To Have and Have Not

I recently received a thoughtful e-mail from S+V reader Michael Kiley. He commiserated with my perception that the general level of sound quality has declined. Like me, he worried that the rise of mobile phones as our preferred playback source, the popularity of listening to compressed files stored or streamed (and through earbuds), isn't exactly making for audiophile heaven. Mr. Kiley's letter provided some perspective and got me to thinking…

Quoting Mr. Kiley:

Like you, I never cease to be appalled by the abysmal sound quality of the vast majority of consumer electronics products. However, I think the awful sound quality which pervades our society has its roots long before MP3 downloads and iPods with cheap earbuds. The family television I grew up with was a 1952 vintage 21-inch console model. The cabinet was rather boxy and the bottom third of it housed an eight-inch speaker. This was driven by a four-tube circuit, and, while considered mediocre even in its day, it sounded reasonably full and clear...

Fast forward to 1966, when we upgraded (I must use this word loosely with regard to the sound) to a color TV. Now we had a flimsy four-by-six inch speaker which was crammed in a corner of the cabinet, behind decorative louvers, and it was fed by a cruder three-tube arrangement. It was certainly not as good as that of the older TV, and, worst of all, it resonated obnoxiously just above 200Hz, with little response below that pitch. The hollow, drummy, and muffled sound drove me up the wall. Looking at other televisions of that same era, almost all of them were as bad or even worse. 

During the time between acquiring these two televisions, in the late 1950's, came the "transistor radio." These hand-held, battery powered, AM radio receivers had a two-inch speaker, tiny audio transformers, and about a 1/10th watt audio power output. They had no bass below 500 Hz and distorted badly if turned up beyond normal conversational volume levels. However, their convenience and cheapness made them highly popular everywhere, and, I think, dumbed the public and the industry down to lower standards of sound quality.

I'd like to respond to (and agree with) Mr. Kiley's comments. First, some of the earliest audio products were very good for their era. In the '50s, companies knew that sound quality was important and engineers were pushing hard to raise the bar. When was the last time you saw a TV with an 8-inch speaker? Second, in too many cases, "improved" technologies come with a hidden cost. Color TV was a leap beyond B&W TV. But, probably to cut costs, many manufacturers downgraded the audio as they made the transition. Perhaps their thinking was the improved picture would make people overlook the degraded sound. Third, in almost all cases, convenience trumps fidelity. The advent of the transistor radio put audio in your pocket, along with awful sound quality – a tradeoff that almost no one minded.

Also - and this is the idea that interests me the most - the transistor radio planted the seeds of audio class warfare that have now blossomed. The decades-old pursuit of high fidelity was suddenly pitted against convenience. Compromised audio was big business and increasingly became the mainstream business. High fidelity got sidelined. The change didn't happen overnight, and high fidelity continued to get better, but after awhile, it wasn't cool anymore. Today, the smartphone is much cooler. In return for usability improvements, features, and convenience, audio fidelity was shafted.

We have ended up with a situation of 99% versus 1%. The great majority of people really only value convenience; their purchases of audio products (such as phones) do not particularly rely on sound quality. A tiny minority of people still appreciate, indeed – worship, sound quality. Sadly, there is almost no middle ground between them. Gone are the days when a large, solid middle class of audio products aspired to sound good. Compared to earlier days, that's just not where the market is. Other "innovations" like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and speech recognition are more important in audio products.

As Mr. Kiley puts it: "Sadly, [today] virtually all flat screen televisions have small built-in speakers which are of "transistor radio" quality. There are plenty of add-on external audio systems, but the vast majority of TV users don't seem to be interested."

Well, is it only the 1% who care?