Monday, July 17, 2006


Notes on Music Players

I'm beginning to understand why the Ipod is so successful: integration. Itunes and the Ipod work together. As usual, Windows is playing catch up; even Microsoft's "Plays for sure" logo doesn't mean much because of the number of different formats.

When is a Windows Media Audio file not a WMA? When it's a WMA lossless. When I bought the Archos player I thought a WMA was a WMA. Nope. It turns out there are very few portable music players that support WMA lossless compression. Apple has their own lossless format, which Itunes and the Ipod support. So, they want me to re-copy all of my CDs to that format, and then buy an Ipod. No, thanks.

Format wars. Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. Betamax vs. VHS. Each has its story, and the poor guy who just wants to listen to high-quality music gets lost.

The problem is that, just as Budweiser and McDonald's have taught people how to accept mediocrity in food and drink, MP3 players have taught people to accept mediocrity in music. We get used to things and in the preference for simplicity we lose the soul. The differences aren't startling. Budweiser does taste pretty much like beer, and MP3 is recognizably music. People who are in a hurry, or are easily brainwashed, accept them as reality. On extended listening, though, the MP3 winds up not being music. It has no depth, no fine detail, no discrimination.

There are hundreds of MP3 players available. I've found three devices available for purchase that will play WMA lossless, which kind of indicates that I'm not really a mainstream kind of person. Some others purport to be interested in quality; I even found one Web site that talked about portable hi-fi. His idea was to connect high-quality headphones to an MP3 player. His headphones would easily show the faults, if his ears could hear.

The government takes incremental nibbles from our freedom. The music business takes incremental nibbles from our music. Popular culture nibbles away at any concept of quality, and calls people like me elitist or picky. Well, I grew up learning what real food tastes like, so McDonald's just doesn't cut it. The first time I drank beer I couldn't stand it; it took sampling a Brazilian beer to learn that there was anything good out there. And music is too precious to filter through an indiscrimate MP3 encoder.

The data rate from a CD, itself already compressed when compared to an analog recording such as an LP record, is 1.411 megabits per second. The data rate of a professional digital recording is
4.607 megabits, and if they're using high-zoot 192kHz sampling, you can double that. Compare that to the usual 128 kilobit MP3, and you'll not be surprised that the music has gone missing.

The upshot of all this is: be careful what you're throwing away, and what you get used to. It's easy to go downhill, whether you're talking about food, music, or God.

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