They’re everywhere. Those little white earbuds show up on joggers, bicyclists, commuters, and the breakfast table. Follow the cords down from the ears and you’ll soon find the other end plugged into some little digital device the size of a few playing cards holding 5000 ultra low-fi songs. That is if the device isn’t hidden in a pocket.
I know I’m older than dirt, but I remember when stereo was new. It was wonderful to hear the realism and power of stereo sound over mono. I remember going to the record store (ours doubled as a head shop) and letting my fingers walk through the rows of records, pausing to pull one or the other out to look at the cover art or the track list. It was a special, almost covert anti-authoritarian time, searching for the right album to sing my rebellion, my loves, and my future.
I’d bring the album home and call my friends over. We’d tear the plastic wrap off, pull the album sleeve out of the jacket, turn the stereo on and carefully, very carefully, take the precious vinyl out of the sleeve and, holding it by the edges, place it on the turntable.
We would listen in near silence for the 25 minutes or so before the side was over, passing the jacket and, if included, the lyric sheet around. Then we’d talk about the tunes before flipping the album over. The entire process was a communal experience.
Then came cassette tapes, which were great for car trips and mix tapes but were not really replacements for records. With the advent of Compact Discs, recorded music took a jump in sound quality and durability while also being portable. CDs certainly had their disadvantages, however. Beyond the Luddite cry of a “sterile” (read not scratched up) sound, CDs had about 50% more capacity, putting pressure on artists to come up with more material before launching an album. The longer play time combined with not needing to change sides like a record also began exceeding the attention span of the average American. People began treating the album more as background, loading it in and going off to do something else rather than staying put to listen. The community experience began crumbling.
From mono to stereo to CD, every advance in technology delivered higher quality sound. The next jump came fraught with problems. Phillips and Toshiba launched DVD-Audio and Sony marketed Super Audio CD (SACD). Both formats deliver striking improvements in sound quality over CDs and are capable of 5.1 channel surround sound, but they are incompatible with each other, starting a format war that kept most consumers on the sidelines.
As consumers either waited for a format winner or lost attention, the industry was rocked by Apple’s IPod and ITunes. People could buy individual tracks by the thousands and take them everywhere. Convenience and portability, along with a definite “cool” factor, drew fans by the millions. For the first time new music technology delivered poorer sound quality, worse even than vinyl stereo LPs introduced 50 years earlier. DVD-Audio died from a lack of studio support. SACD is still around, mainly in the jazz and classical realms where people seem to be more discerning about sound, but there is still a great selection of rock titles.
I get why .aac and .mp3 files are popular to take your music with you. After all, a car is never going to be an audiophile environment. But at home? Even “lossless” formats like FLAC can’t sound good when played through ½ inch speakers. Why do so many of us put up with music that sounds like it’s playing through a wool sweater? And whatever happened to the group of friends gathered to listen to new music? Seeing two people, each with one ear bud, listening to a smartphone just makes me shake my head. Besides, my favorite tracks on an album are often not the popular tracks. I hate to think I could miss a gem by buying single tracks.
Here’s my solution. Get a universal disc player, buy Hybrid SACDs and rip the disks to whatever size you want. You’ll have the best of both worlds - portability and the highest possible fidelity to enjoy at home. Then take some undisturbed time to relish the quality.
Oppo Universal Disc Player
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