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State of Audio: The Sadness of Sound

A meditation on the state of sound in our lives and ruminations on fixing it.

Let there be no noise made, my gentle friends, unless some dull and favorable hand will whisper music to my weary spirit. – Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3.

Alright, this may come off as a bit of ‘much ado about nothing’ to some, but the state of audio all around us is frustratingly bad and only getting worse. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by a cacophony of noise that distracts and dulls the senses; like the ever-present background radiation of the universe, we have come to accept, however begrudgingly, its intrusive presence.

An international parasite seems to have wormed its way into our heads, hearts, and souls, dragging down our expectations like Jacob Marley’s chains. In 1991, Karlheinz Brandenburg opened Pandora’s box by successfully converting Suzanne Vegas’ Tom’s Diner into the digital domain(as an MP3), bringing us the blessed curse of quantity over quality.

The Meh! Of Mediocrity

The remarkable achievement of digitizing music has fulfilled its promise to ‘democratize’ access to songs from around the world, breaking new bands and saving niche artists from obscurity. The technology requires balancing file size and sound quality, compressing data where possible while providing good enough delivery. The palpable joy of carrying hundreds of complete discographies in a pocket comes at the cost of losing many rich elements that add depth and lushness.

The overwhelming ubiquity of MP3, originally seen as a tool to level the playing field, dulls our senses with mediocre audio and takes the soul out of the state of audio. The MP3 foundation agrees, officially killing off professional licensing in 2017, stating: “The codecs of the AAC family, for example, are included in billions of devices today and provide excellent sound quality at low bit rates.”

broken record
broken record

Cut Throat Communication

So, here we are, conditioned to accept that ‘just good enough’ is more than adequate. Live events folks like to throw around the phrase ‘good enough for rock n’ roll,’ but this is a great misnomer. From symphonic metal to lo-fi grindcore and punk, the sound generated is carefully crafted. Why do we accept the current state of audio, the sub-par sound in our daily lives, especially in business communications?

During the pandemic years of remote work, universal distance learning, and streaming presentations, audio quality was clearly an afterthought, even when we realized that the situation was to be a marathon. It is possible that many saw investment in upgraded hardware as a temporary hiccup and not as a wise use of company money. Yet, the situation was terrible for years prior.

I am an avid listener to Bloomberg radio, not that I have any real money to invest, but the socio-economic ramifications of market changes fascinate me. As such, I get to hear a ton of earnings calls from companies large and small, and boy, howdy are they terrible. The sound is akin to kids shrieking over tin cans connected by a fishing line; in reality, two guys are shouting into a speakerphone.

While some put money behind comprehensive conference systems, why is there resistance to one-on-one or huddle rooms?

The Curse of Audiophiles

Various attempts have been made to inspire a popular uprising by consumers, playing off ingrained cultural desires for the latest and best, one-upping their friends. So far, the results have been lackluster- star-backed platforms like Neil Young’s (now defunct) Pono and Jay-Z-fronted TIDAL have made in-roads with a niche demographic – generally wealthy status-conscious men. Surveys and polls show that most music listeners put availability over audiophile aspirations, at least regarding the cost of file formats.

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There is an oft-told joke about modern vinyl fans: What attracts them to the format is its expense and difficulty in making it work right. Comedic simplifications aside, there is no better example of the overwrought and avarice of so-called audiophiles than the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Audio Show. This yearly gathering of self-important audio mystics chanting over meteorite-sourced metal tweeters and rare wood cabinets smoothed by exotic virgins from lost islands has killed the better audio aspirations of the masses.

Seriously, why would anyone think they can join the League of Better Sound when comment boards are filled with claims that crystal-infused slate platforms and naturally damping volcanic cones dramatically improve audio from a CD player? Add to this ‘essential components such as $1000 Streaming DACs, $8000 tube amplifiers, $20k speakers, and $600 hokum accessories- oh my!

Seriously, while looking at the hope diamond is lovely, anyone insisting that to be truly fashionable, you must wear jewelry of equal value and ostentation is socially deaf and damages perceptions. Are we, as an industry, guilty of the same?

State of Audio a Priority

We want our voices to be heard when we speak with a group of friends, on a conference call, or during a Zoom meeting. Ensuring everyone on a conference call is distinct should be a priority for everyone, not just the geeky AV folks. When properly punctuated, a voice imparts presence, giving ideas and statements a sense of authority and gravitas.

In order to change the mindset of just good enough to solid solutions, we need to provide clients with practical implementation without the Tiffinay boxes. Sometimes, this happens on a grand scale, an epiphany with angelic choir music. In reality, it takes baby steps, integrating higher quality files, better headphones, and home entertainment. When people make better sound part of their every day, they begin to demand it everywhere.

How do you convince clients or yourself to pursue better sound daily? Or have we already stepped too far over the precipice?

George Tucker

As part of the AV community, Tucker has over 30 years of experience working for professional recording studios, live event production, residential and commercial integration, Broadway tour support, technology writing, automation programming, and as a tech support manager for premier automation manufacturers.

George’s connection with AVNation goes back to the beginning, collaborating on Episode 0000 of AV Week and acting as host, producer, and general bon vivant over the first seven years. Currently, he is a Technical Specialist for a live events company. He enjoys deep dives into new music and perfecting the perfect Bloody Mary on his off time.

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