Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 11: September 2004


The Quality Contradiction

Walt Crawford

Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio both offer sound quality that may be significantly better than CD Audio. Both are struggling to make headway in the market, while sales of devices to play low bit rate MP3 files—audibly degraded from CD quality to anyone with halfway-decent ears—take off like crazy. I’d guess that legal downloads of degraded-quality MP3 and AAC music outsell SACD and DVD-A, even leaving out illegal downloads.

The general quality of regular TV sets has improved substantially, DVD movies offer roughly twice the picture quality of VHS, and high-definition TV offers much larger improvements in picture quality. Meanwhile, the storage capacities of most personal video recorders are advertised based on a speed at which recording quality isn’t as good as VHS; movie studios worry about losses from illegal downloads of movies with picture quality considerably inferior to VHS; and the adoption of S-VHS recording (which offers 60% better picture quality than VHS) near the end of VHS’s reign as a primary medium was roughly the same as it was two years after S-VHS was introduced: two to four percent.

What’s going on here?

Quality and Convenience

Life is rarely an either-or proposition, and that might be a good enough answer. I think there are at least three other aspects of this apparent contradiction, two of which I’ll discuss here. (The third, misleading sales and advertising, is truly out of scope.) The first is that people sometimes choose convenience over quality, at least in some areas. That’s both natural and sensible, although it helps to be aware that you’re making the choice. If you want music while you’re jogging, a solid-state MP3 player or even one based on a hard disk (like the iPod), but only using the hard disk once every few minutes, is likely to work a lot better than a CD player—and if it’s a solid-state MP3 device, storing the songs at a sub-FM-quality 64kb rate is tempting, since you get twice as much music as at FM-quality 128kb.

I believe that’s how audiocassettes came to challenge and eventually surpass vinyl sales. They didn’t sound as good (if you took care of your vinyl), but they were a lot easier to handle and made your music portable. “If you took care of your vinyl” was a significant hurdle for a fair number of people. The process required to keep records and expensive styli in good condition can be daunting. (Remove the record from the inner sleeve—having in some cases replaced the inner sleeve with a better quality sleeve—without touching the grooves. Clean the record with an appropriate special liquid and either a handheld brush or, better yet, a vacuum cleaning system. Then use a static gun to eliminate stored static. Then clean the stylus with a special brush and liquid. Then you can play the record! I did this faithfully; my 1,200-odd records were generally in like-new condition when I got rid of them.

CDs combined quality and convenience, although the debate over whether CDs sound as good as the best vinyl may never be settled. (Many early CDs sounded awful because they were remastered from master tapes that had been “mixed hot” to sound lively on cheap record players; the resulting high end was painful to the ears.) For us, it was easy: The first new CD we purchased (Graceland by Paul Simon) sounded great, as did the first replacement for an LP, and there was no hassle: Take CD out of case, put in player, push button. We never purchased another LP, and I’ve never regretted that decision. (If you believe vinyl is better, more power to you. You’ll be pleased to know that sales of vinyl LPs and turntables have been increasing for the past few years, although most turntables and cartridges are incredibly expensive. But then, if you really believe in vinyl, you already know all this.)

Most of today’s CDs sound better on most of today’s CD players, even $20 portables, than most early CDs sounded on most early players. Are they “perfect sound forever”? No, and I don’t believe Sony itself believed that early slogan. For some of us—myself included, I suspect—good CD sound represents all we’ll ever be able to hear in two-channel sound. But some people do hear differences between stereo CD and stereo SACD or DVD-A, even in the double-blind tests that high-end stereo writers disdain. I’m satisfied that it’s a real difference for some people. The other selling point of DVD-A and, in some cases, SACD is multichannel sound: A failure back when three semi-compatible systems were battling it out for “quadraphonic” honors and most people didn’t want all those speakers in their living room, but more possible now that millions of people already have surround speakers installed for DVD movies and HD television.

You or your library may own some SACD discs already, without being aware of it. Sony and a couple of other companies are being clever on some major re-releases such as (some) Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan albums: They’re coming out as dual-layer SACD discs, with one layer offering higher-resolution and possibly multichannel sound, the other layer a standard CD that plays in a standard CD player. If the SACD logo is on the disc at all, it’s not emphasized, and there’s no pure-CD equivalent. (If you ignore those guerilla-SACD discs, vinyl LP sales actually total more than SACD and DVD-A combined, according to some reports.)

I’m not saying DVD-A and SACD have failed. They haven’t and probably won’t, but they also haven’t succeeded nearly as rapidly as analysts projected or companies hoped. Recording companies would love to switch to high-resolution formats, not only because they might be able to sell you the same music one more time, but also because SACD and DVD-A both come with built-in copy protection, unlike CD audio. Dual-layer SACD/CD hybrids are not, typically, copy protected on the CD layer.

But they sure aren’t succeeding as rapidly as MP3 formats—and low-resolution MP3 absolutely loses some of the sound quality of CD unless you select at least 196k and possibly 320k or higher data rates. When you’re ripping CDs to MP3 for use in portable devices, that’s fine: You’re making a choice for convenience and can always go back to the original. When you’re paying for legal downloads, it’s not so great: Expanding 128K MP3 to CD audio form does not restore the lost sound quality. Once it’s gone, it stays gone. The convenience choice precludes a later preference for quality—if you think you’ll ever care.

I’d like to believe that DVD’s rapid ascent has a lot to do with picture quality—but if that’s true, then why was S-VHS such a dud? I suspect that the sheer convenience of DVD has more to do with it—that, and the extras that come with DVD. (Some people care a lot about the restoration of the original picture in widescreen DVDs, but I think those are mostly the same people who care about the picture quality: A substantial percentage of us, but certainly not everybody.) If that’s true, then high-definition DVD (either of the two competing formats likely to emerge this fall or next year) may be in trouble: It won’t be more convenient, and people may not care about the quality.

If you have a “40-hour” TiVo, do you record at a rate that puts 40 hours on the disk or at a 20-hour or 10-hour rate? It’s more convenient to be able to store more; do you care about the degradation of picture quality? If you burn TV or home movies to DVD+R/-R, do you put one hour on a disc, two, or four? Are you trading convenience for quality?

Noticing the Difference—and Caring

Maybe you answered “40 hours” and “four hours” to the first and third questions in the previous paragraphs and don’t understand the second and fourth questions. “What degradation? The picture looks fine to me.” Similarly, you may think there’s really no difference between “FM quality” and “CD quality,” and that 128K MP3 is CD quality, with 64K “good enough.”

There are two related issues here: Noticing the difference and caring about the difference.

Some people just don’t notice differences in some areas. I think we’re all more sensitive in some areas than in others. Women generally hear better than men do (and tend to be particularly sensitive to some forms of distortion). Old farts like me usually have degraded high frequency hearing. I don’t claim to be a discriminating judge of fine food; my taste buds aren’t that sensitive. I don’t know that I’m really a connoisseur of fine wine, although I can certainly appreciate some differences. I’m certainly no connoisseur of perfume (and generally avoid it as much as possible). Although I believe I understand differences in car performance and appeal, we own and drive Honda Civic EXs by preference. I probably don’t appreciate the differences in high-end clothing. There are loads of areas in which I don’t pay attention to, or even understand, the differences between the good and the best.

We do see the difference between good broadcast/cable TV and the same show recorded on regular VHS, even at full speed; that’s why we’ve never owned anything but an S-VHS VCR or used anything but S-VHS to tape shows. I’ve never understood why more people didn’t see the difference. But maybe that’s the wrong issue. Maybe they see the difference but don’t care. Or at least maybe that’s been true for 96% of VCR purchasers. Even at a price increment of $50 or so, S-VHS never made inroads in the marketplace.

Even with my mediocre hearing and inexpensive speakers and headphones, I can tell the difference between a typical CD and 128K MP3. Apparently, most technology writers and other journalists can’t and neither can many other people. Most of the audio CDs I listen to are mixes based on MP3 storage—but the MP3 files are ripped at either 196K or 320K, using current Frauenhofer codecs in MusicMatch Plus. I’m not sure whether I can tell a difference between 196K and 320K, at least not sure enough to re-rip all the old CDs, but I’d certainly rip any classical music at 320K and I rip any new CDs at that rate. My wife and I both hear enough audio differences so that, when we decided to buy a modest music system to replace the old speakers that were too big for our little house, we chose a $700 system over some impressive $300 and $400 systems. The $700 system didn’t get in the way of the music and seemed to reproduce significant differences among tracks; we had little trouble agreeing that it was worth the extra money.

You might not make those distinctions—or you might not care. The same goes for TiVo and other PVRs: Maybe you use the highest-capacity setting because you don’t see a visible difference—or maybe you see the difference, but you don’t care. I know my car radio/CD player doesn’t offer the sound quality of my PC derived-surround-sound speakers or our compact music system—but it sounds great when I’m driving. When I finally decided to try taking music on speaking trips, I picked up an $18 CD player; my wife’s comment was, “If you decide you like it, we can get something better.” I immediately recognized that the included headphones were atrocious and picked up $10 Sony headphones that sounded a lot better. I did decide I liked it—and I haven’t gotten something better. For my limited purposes, this $28 combination is good enough.

I don’t own an MP3 player, partly because I usually don’t listen to music while I’m doing anything else (except driving). I tend to listen to music, which interferes with reading, writing, or other high-attention activities. If I did own an MP3 player, I suspect it would be an iPod or competitor and I suspect I’d store music at the highest rate it would accept. I can’t imagine watching movies on a 2x3" or 3x4" media-player screen. Even most airplane movie screens strike me as giving up too much of the movie’s detail and quality to be worth watching. But those are my sensitivities; they may not be yours.

A Caution in Closing

Time to bring this meandering and possibly irrelevant essay to a close. I would offer one caution—something you might pay attention to if you believe you don’t care about some of these differences.

Do you find that you don’t want to listen to your MP3 player for very long—that it becomes tiresome? If so, you may be dealing with compression losses and artifacts at a subconscious level. Try listening to the same music on CD or ripped at a much higher data rate; see if you find the music more involving, more satisfying. It may “sound the same,” but you may enjoy it more. Or you might not.

The same goes for compressed TV. Digital artifacts aren’t always obvious, but they can be tiring. You might enjoy that convenient video more if you record it at a higher data rate. Or you might not.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 11, Whole Issue 54, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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