally encoded, he explains, there was a push to make files small and still "fairly listenable." The technology used to create MP3s – "lossy" compression – strips away what might be viewed as "unnecessary audio information," he says – information that can, in fact, contribute to richness.

"So MP3 is," he says, "one of the first times where a newer format is of poorer quality than the one that came before it."

Another problem: The sheer number of variations in compression technology. The array of audio file formats includes Apple's AAC and Dolby's AC3, as well as WMA, OGG, FLAC, AVI, and others.

"It's a tragic tradition of the consumer-electronics business that there are always multiple formats," says Buzz Goddard, a senior writer at www.highfidelityreview.com. "When vinyl records started out they ran at four different speeds with six different equalization curves," he says. "The same kind of thing is happening all over again."

For his own use, Mr. Goddard, like Willens, favors WAV, a "lossless" compression format that renders sound accurately but has some drawbacks – notably the tremendous amount of storage space it requires: some 50 to 60 megabytes per song, versus about two for an MP3.

"If I want to put CDs on my hard drive I store them as WAV files because that is a bit-for-bit copy of the original master tape." says Goddard. "If I need portability and I'm running out of space, I would compress it. And I typically use MP3, but I do it at a fairly high setting ... it's acceptable, but not what I would listen to in the home."

In home-audio hardware, the trend has been toward convergence, says the CEA's Ms. Boone – portables that plug into home-theater systems. The trend in the music itself, she says: downloadable and housed on hard drives rather than discs such as Super Audio CD or DVD Audio.

Because there isn't much music available on SACD or DVD-A, Boone says, "consumers opted out of either [disc]. Today, [the industry is] rallying behind high-resolution digital formats – CD-resolution and "lossless" audio files from companies like MusicGiants [www.musicgiants.com]."

Whether such formats go mainstream depends on more than just bandwidth and digital storage space: It's about behavior.

"We've seen this rather dramatic change in people from buying CDs properly to [in some cases] stealing their music online," says Goddard of MP3s, the format of choice for filesharing. "At that 'price' they kind of overlook the fidelity. Are people willing to pay an extra 15 to 20 percent for something that sounds a little better? That's going to be the big question."

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