Friday, May 11, 2007

The Computer and Hi-Fi Convergence

For as long as I can remember all of my audio buddies subscribe to the idea that computers are computers and hi-fis are hi-fis, and never the twain shall meet. Technological progress and environmental issues are conspiring to change our views.

By: Vanessa Uy

This week, BBC’s Click featured a story on the computer industry’s efforts to improve the sound quality of their offerings. To me, this is a long time coming. Even if the computer industry only focus their R n D funds on surround sound, it’s still okay with me. The good news is that the computer industry reached a consensus that any form of data compression is detrimental to sound quality. To us audiophiles, this ranks with the world community’s consensus on the realities of global warming and climate change. From a telecommunications engineer’s standpoint, our current internet infrastructure is presently the most efficient way to send digital multimedia data. It also has the potential to better itself in all aspects of quality as time goes on. Is the computer industry’s concept of high definition (HD) sound means just acceptable sound quality to us hardened audiophiles? Look at Sony’s SBM (super bit mapping) technology, we (the audiophile community) even wholeheartedly embraced it despite a failed promise in making CD sound as good as vinyl LP. All of this could kick- start a renaissance to most of the consumer electronic industry, but first let’s take a look back.

Back in September 1996, Audio magazines Corey Greenberg wrote a somewhat controversial article titled: “Shut the Hell Up Geeks” which was deemed offensive by the Personal Computer/internet enthusiasts at that time. For better or for worse, this article is only one of the few instances when the feud between audiophiles and computer enthusiasts got journalistic coverage. This feud, to me is even bigger than that between Bon Jovi and Metallica, which started in 1989 and reverberated throughout the Rock world till this day. I read Corey Greenberg’s article about three years ago, right about the time when I became interested in the audiophile universe. At this point in time, PCs came with CD “burners” as standard. And every time I copied/cloned a consumer grade original CD to CDR, the clone always sound inferior to the original. This only serves to prove that Corey Greenberg is right in pointing out the computer industry’s ignorance about the concept of sound quality. Note: I used Lunachicks CDs as a test case for copying. Their not locally released here. As Quentin Tarantino said back in2004 on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno: “It’s not piracy when you copy/clone music or movies of mine that is not locally released in your neck of the woods.”

In a few years since then, the computer industry has started to see the light – albeit slowly- on the merits of good sound quality. Creative, the company who brought PC audio recording to the masses with their “Soundblaster” has started a concept called Xfi or extreme fidelity. If this succeeds, the audiophile community can now buy the latest PC audio recording/playback systems in confidence knowing that ills like listening fatigue will be a thing of the past. Creative’s audio guru Darragh O’Toole, speaks out against the practice of data compression and its detrimental effects on digital audio sound quality. Data compression’s most obvious manifestation is the muted transients on recordings full of percussive sounds like cymbals and drums. I’m just glad that Creative: which is primarily a computer company supported Darragh O’Toole’s ideas instead of censuring. I wonder if Creative’s senior staff: are now composed of people who lived through the vinyl LP heyday and are nostalgic for the good sound quality for a consumer medium that it represents.

The 64,000dollar question is: “Why should we audiophiles – as a whole – give a damn?” If you live in a country like the Philippines, where the Estrada administration single-handedly bankrupted every specialist shops like mail order music stores with very good insurance coverage during the late 1990’s. Then the answer is a big resounding “yes.” Our local audiophile community is now feeling the guilt to that “preaching-to-the-choir movie” An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. To us its very over indulgent to hop to a plane to Hong Kong, just to buy locally unreleased albums/CDs by Lunachicks. Even though in the last three years I’ve planted about a thousand trees, I still choose to keep my carbon footprint as low as humanly possible. If this audio renaissance/convergence or whatever between the computer industry and the audiophile community is for real and not just a public relations stunt to patronize audiophiles and musicians. Then I may yet buy my first internet downloaded album (I’m a Luddite-by-choice due to its present unacceptable sound quality). And in energy terms, this might only cost me a few watts from my photovoltaically charged batteries.

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