Nov 032014

She looked up at me, smiled and shrugged, as if to say “Yeah, so?”

I’d just asked my five year old daughter to take a listen to some new speakers I’d installed. It was a 2.1 stereo system with subwoofer and integrated amplifier, all for less than $80 delivered. The reviews on Amazon offered a lot of praise about the sound quality despite the low price. Once hooked up I was surprised how good they sounded on a reference audio source. Especially for their diminutive size and low price. At that moment my daughter had bounced into the room and I wanted to share the experience of being so pleasantly surprised by a new product. And that was where things went off the rails.

As the impressive sound flowed around us and she stared blankly back at me, I realized “She doesn’t even know what bad audio sounds like. To her, great sounding audio is just audio.” Kids under a certain age simply don’t experience crappy sound often, or perhaps at all. To them, audio reproduction is either ‘great’ or ‘broken’, there is no middle-ground of ‘everyday bad sound’. When I was a teenager, bad audio was pretty much the expected default. Most places we went generally had lousy audio, except perhaps a concert, a theater or an audiophile’s house. The bad sound wasn’t just from terrible speaker design, it was also from substandard materials, poor placement and abysmal audio sources. Whether it was the snap, crackle, pop of an LP on my dad’s $500 turntable, the smeary, muddled sonic mess created by an audio cassette, or the incessant background hum on my cousin’s vintage dashboard 8 track player, it just sounded bad. But it was the kind of bad we were used to.

I did a quick mental rundown of the persistent audio sources in my daughter’s life. She watches a little bit of TV in the living room which has a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound system. Our home theater has a THX certified 7.1 system. The sound systems in our cars are standard manufacturer equipment, which these days sound quite good. She even has a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones for her iPad. The sources feeding into these systems are all at least 44.1 Khz, 16-bit digital recordings compressed with recent generation codecs. Kids these days simply have no experience with how bad a fuzzily modulated sound source over-driving cheap speakers can sound. Yes, I just said “Kids these days” but I’m not devolving into a rant of “In MY day we used to have to…” It’s actually a nice reminder just how far the march of progress has carried us in an area we don’t think about as much as ‘modern wonders’ like computers and mobile phones.

Even setting aside the impact of digitization of sound sources, over the past couple decades the typical quality of sound reproduction per dollar has scaled up dramatically. Although sound design used to be largely a black art, the knowledge of how to engineer low-cost speakers and amplifiers at high quality has become ubiquitous. The cost of components and materials has fallen to the point that even ‘cheap’ gear sounds remarkably good and ‘cost effective’ gear can sound amazing. There’s little additional value in paying top dollar for audiophile-grade equipment. The improvement over well-chosen mainstream gear is negligible. Audio purists used to pay $1,000 and up per speaker. Today, entire 7.1 speaker systems with outstanding quality cost less than $1,000 total. And that’s pretty awesome.

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