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Sounding Off: Paul Ward

Time To Ditch Lossy Audio For Music Delivery?
Published November 2013
By Paul Ward

John Ruskin is widely credited with the assertion that "There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper…”

The fundamental truth of this statement can hardly be denied. Some companies have built very successful brands based on this principle, and the 'market skimming' method of releasing flagship products, followed by cheaper, feature-restricted spin-offs is a widely employed process.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with making products more accessible to everyone, and not everyone wants or needs the top-of-the-range model, but what I really object to is when low quality becomes a replacement for premium quality, rather than an alternative. And nowhere does it cause me more dismay than when it comes to audio.

The leap forward represented by the introduction of the audio CD cannot be over-emphasised. For those of us who were dissatisfied by the limitations and compromised audio of vinyl and tape, the arrival of a theoretically 'perfect' audio medium was a dream come true. Many spoke of hearing new detail in the music they knew so well; I well recall the first time I heard Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway from CD. The amount of detail I could finally hear without the turntable rumble, dust snaps, static crackles, scratches and tape hiss was breath-taking ­— and I could finally play 'Back In New York City' at a decent volume without the needle jumping out of the groove! This truly was a new age of audio as it was meant to be heard. Surely this was something to build upon. I began to imagine (rightly or wrongly) the possible joys of longer word-lengths and higher sample rates. The future held promises of astounding audio playback systems, jet packs, hover cars and holidays to Mars. And then along came lossy data compression.

For web streaming and portable playback I saw the reasoning behind lossy formats, and in this context its arrival in the days of expensive storage and transmission made perfect sense ­— it was cheaper, and cheaper was good. But I never saw it as a format that anyone would want at the point of sale.

From the theoretically 'perfect' 16-bit, 44.1kHz audio CD, we moved backwards into reduced-quality audio not just to satisfy web streaming and portability, but as an end product for consumers. My dream of a brighter, bolder future was on hold. Longer word-lengths and higher sample rates might be of dubious value, but at least they would have represented a step forward. Instead, we took a step back.

My concern is that the world now seems reluctant to move forward again. These days we have storage coming out of our ears, and plenty of bandwidth for data transferral, so isn't it time that lossy formats began to finally die out?

Lossy data compression has gone beyond providing a convenient format for storage and bandwidth-limited playback to becoming the 'norm' for audio distribution at the point of sale.

I have never purchased a lossy audio file and I never will. I will rip my own CDs in order to carry them around with me, or to enjoy in my car, but when I'm back at base I want my audio untainted by someone else's idea of what artifacts I can or can't hear, or find acceptable in the pursuit of data reduction. If that makes me overly critical then I'm happy to wear the T-shirt. Storage and transmission costs — surely the main reasons for the introduction of compression formats — are now relatively trivial, so let's ditch the compression algorithms and move forward. I don't want 'good enough', I want 'as good as I can get'. I also want jet packs, hover cars and holidays to Mars, please!

I began this Sounding Off with half of a sentence attributed to John Ruskin. Although many people are familiar with those words, the latter half of the sentence is perhaps less well-known: "…and the people who consider price alone are that person's lawful prey.”

Next time someone offers us an inferior product at a lower price, maybe we should take some time to consider whether it's really worth it.

About The Author

Paul Ward is a freelance producer/engineer with a list of credits far too long and dull for anyone to be bothered to read. His cat, Alfie, is trying to eat him into poverty.

Published November 2013