Posted by: hdemott | May 20, 2009

Fidelity Matters: Or Are We So Used To Crappy Sound That It Just Doesn’t Matter?

I have a regular conversation with a fellow board member in Los Angeles. Inevitably, one or both of us is on a cell phone and as with all cell calls, we get frequent drops, call quality is terrible and yet we persist. I recently read where over 25% of all households now operate solely on a cell phone. As Clayton Christensen put it in his book “Innovators Dilema” (or was it “Innovators Solution”) for some people the quality of a cell phone is good enough – and the trade off between mobility and call quality is worthwhile.

I started wondering the same thing about music.

In my car I listen to XM or Sirius. At home, it’s iTunes or Pandora or Slacker – all over a Crestron whole house audio system (or soon a Sonos system). My wife occasionally listens to XM or Sirius over the television set through our subscription to DirecTV.

I’ve been shocked at the difference in quality between all of these different services.

In the car XM and Sirius sound fine, but they are terrible over the satellite when run through the whole house audio system – clearly bandwidth is an issue. iTunes ripped at the normal Apple CODEC is fine – but obviously not as good as listening to the CD.

Amazingly, FM radio sounds the best of all of these – but you need to listen to all the chat and the commercials (yes I was an idiot for not ripping my 500 CD’s in uncompressed)

Streaming services sound pretty good over the whole house system, but I was just blown away a few minutes ago when I signed up for Pandora One – the subscription service of Pandora (where I am a board member). For $36 per year I now get a 192Kps stream, and the difference is extreme. $3 per month is a very slim price to pay for this improvement in audio quality. All of a sudden I am hearing stuff in songs I hadn’t heard before except when I popped in the CD and listened through good headphones.

Between this and the Napster $5 per month deal – one wonders whether physical media has any future at all. If I can get great quality – and the portability I want and the choices I want, why own?

It seems that for years, convenience has trumped all else – but perhaps quality is making a comeback.

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