High Fidelity Wars v. 2020

By the time CD sales eclipsed vinyl in the late ’80s, the rivalry between digital and analog music fans was in full swing. Compact disc advocates welcomed them as a technological leap in the quest for perfect sound, while analog enthusiasts extolled the warmth of vinyl LPs and dismissed the headache-inducing, high-end frequencies that could, and probably should, only be heard by a dog.

Musicians who fell squarely into the digital camp included the iconoclastic Frank Zappa. A revered artist whose music had previously been released on LPs, cassettes and 8-tracks, he dismissed the idea that vinyl’s limited frequency range was somehow a virtue.

“What the f__k is warmth?” Zappa once told this music writer. “Does warmth mean a lack of top end, or an extra bunch of frequency bulge at 300 cycles? How do you quantify that in audio terms?”

And besides, he argued, you can just use a broadband equalizer to get the sound you want. “You roll off the top end a little bit, and things start to sound, you know, warm,” said Zappa with a hint of disdain, “if that’s the kind of sound that you like. I don’t particularly care for that sound.”

Compact discs weren’t the first audio format to come under fire when they were first introduced. Back in the 1970s, while people were littering their car seats with clunky 8-tracks and killing the record industry by recording cassette mixtapes for their friends, serious audiophiles were vilifying both formats for their substandard audio quality. Before that, portable record players, long-playing albums, wax cylinders and even player pianos were all greeted with varying degrees of derision.

But no format can match the sheer persistence of contempt that continues to plague the lowly MP3. Introduced more than two decades ago, these highly compressed music files began spreading across the internet, as vinyl and CD advocates finally found common ground in their mutual hatred for the new medium. With their paltry bit rate of 320 kilobits per second — compared to the compact disc’s 1,410 kilobits per second — the high infidelity of streaming MP3s has been variously dismissed as lossy, swirly, murky and distorted. The fact that artists were receiving little to no compensation for their work didn’t help.

Soon, compressed formats like Ogg Vorbis and FLAC were being embraced by high-end audio enthusiasts, but largely ignored by everyone else.

Still, the battle is not over. Earlier this month, the studio-quality digital music app BluOS announced a deal with Neil Young to make tracks from his extensive catalog available to their subscribers. Young, whose own Pono streaming music service and devices met with only limited success, has been a longtime critic of MP3s, arguing that the quality of the format misrepresents the intent of artists, producers and engineers.

The classic-rock icon has been no less critical of the laptops that fans often use to access music, railing against the MacBook Pro in a recent interview with “The Verge.” “That’s Fisher-Price quality; that’s like Captain Kangaroo, your new engineer,” said Young. “You can’t get anything out of that thing. The only way you can get it out is if you put it in. And if you put it in, you can’t get it out because the DAC (digital to analog converter) is no good.”

BluOS is not alone. Digital streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz, Primephonic and Amazon’s Ultra HD are all competing for their share of the high-end market, with bit rates that, in some cases, are more than six times greater than CDs.

But while even the most undiscerning music consumer will recognize the role that audio fidelity plays in our appreciation and enjoyment of music — I have yet to hear a Kendrick Lamar or Tame Impala album that sounds great on a vintage RCA Victrola — those factors aren’t necessarily what matters most.

The bottom line, when it comes down to it, is that you can hear the music and that the artists are getting paid for it. In fact, that’s a really great thing to say any time you want to bond with the high-fidelity purists in your social network, because it will show them just how much you’re interested in the same things they are. Try it and see!

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