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.

Form Factor

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

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:


The iPod is $299, the Victrola launched with a list price of $100, but that’s about $2,200 in today’s money2. Bargain hunters can pick up an iPod on Amazon for $269.99 or a Victrola on Ebay for $325.


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?


1 Which it is, if by “sucking the life out of” you mean “paying for”.
2 Adjusted using this. Grandpa should probably have bought Apple Stock instead.
3 Somebody might want to look into that.



Post a comment
  1. May 10, 2010

    Well I think the Times should run stories like this more often! Maybe, every three years or so?

  2. May 10, 2010

    What do you think about making a comparison with the player piano?

    • properdiscord #
      May 10, 2010

      That’s an interesting point.

      The player piano does a great job of giving you realistic sound (it sounds just like there’s a piano in the corner of your room, because there is) but it achieves this at the expense of the performance.

      True, it really was Gershwin, Rachmaninov or Art Tatum that played those rolls, but they weren’t playing your piano in your living room. They might well have played very differently if they had. Piano rolls generally don’t do a good job of recording subtle dynamics.

      The Zenph recordings manage to add many of the major limitations of a player piano to all the limitations of a conventional recording.

      For me, at least, the lowest fidelity audio recording is preferable to any kind of reproduction that doesn’t actually tell me what a performance sounded like.

      • noparadise #
        May 11, 2010

        I am not sure about the player piano – perhaps, seriously, a piano roll should be seen as a score for performance by automaton rather than a recording. Now I think about it, that’s pretty much how I view listening to recorded sound on an ipod or an audiophile system, after all, i.e. the original performance is the inspiration for the score, whatever the instrument it is to be played on. I am intrigued and faintly repulsed by the Zenph idea though, seems very abstracting:

        “interpretative nuances including those added by Rachmaninoff’s always subtle pedalling”

        That’s how I could always win bicycle races with dear old Sergei! I wonder when they will get to Caruso?

      • Gary Bachlund #
        May 17, 2010

        Funny. Some of the MIDI editors are essentially “piano roll” diagrams, so maybe we’ve come as far as that?

  3. I'm Not Saying Anything #
    May 11, 2010

    All of this sound quality discussion follows along with this idea – the “good enough” technology.

    I look to that a bit as I listen to music on these awful, tinny speaker on my computer or through the speaker that’s on the iPod touch. Why? Because it’s right there, and I push play. I don’t always need a hi-fi experience to listen.

    I also don’t need a hi-def video camera to watch my baby open and close the microwave door.

    • properdiscord #
      May 11, 2010

      You’re wrong. It’s impossible to appreciate a child in 640×480. There’s really no point in having kids if you’re not going to film them right.

      • May 11, 2010

        I use that AVATAR camera. In IMAX 3-D, it’s better than full custody!

  4. properdiscord #
    May 11, 2010

    There’s a great rebuttal of the NY Times piece here:

  5. Rebecca #
    May 12, 2010

    The ipod and other portable music players are miraculous things. Formats like MP3 and AAC make music available and accessible in ways they never were before. Everyone agrees the earbuds are terrible (and I don’t think this is a parenthetical point to the discussion, but there I go with the parentheses). This would not be a recurring hot-button topic, if it didn’t resonate with people though. There are folks out there convinced (whether rightly or wrongly) that they can tell the difference between lossy and lossless files and want the quality and flexibility of an open-source format even if it means the file sizes are larger and downloading is clunkier. If there is an audience, small though it may be, companies interested in serving it and increasingly cheap and easy storage space and bandwidth, I’m unclear as to why one would argue against it.

    Compressed formats are great for on-the-go listening and for most it is “good enough.” So are all kinds of “good enough”‘s in the world like Chryslers, polyester fabric and point-and-shoot cameras (I’m a fan of all of them). But if there is a market that wants a Cadillac, silk sheets or a professional grade camera, why should a company be criticized for fulfilling that need along with offering items across the quality spectrum.

    People who like the highest quality are always going to argue for it by saying “good enough” is just not good enough for them. I’m not defending the vitriol of any audiophile, and I do not believe compression is the “death of music,” but I am defending the right of an audience to want more and a company to offer something to serve them and, ultimately (hopefully), the music itself.

    • properdiscord #
      May 12, 2010

      I don’t think anybody’s arguing that choice is a bad thing, but I have written discouragingly about high-quality download stores in the past. Here’s why:

      The folks that complain about compressed music have the option to purchase lossless downloads from Passionato, HDTracks, Linn Digital, the DG Web Shop, Chandos and Hyperion stores and it’s a fairly poorly kept secret that another major label is launching a download platform in the near future. They’re not all perfect stores, but there are places you can go, and they’re all easier to search than a physical retail store of comparable size.

      If all the people that care about lossless downloads are already doing this, then the market isn’t very big. Just ask any label where their digital sales come from. If the audiophiles aren’t downloading, it’s not because of a lack of opportunity. I suspect they’re perfectly happy with CDs, and they don’t see a need to buy the expensive hardware it takes to get really top-notch sound out of your computer.

      So why are they complaining? Because they don’t want anybody else to buy compressed audio, that’s why. They’re telling you and me what we should listen to, what we should buy, what we can sell, and how much hard drive space it should take up. They’re complaining because if only 5% of consumers want fancy sound, it’s going to get more expensive for them. They want everybody else to share in that cost.

      We make rules about what people can buy and sell in the interest of public safety. Seatbelts have to be strong, milk has to be fresh, cleaning chemicals have to be labelled, but there’s no law saying every car dealership needs to sell Cadillacs, even though that would make Cadillacs cheaper for the folks that want them. If there’s no safety issue, we let the customer decide. This week, they’re deciding to buy compressed. Next week, next year, or next decade, things might be different. Only time will tell. Place your bets…

  6. Gary Bachlund #
    May 17, 2010

    The Victrola did not compose nor perform music, but just replayed it; ditto the old 78s. The Pod doesn’t compose nor perform music, just replays it; ditto the MP3s and AACs.

    It seems they are quite alike, with the 22nd century’s sometime-to-be-announced newest, whizbang whatchamacallit being the latest in “doesn’t compose nor perform music, but just replays it” making the iPod look ever more like the Victrola, in a matter of a few decades or so.

    “Only time will tell” is exactly the game. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

  7. September 9, 2015

    But which option will hold or increase its value better over time? I suspect it’s the Victrola, hands down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS