Unsound Logic

Why don’t new audio toys equal better sound?

Just as compact discs were starting to sound pretty good, along comes some nifty new gadget that threatens to wipe out 20 years of sonic progress.

Such is the audiophile’s perpetual woe (and count me among the woeful). In the early ‘60s, transistor amplifiers supplanted the vacuum tube, and it took a quarter-century for them even to approach the tube’s warm, glowing sound. In the early ‘80s, turntable designers were hitting peaks of brilliance, then the compact disc unleashed an era of harsh, cold hash that has thawed into something musical only in the past few years. And now we’re hit once again by the drear of Napster and MP3.

MP3’s ascension in the marketplace became clear earlier this year when the major record corporations decided to co-opt, rather than crush, the medium. Its appeal is obvious: You get on the Net, call up the songs you want to hear, download them onto a device half the size of a Walkman, et voilà ! You’ve produced your own album, for play at home or on the road.

To the audiophile, though, this convenience carries a depressingly heavy price. In raw form, digital sound consists of a stream of bits (0’s and 1’s). One measure of the resulting music’s quality—its detail, texture, and harmonic richness—is how many bits are processed per second. A compact disc delivers 705,600 bits per second, MP3 a mere 64,000—not quite one-tenth the CD’s bit-rate.

The difference is hardly subtle, in theory or in fact, especially when you consider that even the standard CD’s bit-rate fails to deliver everything that’s in music—and falls well short of the information embedded in the grooves of a 40-year-old slab of vinyl. (Of course, you need an excellent phonocartridge and a stable turntable to retrieve all the LP’s information, but that’s another story.)

Still, over the years, recording engineers have learned how to adjust their microphones so that digital’s roughened high frequencies are smoothed out. And hardware designers have figured out how to improve the filters and circuitry of CD players to make them sound less whitish, icy, and flat—in short, less digital. (In the mass-market press, reviews and ads for a good radio or television extol its “CD-quality sound.” In the high-end audio press, where LPs still reign supreme, the highest praise for a CD player is that it has “analog-quality sound.”) In any case, by the start of the new century, digital technology had reached a point where even the hard-core vinyl-lover could listen to CDs for hours without growing weary or nauseated.

Now the digital era, at least potentially, is entering a new phase. A spate of articles has recently heralded the new and improved digital formats on the horizon, most notably SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) and DVD-A (for DVD-Audio, DVDs encoded with music, not movies). This is probably not the place to delve into how these formats work, except to note that SACD transmits 2,822,400 bits per second and DVD-A 2,304,000 bits per second—three to four times the rate of conventional CDs. (For more detail on these formats, click here.)

The bad news is that SACD and DVD-A discs—which, in any case, currently exist for a very small number of titles—are incompatible with normal CD players and with each other. You need an extra box to play either, two boxes to play both. This is one reason you needn’t bother with the arguments over which of the two new formats is better. Because chances are you’re not going to hear even one. Because people—real-world people, as opposed to audiophile people—don’t like to bother with a lot of boxes or a bunch of wires to hook them all together.

I’m one of those audiophile people. I have seven boxes in my living room dedicated to pumping music into my speakers (turntable, CD player, preamp, outboard power-supply for the preamp, a pair of amps—one for the left speaker, one for the right speaker—and a device that purifies the power from my electric sockets), and I would not part with any of them. But I know that most people have just two boxes—a CD player and a receiver (i.e., an amp, preamp, and radio-tuner combined)—and that they wish those two could be consolidated into one.

My friend Edward Jay Epstein recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that SACD is “the wave of the future.” The best SACDs and DVD-A discs I’ve heard do sound better than standard CDs. They reveal more of the breath and tremolo of a singer, the sparkly overtones of a piano, the strum of a guitar, the brass and reed of a saxophone, the wood of a bass, the smack of a drum, the sizzle of a cymbal. At least potentially, they come close to fulfilling the CD’s ad campaign from 15 years ago: “perfect sound forever” (which, by the way, was clearly false, or why would they need “super CDs” now?).

I hope Epstein is right, but I doubt it. Beyond a certain point, most audio consumers value convenience over quality. Vacuum tubes were a pain:You had to adjust their output-bias, and eventually they wore out. Transistors are easy: Turn on the power and forget about them. (And I say this as one who owns a vacuum-tube preamp.) People switched to CDs because records were a pain. You had to clean them, they scratched and picked up dust, and the cartridge-needles that tracked their grooves wore out. (And I say this as one who still prefers LPs.) Another reason they moved to CDs was that, in the early ‘80s, facing recession, the record and hi-fi industries banded together like never before, hammered out a common format, pushed the thing to market and (since they also manufactured LPs) drove vinyl out. The new formats, by contrast, are at war with each other. SACD is promoted by Sony, Telarc, and a few small audiophile labels. DVD-A is backed by Warner, EMI, and Deutsche Grammophon. Meanwhile, nobody’s phasing out the standard CD. Consumers tend to sit out format wars if there’s no great need to choose either side. To make things almost comically improbable for the new super discs, they’re retailing for $25 to $30, twice as high as CDs.

Even if every music lover in America were forced to listen to SACD or DVD-A, and if they all agreed the sound was better than CDs or MP3s, I doubt that very many would rush out and buy an SACD or a DVD-A player. After 20 years of improvements, today’s ordinary CDs are, even by demanding standards, good enough; some are really magnificent. For most people, another upgrade, another box, just isn’t worth the effort. As for MP3, sonic purity is not the issue; it’s fun, convenient, and, to the extent quality does have some effect, it’s a vast improvement over the Walkman it seems destined to replace.