Rich Warren: Digital or analog, it's all about celebrating music

We live in an age of cognitive dissonance. Dissonance being a particularly appropriate word, as it is often applied to musical clashes.

This cognitive dissonance began building the day the compact disc arrived. Initially everyone wanted everything digital. Most listeners prized CDs like precious gems.

Then the inevitable backlash arrived. A significant number of the golden ears community railed against the cold, harsh digital sound. To some extent they were correct. Many, perhaps most, early CDs were recorded without acknowledging the difference between analog and digital on primitive hardware.

Since 1990, the recording world see-sawed between appreciating the many attributes of digital recordings and glorifying analog and the LP record.

Interestingly, digital video eluded the same reaction. No one wants to return to even Super VHS or laserdiscs. Some people prefer analog television, but that's because of reception issues, not video quality.

The movie industry is forcing theaters to convert entirely to digital projection, even though the best 35mm film prints look better than the best currently available digital. Because conventional analog film projectors are huge, hot and very expensive, most cinematistes view digital video at home.

While LPs demonstrated some merit, the CD's portable competition during its first two decades, the compact cassette, garnered no tears when it quickly faded around the turn of the millennium. Digital Audio Tape and Sony's flawed MiniDisc never truly competed with either the LP or the CD.

So back to dissonance. As everything becomes digital, the popular quality of digital audio declines. Although audiophiles can download high bit rate files from the Internet, most everything commonly available is slightly lower and in some cases much lower than CD quality. This partially explains the increasing resurgence of analog and the LP record. There's more to this than meets the ear.

A magazine that I read interviews musicians and record producers extolling the virtues of analog sound. Many admit they love the noise and distortion inherent in analog recordings. Some even record digitally and then use specialized software to recreate the equivalent of analog sound. A depressing number of professionals disparage noise-free, nearly distortion free high bit rate digital sound quality.

Meanwhile, I estimate about 90 percent of us accept and listen to music encoded in the MP3, MP4, AAC and similar data reduction systems. Using sophisticated algorithms, these take digital sound and discard large amounts of data that theoretically don't contribute to sound we perceive.

Of course, when you approach the lower extremes of MP3 and similar codecs (encode decode), you definitely hear the loss of quality. An average MP3 bit rate reduces the size of a sound file by 75-80 percent (or more). That's why you can cram dozens of hours of audio into a postage stamp-sized iPod.

The lingering question involves the human brain and listener fatigue. Do we grow tired of listening to recorded music because of the stress of concentrating, or do we tire because our brain works overtime to reconstruct the jumble we hear into pleasing sound?

In the analog age, we wearied of noise, hum and distortion as the brain strove to ignore these and concentrate on the music. In the digital age does the brain work extra hard to fill in the missing pieces removed by the MP3 algorithm?

Of course, experts in the psycho-acoustics field deny this while audiophiles cringe.

Even when attending live concerts, microphones, amplifiers and speakers separate most of us from the musicians. Only if you spend time in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts or similar venues attending classical music concerts do you actually hear music unadulterated by electronics. Even Broadway shows and operas use sound reinforcement.

The only moral to this story celebrates music. Music means so much to nearly all of us that we put up with every conceivable means to hear it. Some people dedicate their lives to listening as flawlessly and perfectly as possible to music's reproduction.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (1):Music

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