June 18, 2012
From vinyl to cassettes, through to CDs and now to iPods and MP3 players, music has never been more convenient. But does it sound better? In the view of one of high fidelity’s most respected personalities: no.
“Sound quality has gone down for the average user over the last 10 to 15 years,” said Ken Ishiwata, a 30-year veteran of the hifi industry and the godfather of the first CD players to offer sound close in quality to their analogue predecessors.
A key audio engineer at Marantz, he worked at the firm before it was bought by Phillips to bring out the first CD players. Only now, he says, is digital music turning the corner and beginning to sound as good as vinyl did. He says that at the beginning of each cycle of innovation, the audio industry has consistently sacrificed quality for convenience, and then left others to pick up the pieces.
“If you go back to the 1960s or 70s, people just wanted the function—a refrigerator, a washing machine—now people want the lifestyle. So we had great analogue sound, but our industry needs something new every 15-20 years,” he said.
“Back then, they had the cassettes. They were quite popular, but they reached a peak, so they had to come up with something new. Sony and Philips got together and came up with the CD in 1982. All new quality was possible, but we decided to come up with reasonable technology for the price. We designed the specifications so that it could be affordable for $100.”
Ishiwata says only recently have CDs really matched the quality of what they replaced. “Of course, initially all audiophiles rejected CDs. British companies like Linn were laughing, saying, ‘We’re never going to introduce the CD.’” The CDs began a process in which music became, as Ishiwata put it, “more and more part of people’s lifestyle, and so we have to adapt to that.”
Ishiwata is currently the “Master Tuner” for Marantz, which later this year will launch a £900 iPod dock called the Consolette. For many, it’s the first that sounds like a real hifi system, yet comes in a package just the size of a single speaker.
“I think usually engineers do not understand music; but I’m coming from the music side, and then I studied engineering,” the Japanese-born Ishiwata said. “I try to see people’s lifestyle and how they think and feel so I can manipulate sound.”
The trouble with new music formats based on the digital MP3, however, is that initially the way to keep costs down was to compress the file size too much, Ishiwata says. That meant although storage was expensive, more tracks could fit on a single device.
“When the MP3 player first came, the memory was so expensive,” he said. “But now there’s 32GB on your iPod. Today, you don’t need to compress. The majority of the download is still MP3, but actually your recording capacity is big enough to have non-compressed music. And so now a lot of people are using Apple Lossless, and sound quality is beginning to improve again.”
Ishiwata says movie soundtracks are increasingly provided in exquisite quality and often uses “American Beauty” for his own audio demonstrations. Although music streaming services such as Spotify are not exactly studio quality, he said. “They’re not bad, and in five years time I think they’ll be a lot better.”
It’s Apple, however, that still dominates the MP3 market via the iPod and iTunes. “I’m not sure improving sound quality at this moment is a benefit for Apple,” Ishiwata said. “Their product is not sold for the quality; it’s sold for the sexiness and the convenience. They are interested in audio, but they are very business-oriented. For them, it is not the right time yet.”
But Apple is dipping its toe in the water: Mastered for iTunes brings audio files based on studio quality masters, and organizations that shunned CDs—such as Linn—are now launching an ultra-high quality downloads service.
Nonetheless, for now, “most users are using highly compressed MP3s,” Ishiwata said. “It’s unfortunately more convenient. But in the nature of people, they always want something better. It always goes down, hits the bottom. But it’s already coming back up.”
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