Innovating! or are we?

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It’s a natural part of evolution that the old, inefficient things are replaced with ones that can do the same job better. That’s why we have phones that you can play 3D games on, video chat or just take selfies - all important things! No, but seriously, we already have self-driving cars on the roads today, small portable touch-screen computers (also called tablets) that let you work and play everywhere and technology is also helping to save lives in medicine. And I am very thankful for all of this.

But there is one area that I believe is getting exponentially worse. It’s not because people would not be interested in it - the opposite is true, they are, very. And maybe this interest of the masses and its affordability are what’s killing it.

I’m talking about music. Not music in terms of genres or artists because that’s subjective. I am talking about how we listen to music.

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I was born in 1990, which means that I don’t remember the era of LP’s and really the only thing I know about them is that their sound quality wasn’t all that great. But in that time, it didn’t really matter because music listening options were mostly limited to LPs, tapes, AM and FM radio and frankly, none of these sources have good sound quality. Tt was all about the content back then. There are many fanatics out there who still have huge libraries of LPs and I can totally see the appeal of this medium. The feeling of having something physical, that you touch and load manually is great and it makes the listening experience that much special.

So I was born at around time when CDs started to roll off the shelves and I still have hundreds of them at home and I know I’m not alone. When I was younger, I never really thought of the sound quality of this medium, as I was focused on the content. I always saw CDs as a step up from tapes, and only now looking back, I see that it was a big one. This is the time when we switched from analog music to digital. And digital, obviously, brought higher data capacity and therefore a better quality. You could finally hear the song as if you were sitting at the recording studio.

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And then came Winamp, millenium and MP3s. It all started to go down the hill, we just didn’t know it yet. Everyone was excited that you could fit 5x more songs on one CD and the first mp3 players were introduced. Interestingly enough, I was among the first people in Slovakia to get one. I was sold right after I saw the music video of Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler (I later discovered it was a MiniDisc player). I don’t know how many GBs of (pirated) songs went through that device but I’d been using it until it died.

Fast forward to over 15 years later and MP3s are not going anywhere. I am still (now legally) downloading songs from iTunes, which have an ok quality but they are the same files as we had when Bill Clinton was still in the office.

And here comes the main point of the article. I was listening to my iPod and a satellite radio in my new car today and it was awful. It was’t different from any other day, but I was trying to enjoy it and focus on the music but the experience was just terrible. My car is a 2014 model and has Bose system. The one I had before was a 1994 model and also had a Bose audio. They both sounded crappy when listening to MP3s because the source was crappy, but when I put in my favorite CDs, the old system was WAYYYYY better than the new one. It had less speakers and was 20 years older. Many of you may say that my new car has unfortunate speaker system and while that might be true, I used to work for a car rental company where I drove many, many cars with various speaker system setups and none of them impressed me.

To make it clear, I am no audiophile, just audio consumer with high standards who will take quality over quantity every time.

So disappointed I went to my apartment and decided to listed to music on my (external) computer speakers. I am using Bose companion 2 and while many people think that Bose is generally an overpriced junk, I really like the sound these particular speakers are making. I plugged in my laptop, loaded the CD and it still sounded like garbage.

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And this is the biggest problem. While in the automotive industry, manufacturers force people into new things like airbags or adaptive cruise control because they are just better, music peripherals manufacturers are going the opposite way adjusting to the majority of people who are listening to music on the $10 earbuds bought at Walmart. I don’t have anything against these people, but why is the music industry taking advice from people who don’t know what they are missing, when they are listening to low quality sources on low quality hardware?

Why did we abandon tube amplifiers in favor of flash chips that do not perform better? Why are we listening to compressed music when we already had CDs 25 years ago? Why are we listening to compressed music when we have mini-SD cards can hold up 128GB of data today? Why were cars’ audio systems sounding better 20 years ago? Why are music streaming services pumping out low bit-rate audio? Why are today’s plastic speakers and speakers in laptops sounding so bad if we had beautiful and crisp sounding McIntosh receivers 30 years ago? For the love of innovation WHY?

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Lastly, one thing that surprises me is iTunes. Because that’s where all streaming music services have roots in. I know that Steve Jobs was an audiophile who spent thousands of dollars on his music system at home. Then he released a speaker docking station called iPod HiFi that not many people know about. While it was a commercial failure as Apple was not that popular 8 years ago, I had a chance to listen to it and MP3s from iTunes actually sounded very decent on it, almost on par with CD and renowned speaker & receiver combo. This means that if you have a song optimized for the hardware, it can actually sound good. And that’s what it’s all about, compression without the loss of quality, played on an advanced hardware. In the end, I don’t care whether I have unicorns singing the song, I don’t care about how the music was made, what file it is in, or what hardware you are using to play it, but when I close my eyes, it must sound great, but not today. Dear music industry, get better!

 
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