Conventional wisdom dictates that people, especially the younger ones, have ruined their appreciation for the deep, rich, crisp sound that previous generations of music fans saw as the holy grail. However, conventional wisdom isn't always wise.
A new study indicates that the kids' ears are alright, in that they prefer the sound of lossless music to MP3s, and flat-response speakers to those that distort sound in favor of bass or other frequencies.
Apathy about sound quality is widespread to the point of ubiquity, to hear some tell it - or perhaps it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy that we've all aided by taking it for granted. One rapper I spoke with backstage at CES a couple of years ago (Akon) told me he mixes his albums for a single, tiny, mono cellphone speaker, a perfect demonstration of this cycle of sonic misery. People listen on shoddy headphones and speakers, the thinking goes, so producers might as well mix for them - the same way they used to take car stereos into account. The result then gets further degraded by lossy compression algorithms such as MP3 and nobody cares.
Not so fast.
First, a couple of caveats. This study (.pdf) was conducted by Harman, which, as a manufacturer of speakers, definitely has a horse in this race. Also, it only polled 18 Los Angeleno high school students: 13 boys and 5 girls. Still, the study appears to have been conducted with a fair degree of rigor - double-blind, randomized testing consisting of twelve 30-minute trials for the MP3 vs. lossless part of the study, and four trials for the speaker test.
Its findings are clear: These kids can not only distinguish between good and bad sound, but they prefer the good stuff - and when they do, they do so with more conviction than when they prefer the degraded stuff.
These results stand in stark contradiction to an eight-year study by Stanford University's Jonathan Berger cited by the New York Times and others, which found that younger listeners not only don't care about good sound quality - some actually prefer that it be degraded.
As the Harman study itself points out, music compressed at high bit rates using modern compression technology like AAC is often indistinguishable from the lossless CD-quality version. So its test compared 128 Kbps MP3s with the CD-quality version. These don't have to be physical CDs, of course; lossless digital files are also CD-quality, and 256 Kbps AACs sound like CDs to most people.
In other words, the point here isn't about CDs vs. digital files; it's about good sound vs. bad sound.
Across the board, these subjects appear to have preferred uncompressed sound and speakers with an even frequency response. However, there were "significant" differences in the ability of each individual to discern those differences, indicating that some people simply can't hear the difference, whereas it's much clearer for others (maybe the ones who take good care of their ears).
The test also looked at whether kids can tell the difference between speakers, using four trials. We'll leave out the details, especially because Harman Kardon found that people preferred its own Infinity speakers. Like all studies, this one seems to conform to the desires of the people who paid for it. But what's interesting is that all listeners preferred "the loudspeaker with the widest, ﬂattest and smoothest frequency response curves," in addition to preferring uncompressed audio.
This idea that nobody cares about sound quality anymore looks like a case of false conventional wisdom, as far as this study is concerned.
Of course, the test didn't ask listeners whether they would be willing to pay real money or alter their behavior to access better sound quality, which is the test faced by high-end audio products in the real world. (We think it's worth spending over $100 on headphones, for instance… but do you?)
What about the idea that today's listeners prefer the "sizzling" sound of MP3s, which lack low and high frequencies and are missing other information, often resulting in shimmery-sounding cymbals? Or the notion that they prefer speakers with uneven frequency response, like the ones in my newish car that seem tilted unfairly towards the bass end?
This study found "no evidence" to support either of these bits of conventional wisdom.