Modern Hi-Fi: What Really Happened to the High-End Stereo Market

Old people complaining about ‘the kids these days with their so-called music’ goes back to at least the time of the ancient Greeks, when Plato griped that:

“Music was once divided into its proper forms…not permitted to exchange the melodic styles of these established forms and others…The rule was to listen silently and learn; But later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent, but were ignorant of the laws of music…

“Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave…They infected the masses with the presumption to think themselves adequate judges…the criterion was not music, but a reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.”

Wow. Where’s a glassful of hemlock when you need it?

All that’s new in the age of high technology is that old folks are no longer content to merely complain about what kids listen to, but what also they listen on.

To be fair, there are also plenty of youngsters who have taken to repeating the claim that ‘sound just ain’t what it used to be.’ Commonly cited culprits include iPods, MP3s, earbuds and YouTube.

While it’s true that low res MP3s, YouTube clips, and earbuds can sound worse than some of the best gear of years past, there are actually many cases in which they sound better.

Whaaaaa? Yes. You read that right. If you’re confused, you are not alone. Read on.

Are We Comparing Apples to Apples or to Filet Mignon?

Most mainstream articles about generational shifts in sound quality (like this one in The New York Times last week) make the glaring error of comparing things that have nothing to do with to each other.

Articles along these lines tend to draw a hasty and dubious line in the sand between “yesterday’s” listening devices (in this case $30,000 home Hi-Fi systems) and “today’s” listening devices, like iPods and Laptops.

This however, is like starting a debate about the relative quality of modern automobiles by comparing a Sherman Tank to a Ford Focus. Better perhaps, to compare the Focus to a Pinto.

The reality is that audio quality is better today than ever before, once you do the reasonable thing and make that comparison dollar-for-inflation-adjusted dollar.

An iPod classic costs a bit over $200, and can hold tens of thousands of songs at a bitrate 320kbps, which has proven again and again to be indistinguishable from even super-hi-res 24 bit files.

Meanwhile, the original Sony Walkman, the TPS-L2, sold for $200 back in 1979. That’s almost $650 in today’s dollars. How about its quality? Well, if we were to measure it in digital terms, its audio performance might be equivalent to about 6 bits.

And that’s just the playback device. You know those earbuds that the fogeys are always complaining about? As bad as they are compared to some of the better over-the-ear  headphones available today, if you were to directly compare them to some of the cutting-edge headphones from the 1970s, they’d sound like magic.

Even a few decades ago, at the height of the analog “hi-fi” era, headphones were largely terrible, and your choice was usually between a pair that either A ) Had no bass, B ) Had no treble, or C ) both.

The few pairs of headphones at the time that were even remotely good by today’s standards would require an amp so powerful that they’d never work with a portable device, much less be affordable for the average listener.

And if you could drop our very best headphones on a listener from that era? Forget about it. There would be no words or even metaphors to describe the sound quality. (In 1979 they hadn’t invented double-rainbows yet. That’s an extra-bonus science fact.)

All of this is without even mentioning that given a decent enough file size, the straight up line output from an iPod or Mac laptop sounds measurably closer to the source than any record player or cassette deck ever made, and many reel-to-reel machines, too.

It may rankle some audiophiles to hear it, but 320kbps Spotify stream can very well sound more accurate to the source than 180 gram vinyl, and an HD YouTube video isn’t super far off with an audio bitrate of 192kbps. (It’ll certainly sound closer to the original recording than any cassette tape.)

On the other side of the spectrum, the lowest quality YouTube streams (which comparatively few people listen to) don’t sound any worse early transistor radio set to an AM station, which is what we should probably be comparing them to. Nostalgia makes one of these things charming and the other crime. Fortunately, nostalgia is a renewable resource. It just takes time.

It’s The Same Way At The High End, Too

This kind of progress isn’t unique to the low-end consumer market. What killed the high end stereo market is that the cost of insanely great speakers came down dramatically, too. If you want great audio quality, today you can get it at a price that would have been unheard of in decades past.

In 1979, a basic run-of-the-mill stereo system cost the equivalent of more than $960 in today’s dollars. This was not the price of a “great” stereo. It was the price of a passable one. Today, even a few hundred bucks could get you some pretty damn good self-powered studio monitors that are likely to blow that stereo away.

At the higher end, if you were to spend anywhere from $1,500 – $5,000 on a pair of powered studio monitors and throw a computer or portable audio player that has decent D/A into the mix, you’re pretty much done. You’re going to easily equal or exceed the sound quality of almost any old school hi-fi system on any number of objective measurements.

Speakers just don’t get that much “better” once you reach the high end of the studio market. There’s no question that at the high end of the market, both the little nearfield monitors and the big wall-mounted studio speakers of today are, objectively speaking, “better” at their jobs than the ones from the 70s.

The days of $30,000 home listening systems may essentially be over. The days of good sound are not.

What happened really to the high-end consumer stereo market is that the kinds of people who used to buy Hi-Fi gear just started buying personal studio gear instead. Yesterday’s stereophile is often today’s aspiring producer. And those kinds of people are listening to music on speakers that are as good or better than the old ones ever were! They just don’t cost as much anymore.

The list of problems affecting musicians and fans today may be long — but by no means does it include a lack of good speakers on the market.

So Why Do We Keep Getting It Wrong?

If it’s so easy to demonstrate that sound quality has improved so much across the board, why do mainstream news outlets keep falling back on the story that consumer sound quality used to be better back in ‘the good old days‘?

I can think of about a half dozen reasons, including a lazy reliance on quotes over research and the personal agendas of the people being quoted. But for now, let’s stick to three of the most forgiving possibilities.

The first is that when it comes to sound quality, what sounds sounds good or “right” to our ears tends to be what sounds familiar.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves longing for the subtle and familiar distortions of an old record player, tape deck or receiver even if they measure worse than a newer model in every capacity. They’re not necessarily “better” in some objective sense, but we may happen to like them more.

That’s huge and very valid reason for sticking with an older system if it still makes you happy. Personally, I have an old 1970s Pioneer stereo system that I love just as much as my super-high quality modern studio speakers. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if some of those preferences prove to be generational. We don’t have to trash what the kids are listening on today to feel better about what we’ve got.

The second factor is that a lot of older audio enthusiasts (as well as younger folks who grew up listening to second hand systems) may have simply liked music more intensely back in the day, and mistakenly attribute some of that youthful excitement for music to their sound old system rather than to their raging hormones.

It’s an ugly little secret that no one in music likes to admit, but the truth is that after 30, you don’t get the same kind of enjoyment out of music that you did in your teens and early twenties. That’s not to say that you don’t enjoy music as much or as sincerely. It’s just that the enjoyment is not quite so feverish and blind. It’s a lot like the difference between falling in love at 13 and at 35.

The third major factor is that, although perception is not reality, it can be almost as powerful and nearly as stubborn.

Earlier this year, Rory Sutherland gave a TED talk about applying the lessons of behavioral economics to engineering decisions. In it, he relays a story that serves as a near-perfect parallel to what’s happened in the audio world:

“In the U.K., the post office had a 98% success rate at delivering first-class mail the next day. They decided this wasn’t good enough and they wanted to get it up to 99%. The effort to do that almost broke the organization.

“If…you’d gone and asked people, “What percentage of first-class mail arrives the next day?” the average answer…would have been 50-60%.

“If your perception is much worse than your reality, what on earth are you doing trying to change the reality? That’s like trying to improve the food in a restaurant that [stinks of raw sewage]. What you need to do is first of all tell people that 98% of mail gets there the next day, first-class mail. That’s pretty good.

[I]n Britain there’s a much better frame of reference, which is to tell people that more first-class mail arrives the next day in the U.K. than in Germany. Because generally in Britain if you want to make us happy about something, just tell us we do it better than the Germans!”

So don’t worry: If you care about sound, chances are your stereo is already better than your dad’s. You’ve won that battle.

And if you don’t care about sound yet? Well, it’s about time to start! Today you can have better headphones and better speakers than anyone else in history and you don’t have to be a millionaire to afford them.

If you don’t have some great speakers in your life, what the hell are you waiting for? If you care at all about music or films, you deserve them. Your life will never be the same.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist

This entry was posted in All Stories, August 2013, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, Most Popular, Rants and Raves, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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