Sound quality falls as video tech improves, sort of

A recent New York Times article argued that sound quality hasn't benefited from the same kinds of technological progress that video has. (Think of flat panel TVs, High Definition, and 3D movies; then try to imagine what a living room stereo with fancy new technology would look like.) But then the website Create Digital Music published a rebuttal, reminding us of High Definition Compact Disc, DVD-Audio, and various cinema-grade surround formats. They tore apart pretty much every point in the Times article, and their criticisms are mostly right. Unfortunately they were a little too busy attacking the lazy Big Media journalist and polishing their righteous indignation to identify and address the reason the Times wrote the article in the first place: people have stopped buying stereos.

It used to be common to have two large speakers in a big room for listening to music. Today I can only think of one person outside my family who has anything that qualifies, and he uses it mainly for videogames. I won't exclude him because of that; what I'm talking about here is listening carefully to music on a system chosen to reveal audio detail, and he does that sometimes. I'll bet even audiophiles do most of their listening passively, while multitasking. The thing is, over the last 30 years, most of the rest of us went from occasionally listening carefully to never doing it. So we no longer devote the space in our living rooms to it.

Why are Blu-Ray players selling so much better than, say, SACD players? Something has changed in our patterns of consumption. On the surface, video content is more immersive than audio-only content, simply because it engages an additional sense. I've always thought that actively listening to music was a more contemplative pastime than watching television or movies, simply because there is less in the media to distract me from my thoughts. It's been said that America needs to work on its mindfulness, so perhaps the trend towards more immersive media is part of that.