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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business Insider

New generation of digital audio isn't music to my ears

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, hi-fi was all the rage. There were many specialised magazines aimed at the dedicated hi-fi enthusiast, exclusive shops with highly-trained snooty sales staff, and regular consumer exhibitions at fancy hotels at which we would all gather round and evaluate how amazingly accurate the sound quality was.

People were persuaded that if you changed from ordinary cable to really expensive specially thick cables for connecting up your speakers you could really hear the difference. Some enthusiasts even believed that amplifiers that still used valves were far superior to modern transistor amplifiers.

You might expect that this indicated that people were really interested in getting the best quality sound that was possible and that they would pay extra to get it. I certainly thought so, and a few years ago I invested in a company that developed excellent technology for delivery of very high quality audio from small digital players.

I thought that with Apple doing so well with its iPod there was room for other manufacturers to compete by offering much higher quality audio and so we offered our designs to several of them.

As it happens, they weren't remotely interested and I lost my investment. That's when I learned me hard way that these days 'good enough' sound quality is good enough.

In fact, rather than sound quality getting better as technology develops, it is actually getting worse. Various attempts to launch much higher quality versions of the normal CD - using SACD or DVD-Audio technologies - have failed.

Indeed, the 'silver disk' CD is itself under 1hreat, with more and more people downloading music over the internet, and the sound quality of mese downloaded files is variable - often quite poor. The collapse of Fopp and the takeover of Virgin's music shops are indicators of this shift.

The basic problem with the audio quality delivered is the compression techniques that are used to reduce the amount of data that stores the sounds. The more compression that's used, the smaller the file and the quicker the download, but this usually results in poorer quality audio.

And the broadcasters are also cutting comers. The sound quality of DAB digital radio transmissions depends on the bandwidth allocated to the individual channels. In order to squeeze extra services onto their multiplex - like 5 Live Sports Extra - they have to cut the bandwidth on others.

Radio 1 and Radio 2 use 128 kilobits per second and only Radio 3 uses a reasonably decent 192 kilobits. If you have a good FM signal the quality delivered via the 50 year-old FM service will be far better than the brand new DAB digital service. It would actually take around 240 kilobits of DAB bandwidth to match FM quality.

In fact, since the DAB standard was developed in the 1980s, much better quality compression systems have been developed for lower bandwidths, but nobody in the UK seems interested in upgrading.

Maybe it's because those of us of more mature years have lost our hearing over the years, or maybe it's because younger listeners have blasted their ears to bits with loud music at rock concerts and high volumes through their iPod earphones, but there doesn't seem to be any real demand any more for high quality reproduction of music.

I wonder what happened to all those hi-fi enthusiasts of yesterday - maybe they have all become 'cloth-eared' over the years? •

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