The Dark Side of the Tune

Did you hear that just now...? No, you didn't. You were talking on your cellphone, probably while listening to your iPod. This morning I saw a guy talking on his cellphone, listening to his iPod, and eating a cheeseburger - all at once. I just prayed that he wasn't going to get behind the wheel. But I digress.

I just dropped a pin, and you didn't hear it because you were shouting into your cellphone, trying to cut through the noise. I find that kind of amusing. A few years back, Sprint ran a big marketing campaign that heralded the sound quality of its fiber-optic land lines. The system was so clean, Sprint claimed, that you could hear a pin drop. Today, phone customers apparently don't care about sound quality. Ads even feature a dorky guy walking around asking, "Can you hear me now?" Yes, it seems that a phone system is good enough if you can just hear the other person. Instead of advertising sound quality, companies are touting fewer dropped calls.

That's depressing - and it counters most trends in technology. Performance is supposed to get better and better, not suddenly get worse. The history of sound reproduction is supposed to be mono, then stereo, then surround sound; the noise floor should decrease with each generation, and frequency response should flatten and extend. But with phone communication, when it entered the 21st century, it suddenly got diverted back to the 19th century.

The culprit, of course, is convenience. People would rather be able to call anytime, anywhere, than be assured of a pristine signal. It's an absolute audio truism: Convenience beats quality. Anyone who bets against that loses. How much did you spend last year on noisy cellphones? How much did you spend on clean land lines? Case closed.

Moreover, the decline (and fall) of phone sound quality mirrors the recent fate of music fidelity. Given the choice of "lots of my favorite songs" and "inaudibly low distortion," the former wins. That's why people would rather have 10,000 crappy-sounding songs on their iPod than 500 great-sounding ones. Now, I have nothing against your favorite music. If you feel that you can't leave the house without all of Elton John's albums nestled in your pocket, then that's just great. The problem is, if we have access to so much music, we risk losing our respect for it.

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