I recently got a great set of headphones. A really, really good set of headphones. I won’t go into detail, but they’re a pretty high end pair of sony cans, the big over ear type. Once I took them home I started listening to some of my favorite songs just to get a feel for them, the bass was rich, warm and enveloping, the mids were full and powerful and the top end was bright, airy and full of detail.
And then my iTunes library skipped to the next song and I thought my brand new headphones had failed spectacularly. The sound was all of a sudden muddy, as if from another room, the warmth and depth was gone, replaced with a flat dull monotone.
I panicked and got a huge sense of relief when I saw that the song playing was encoded at 128 kbps. The majority of my library is 320 kbps, a few favorites are lossless, but theres still a few relics that are in really low bit rates. This got me thinking, mainly about audio quality, the way I experience music and the expectations I have for fidelity. But then another thought hit me, I know good sounding music when I hear it, I appreciate high bit rates and good speakers, but just how many people of my generation can tell the difference any more?
Everyone’s seen kids on busses listening to songs on their mobile phones. Mono, 64 kbps with a colossal amount of background noise. They then go home, maybe take out their iPod, 128 kbps stereo, crappy 50c headphones that came with the player. The closest thing these people ever come to hearing their music as it was meant to be experienced is on TV on one of the music channels through their TV’s built in speakers. The number of people that listen to music as it was meant to be heard, on large 3 driver speakers, with enough room for the tones to mingle and allow harmonics to grow and enough bass to rattle your fillings is dwindling, most people just don’t see quality as a factor anymore unfortunately. A friend of mine laughed at me recently when I suggested buying a good, moderately expensive set of headphones, despite him having gone through 4 pairs of cheap, crap sounding earbuds in the past 12 months.
Now I know the tone of this piece is coming across as elitist, snobby, whatever. Peoples ability to perceive good music is dying and it’s scary. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for someone who’s interested in pursuing a career in the Music Business, someone who is particular about their work in a studio, someone who will slave away for hours over a mixing desk to make sure a musicians work sounds the absolute best it can. When it comes down to it, music is a business and if more and more people can’t tell the difference between a good quality track and a low quality track, will engineers, producers even artists themselves, make the effort they would have in the CD era?