Sunday, September 28. 2008
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1.
Remember when the music Compact Disc was the ultimate in audio?
Using digital technology to create sound far superior to that of traditional phonograph records, the compact disc, or CD, is rejuvenating the audio business and producing a generation of born-again music lovers.- Manuel Schiffres, Compact discs now the hottest sound in town, U.S. News & World Report, June 17, 1985,
The superiority of CD in sound reproduction...could not be denied....- Patrick Macdonald, Vinyl's Final Days, Seattle Times, January 21, 1990.
As more people discover that classical music sounds superior on CD, it will be easier to find recordings....- Howard Blumenthal, Classical recordings sound superior on Compact Disc, Chicago Sun-Times, December 27, 1987.
At the time many found comfort in the news; free at last of the travail of analog we would now simply Enjoy the Music and not look back.
July 2008 Stereophile
Fast forward 20 years. "Vinyl Rules," and many are looking back at the price of progress. Many others who knew only the CD in their youth are "discovering vinyl" for the first time and as a result vinyl reissues and new releases keep presses running around the clock as audiophiles bid up originals LPs on EBay.
How did this happen? A deliberate plot to extort vast sums of money for what turned out to be inferior recordings? I doubt it. The CD industry, the press, and (most of) the public were all under the digital spell promising less work and more fun. Defenses of analog at the time were dismissed as impractically obscure, subjective, or abstract. At minimum there might be a few glitches with the new technology but those would surely be surmounted in time. Anyway, the CD was "here to stay," so we resigned ourselves to the inevitable, no quibbling about obscure technical matters.
Nonetheless, a dedicated minority never relenquished their vinyl:
"Many of the people who were initially impressed by compact discs have been disappointed," asserts Gene Rubin, a Los Angeles-area audio retailer. "There is no way that LPs are going to vanish."- Walsh, Hackman, and McCarroll, The Great Lp Vs. Cd War, Time, Monday, Aug. 25, 1986
Now it turns out those impractically obscure matters of the way CDs sounded actually do matter as legions (myself included) return to vinyl and wonder, "Why didn't we heed these dissenting voices, or at least hold onto our LPs?" I think what happened is, having lived all our lives with analog recording we took its good aspects for granted, never imagining digital would be anything but analog plus convenience and minus the cracks and pops. This we were told by the pundits and this we believed, partly because we wanted to. In reality digital technology had extracted and improved upon a few well known dimensions of audio reproduction (low noise, wide dynamic range) to the exclusion of other, less recognized characteristics. Thus the shock of discovery when vinyl turns out to have much of what we've missed in our CD collections: the presence, timbre, and believability we are starving for.
I won't bore you with all the details, but a similar rejection of the audio tube (or "valve") occurred during the last few decades of the 20th century, and this technology is also now undergoing a "revival" as subtle elements of the "tube sound" are being discovered, as if anew. Once again, a few significant dimensions of the original technology (low noise and high power) were extracted and improved upon by the new technology, while we lost sight of other less recognized aspects of audio amplification (harmonics).
A similar transformation has occurred in the electronic visual display from CRT to flat panel: again, a few salient characteristics (flat screen, contrast ratio) have obscured less apparent virtues of the CRT such as wider field of view and more accurate reproduction of subtle hues. Other examples: Consumer film scanners initially provided great resolution but shallow bit depth, resulting in crisp but unrealistic images from film. Zoom lenses seem at first like regular lenses plus versatility: "an obvious choice!", but ultimately cannot match primes in image quality.
I could go on, but hope you see my point: consumer product "advancements" often develop a few dimensions of a previous technology to the exclusion or degradation of others, and the more complicated the technology the more insidious this process becomes. So the ability to define which aspects of a technology are significant turns out to have tremendous economic benefits. Those who control this perception can exploit it and dominate the market, at least until we catch on. And this is the pattern I see in digital camera technology. A few dimensions (lack of grain and convenience), when presented as definitive properties of all cameras, prejudice comparisons between film and digital.
A less superficial analysis turns up "overlooked" qualities as covered elsewhere in this blog, such as the photographic experience (as opposed to product), dynamic range, image longevity, camera depreciation, and final image quality. These, having been crowded out of the conversation, have no impact on the consumer, not because digital improves but because the questions never arise!
And the result: public perception generates demand, bringing economies of scale to manufacturers, reducing the price of additional digicam units, and crowding out film as an option. The consumer, faced with the choice of going digital or investing in a possibly dying and apparently more costly (feature for feature, as defined by the digicam industry) film camera, has no argument in its defense. To many, the digicam seems the inevitable and irrefutable replacement technology, just as the compact disc and transistor did in their day. As with analog audio 20 years ago, arguments in defense of analog photography now seem impractically obscure, subjective, or abstract. We cannot know whether this parallel will hold, but may be ignoring it to our detriment.
Valve Amplifiers - do they really sound different?, Australian Hi-Fi Review, November 1977.
Robert Harley, The Analog Compact Disc, Stereophile, December, 1994.
Is the sound on vinyl records better than on CDs or DVDs?, HowStuffWorks.Com, 2000.
George Reisch, Scientists vs Audiophiles 1999, Stereophile, March, 1999.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)