Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stereo, CD's, iPod's and Headphones

It is always interesting to observe the ways in which certain technologies ebb and flow. About five years ago, it looked as though stereo (i.e. two speakers emitting two different channels) was about to become passe. It had only been about ten years since television had begun to broadcast in Dolby, and surround systems with multiple speakers were beginning to become a big deal. As part of this, the music industry (RIAA) was aiming to phase out the CD in favor of SACD and DVD-A discs, which offer surround-sound, superior bit rates, and copy protection.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Two things happened in parallel to prop up the stereo format.

First, customers balked at moving to a new recording standard. Compact Discs had been marketed to Americans as "perfect sound forever." Americans willingly dumped their cassettes, 8-tracks and vinyl and bought new players and often purchased anew album titles that they had already owned in other formats. The RIAA stomped out the threat of Digital Audio Tape by basically crippling the sales of the machines before they could take hold. CD reigned supreme, just as the industry had wanted and as part of the marketing of the CD, its sound quality was vastly oversold to the public. Until about 1998, such tactics juiced sales and the Recording Industry began to believe that gravy-train would last forever.

The only problem that the RIAA had not adequately foreseen was the downloading of digitized music on the internet, a problem that began to make DAT tapes look appetizing in retrospect.

The industry was unsure how to proceed.

Surely, every download was a loss of sales for the industry. The industry never apparently realized that many of the downloaders would never have purchased music anyway, many indeed would go on to buy after sampling a few hits and that some were simply downloading songs that they already owned, just for the convenience of the digitized recording.

The author himself, had the Beatles' album, Revolver, on cassette, vinyl record and CD. Just to ensure more profits, the Recording Industry filed lawsuits against their potential clients and also lobbied Congress to go change the laws to extend copyrights so that they could continue to sell more of the same old music again and again, with more monoply profits ensured. This is the Republican and RIAA version of capitalism.

Well, it still wasn't enough, so then around the turn of this century, the recording industry tried to come back and tried another tack, saying, "guess what, here's something even better," at the same time that many rap, hiphop and audio enthusiasts were making known that vinyl records were better sounding and more useful in many ways than were CD's.

Not surprisingly, SACD and DVD-A discs arrived with a big thud, in spite of their technical superiority to the CD format. People already believe that CD was the golden standard, as FM and MP3 were often said to have CD-like sound. Because of the copy-protection, the disks lacked portability with MP3 players. Furthermore, most DVD players would not play either SACD's or DVD-A's and many high-end audio enthusiasts thought that vinyl still sounded at least as good. Remarkably, the DVD-A's came with oversized jewel case packaging that would not fit in a standard CD bin storage slot.

Thus, this multichannel format debacle formed part one of the survival story of two channel stereo, just as it had survived the "quadraphonic" assault of the mid-70's, stereo, at least in the music world, had survived the multi-channel enslaught.

Second, as anyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows, Apple re-invented the wheel and somehow gained a virtual monopoly on sales of something that had been around for several years and used to be called an MP3 player.

Dubbed the iPod, the Apple product came out right when storage space began to really go down in price and the iPod became a big splash, and was directed almost entirely towards two-channel audio: two ears--two earpieces. Recording studios were loathe to go to the extra expense of mixing recordings into surround if most people were only going to be listening in stereo anyway.

As a final more minor factor, some sound enthusiasts discovered that a home theater set-up sounded almost as good in stereo as it did in surround and stereo brought three advantages: you didn't have to pay thousands to have it installed in the walls and ceilings, or you didn't have cords and speakers and sub-woofers all over the floor (I call this the wife factor) and the guy could pick the system he wanted, rather than the all in one systems sold by the big boxes and actually save money. With respect to large HD televisions, any included speakers pretty much by definition had to be stereo, as they were placed above, below and on both sides of the picture.

So, remarkably, here we are in 2007 and we see that stereo remains alive and well and it is the surround-sound format that is gasping for air, relegated primarily to the ultra-high-end. Vinyl is the only tangible format that actually is increasing in sales, with new albums by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Death Cab for Cutie among many others, being issued in the century old circular format.

One can only wonder how many industry prognosticators back in 1982 at the advent of the CD format could have predicted that 25 years later, both stereo and vinyl records would be alive and well. As noted economist F.A. Hayek taught, predicting such matters is near impossible, but such is the nature of a market economy.

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