Medium Over Message: Are You Afflicted?

Main image: Shutterstock.
As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “The medium is the message.” I don’t know if Mr. McLuhan was an audio/video enthusiast, but that pronouncement, I think, perfectly describes a peculiar affliction that is all too common among us enthusiasts. Perhaps, just maybe, he was talking about you.

Mr. McLuhan was a communication theorist. His famous aphorism was the title of the first chapter of his book, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, published in 1964. It perfectly expresses the notion that, in many ways, the communication medium is more important than the messages it conveys. The beauty of the declaration is that it might seem askew at first, but the more you think about it, the more plumb it seems.

In the world of audio/video, the medium is monumentally important. From a purely informational standpoint, all that gear in your home theater space is simply a communications medium. Also, clearly, the better the medium, the more information it can convey. For example, an FM broadcast conveys more information than an AM broadcast. A color TV conveys more information than a black-and-white TV. A Blu-ray disc conveys more information than a VHS tape. And so on.

From a user standpoint, as the medium’s quality improves, the message’s fidelity improves as well. A recording stored on a 78-rpm record has a limited frequency response compared to an LP record. The recording on an LP suffers from wow and flutter, whereas a recording on a Compact Disc has essentially none. The entire history of audio and video is one of inventing new media and upgrading existing media. Cylinders, records, open reel tapes, cassettes, monaural, stereo, quad, surround, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, black and white TV, color TV, HDTV — each of these is a timeline describing evolutions in media. And within each of those timelines are countless tweaks to each of those technologies that have improved the quality of the medium. In fact, the urge to improve the medium sometimes produced tweaks of dubious benefit, or at least benefits that few people could see or hear.

In any case, in these evolutionary timelines, from a technology standpoint, the medium is the story; the message is relatively irrelevant. You can listen to a recording of a Strauss waltz on an Edison cylinder or stream it from the cloud. In each case, the recording might be the same, but the improvement in the medium profoundly changes how we hear it. At least from the technological point of view, the evolution of the media is more important than the waltz itself. Of course, the improvements in the playback medium are mirrored on the recording or capture side; these improvements also increase the message’s fidelity. To drive home the point, but trying hard not to embarrass anyone, let’s consider that for many audiophiles and videophiles, the medium is hugely more important than the message. Take a moment to let that sink in. Then consider: Who among us hasn’t at least occasionally spent more time attempting to improve the sound or image from an AV system than actually listening or viewing?

As noted, I don’t know if Mr. McLuhan was an audio/video enthusiast. But when he first noted the importance of the medium, he might have been referring to all those 60’s Hi-Fi nuts obsessing over their Marantz receivers in their walnut cabinets. And, if anything, the affliction has only gotten worse. Today, everyone needs continually more K’s in their TVs, more pixels in their phones, and more bits in their streams.

So, are you afflicted? If so, how badly?

How Important Is the Medium to You?
Take this short quiz to find out just how important the medium is to you:

1. Your favorite music is playing. Which of these playback devices would be acceptable to you?
A. AM radio
B. FM radio
C. First-generation CD player
D. Surely you jest.

2. How much extra would you pay to get a Japanese vinyl copy of a rare Beatles LP?
A. $100
B. $500
C. $1,000
D. My kids can start their own college funds.

3. Before you play a CD, how much time do you spend cleaning the disc?
A. I don’t clean it
B. 5 seconds
C. 1 minute
D. Until my scanning electron microscope confirms that every particle has been successfully removed.

4. When a new iPhone comes out, how long would you wait in line to buy it?
A. 1 hour
B. 2 hours
C. 3 hours
D. A good sleeping bag can keep you comfortable all winter long.

5. How many years have you owned your current TV?
A. 1 year
B). 2 years
C. 3 years
D. Do you mean the one I had delivered yesterday or the new one arriving tomorrow?

If you answered “D” to these questions, you are deeply troubled. Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step. Please raise your hand, and a trained Sound & Vision therapist will be with you shortly. And now you’ll have to excuse me. I have some important tweaks to take care of. I need to upgrade the plastic feet under my turntable’s granite base to some neoprene pads. I also need to work on my subwoofer room placement; something’s just not quite right between 35 and 40 Hz. You can put your hand down now.

Ken C. Pohlmann is an electrical engineer specializing in audio topics as a consultant and writer. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami.