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Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
august/september 2002


What About mp3 and Us?
by Danny Kaey


Having been on a hiatus from high end audio for a while, I am happy to be back in full swing, courtesy of my lovely new system (see my report on it elsewhere in this issue). Though I am not much of a show-off when it comes to my latest and greatest, I casually mentioned my new setup to a good friend. I have known Michael throughout most of my adult life, and knew that he didn’t really care much about the need for high quality music reproduction and playback. In fact, just a couple of months ago he confessed to me that he had transferred his entire CD collection to his computer! I have to admit that I have done much the same, though I only use my mp3 collection as background music when I am working on something—like writing this article. (Actually, it’s WMA8, which has superior sound quality at the same 128kb resolution.) Michael, on the other hand, is a serious mp3 proponent. To him, it’s all about the convenience, accessibility, and portability of his music collection. While I am all for technological advancements, I don’t care much about technology which only seems to advance, yet really doesn’t, or at least not in a way that is audibly better than what it replaces. A perfect example of this is the CD.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael and his wife came to visit. Talking about this and that, my new playback system came up (somewhat inevitable, as it is in my living room). I proceeded to give them a demonstration. Since I know that Michael likes Peter Gabriel, I cued up "Don’t Give Up," a beautiful duet with Kate Bush on his So CD. Michael had the sweet spot, and after the first few moments he said, "Wow, you can actually hear all the different instruments and their positioning on the soundstage," to which I responded. "Of course you can!" It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that my statement was a bit on the strong side. After all, I was saying this to an mp3 junkie who probably never gives the time of the day to actually "listen" to music. I played another couple of CDs, and he concluded that this was the finest music reproduction he had ever had the pleasure to hear. Then came the kicker, though—he didn’t really care! I couldn’t believe this. Here was a guy who openly admitted that his mp3 collection was seriously flawed in sound quality, yet he was more interested in portability and (semi-)instant accessibility.

My point is this: I don’t believe that the current generation of mp3-loving men, women, and children will be the demise of high end audio. You see, I believe that high-quality music reproduction is something that only a very select group of people can follow and enjoy. It’s like most of the "finer" things in life—very few people are into it. Mp3 is nothing more than what the cassette was to vinyl. It didn’t kill the LP, in fact it’s still not dead, although after twenty years we have finally been able to bring the CD to some level of maturity. I think that mp3 (and other, similar technologies) are good for listening to music casually, without any pretense to sound quality. As I said, I spend lots of time listening to music on my computer while working. I don’t believe that using mp3 precludes the enjoyment of a high-quality playback system. If anything, it has the potential to draw people to high end systems. Mp3 will not dethrone the high end any more than online shopping has made retail stores disappear.