Yesterday, the New York Times published a piece entitled In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back. Apparently, compressed audio “is sucking the life out of music”1. A decrease in consumer spending on hifi equipment is cited as further evidence of the decline. Technology, once again, is the enemy of art.
By the time I saw this, I was already half way through writing a piece on how the unspoken assumptions behind news coverage can be misleading, but clearly the only mature way to address this fallacy is with a side-by-side review of two top-selling consumer audio products: the 32GB iPod Touch and a 1910 Victrola VV-XI.
Why these two products?
The 32gb iPod Touch is the top-selling music player on Amazon today.
The Victrola VV-XI is the all-time best-selling model of wind-up phonograph. It was one of the first products to place recorded sound within the reach of ordinary people. It launched in 1910, and they sold more than 800,000 units.
The Victrola is a beautiful piece of furniture, the bastard child of a musical box and a nightstand. Younger readers might be interested to learn it is made from a material called “wood”. It is easily transportable by two able-bodied footmen, and will fit snugly into the luggage compartment of a modern horseless carriage.
The iPod Touch is like an iPhone but thinner and weighs just over four ounces, so you can have your manservant keep it in his pocket at all times.
The Victrola’s eight shelves will hold about fifty 10″ records, with a playing time of about three minutes per side, if they have music on both sides, which they often didn’t. That’s 100 songs in your pocket the corner of the room.
The iPod Touch advertises a capacity of 7,000 songs, although that might not have been much use in 1910. Even if 7,000 songs had been released back then, that much shellac would have weighed in at about 1700lbs.
The iPod requires a computer and electricity and all sorts of newfangled technical skills. The Victrola pretty much takes care of itself. You just need to wind the handle a few (30) times, replace the needle between records, and you’re good to go. Open the little doors on the front to make it a bit louder. Don’t drop the discs, though. They shatter, just like the iPod will.
The spring in the Victrola deteriorates over time and is not user-replaceable – an egregious product-marketing error that surely nobody would… oh… ok. Forget that.
Sound quality on the iPod is mostly a product of the files you put on it. To get 7,000 songs on there, you’re going to have to use 256kbps AAC, but you could fit at least 1,000 songs on there in a variety of formats that are indistinguishable from CD.
The Victrola has one option. It sounds like this:
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. It’s cheaper to buy a new hifi than a 100-year-old one3, and the new one definitely sounds better. More expensive stuff doesn’t necessarily do a better job, and consumer spending on audio products is not directly correlated to the quality of said products. Still, why let any of this get in the way of a mediocre story?