How Low Can You Go?

Walk down any city street and you'll see nearly everyone sprouting earbuds and singing along to music heard only by themselves. Call me old-fashioned, but that bugs me. Back in the day, people who heard voices and music in their heads were thought to be witches and were burned at the stake. Today, they're just "Podding."

We sure do love portable players. But many of us still like to actually listen to music over a good home system, too. Despite all the commotion over high-tech portables, home theaters and even lowly stereo systems offer terrific entertainment value and won't be going away anytime soon. Audio/video systems are indeed merging with computers, but you don't need USB ports, Wi-Fi, or a mouse to be entertained.

I can already hear the chorus of "Boo!"s coming from the balcony. Yeah, I know - all you young punks who've never lived in a world without dot-coms believe that iPods represent the pinnacle of A/V technology. And I'll freely admit that it's pretty cool to be able to carry around a few thousand of your favorite tunes. But these toys don't even come close to defining the apex of A/V technology - at least not the way I see it.

Personal music players have been popular since the Sony Walkman revolutionized on-the-go music 25 years ago, but the engine of consumer audio (and video) technology has always been the recreation of natural experiences. A recording of a live performance is good if it transports you back to the concert hall. Players with cheap earbuds can't do that - the sound just isn't good enough. The same goes for portable video players. Sure they're cool, but they'll never pull you into the action the way watching a movie in a good home or commercial theater can.

The problem is, portable gear is warping our view of what good sound and pictures really are. Instead of "high fidelity" as the goal, in the world of lo-fi MP3 files, lo-rez video, and wildly distorted ringtones, many of today's kids think it's all just fine.

Older guys will remember (or may even still practice) the rituals of high fidelity, where attention is paid to every minute detail. Gently cleaning LPs, painstakingly adjusting speaker positions inch by inch, tweaking preamp levels - all done in an effort to come as close as possible to sonic perfection.

So let's try not to forget that most gadgets, as cool as they may be, just aren't capable of providing topnotch entertainment. For a truly awesome experience that delivers the thrill of a live concert or a Hollywood blockbuster, the "old" formats - DVD and even CD - still rule. And physical media should get a boost when the new high-definition disc players - first HD DVD, then Blu-ray Disc - start appearing on store shelves. No matter what conventional wisdom says, the pursuit of high fidelity that originated with Thomas Edison has stood the test of time. At least so far.

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