MP3, Camera Phones and the Price of Convenience

Posted: Jun 25, 2013 12:01 AM

When I was in high school, I went without lunch for a month in order to pay for my first stereo system.

When I was in college and graduate school (late '60s and early '70s), my friends and I would brag to each other about the stereo systems we had just purchased.

Friends would come over to hear our latest amps, preamps, speakers, record players, and even cartridges and needles.

"Listen to that bass!"

"Pretty clear sound, huh?"

Our love of stereo was a result of two factors:

First, nearly all of us had listened to live music. And we wanted to approximate that experience at home.

Second, you had to own a stereo system -- meaning at the very least, a record player, speakers and a receiver (a unit that combined a radio tuner, amplifier, and preamplifier) -- in order to hear recorded music.

Neither of these factors exists today.

With regard to live music, it is likely that most Americans under the age of 35 have never or nearly never heard instruments that were not electrified; they have probably never heard instruments other than acoustic and electrical guitars, drums and electronic keyboard. They therefore do not know what most musical instruments really sound like. So why would they care about getting a sound system that sounds "real?"

Moreover, the music on which this last generation was raised does not consist of much melody. Its appeal lies in beat, loudness and lyrics. And since the music is often electronically synthesized, it hardly demands sophisticated playback equipment. Those who were weaned on The Beatles, on the other hand, wanted equipment that enabled one to hear all the inner musical lines and, of course, the voices of The Beatles themselves.

Regarding the second factor: With the advent of digital music, the iPod and smartphones, few young people even know of the existence of stereo systems. An iPod or iPhone and ten-dollar ear buds is their musical reproduction universe.

Moreover, MP3 files compress music. The typical MP3 file is a recording of 128 to 192 kilobytes per second (kbps). The typical compact disc is recorded at 1411 kbps. One gets many times more "information" from a compact disc than from an MP3. When you also consider the awful earphones through which young people listen to their music, the difference is so great that even those who have never heard a quality recording can tell the difference when first hearing music on a good system. They are amazed. That's why it often takes just one hearing to convert many people into "audiophiles." But few have that experience.

Think of listening to an MP3 file on an iPod device with cheap ear buds -- compared to listening to an uncompressed file (even on an iPod) with good headphones, let alone listening to a good stereo system -- as looking at a black and white photograph of a color painting.

As a music lover, I treasure the ability to approximate the sound of live music, of all types, in my home. I therefore attend audio shows to see and hear the latest equipment and talk to fellow audiophiles. But I am always sad to see virtually no one there under the age of 50. The young people who are there are those who design and sell stereo equipment, not prospective buyers.

A similar movement toward mediocrity is taking place in photography. Even though even inexpensive cameras are getting better and better, camera stores are reporting a decrease in camera sales -- for the same reason that people prefer inferior music reproduction: Convenience trumps excellence.

Smartphones certainly take better pictures than they used to, but their virtue lies entirely in convenience. And this is not to be dismissed. When my son sends me a video of my grandson, I am thrilled to watch it no matter what the quality.

But unless one is shooting a still subject in daylight -- and most pictures of people are taken indoors in low lighting -- a camera phone usually takes mementos, not beautiful photographs.

The prices paid for convenience, in both music and photography, are excellence and beauty.

No one is at fault here. There are no bad guys. But people need to be aware of what is happening. Young people are paying a price. Phone cameras are to photography, and MP3s and cheap earbuds are to music, what texting is to writing.

They are living a convenient life. But not a deep one. And they don't even know it.