In many ways, we are living in a golden age for music and the sound it makes. Vinyl has staged a comeback, the quality of CD replay is better than ever, high-resolution downloads offer the promise of ‘studio master’ quality, while streaming services have shifted up a gear with Tidal and Qobuz occupying the high-res high ground. You can even find open-reel tapes if you scratch the surface. To quote 1950s British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, “most of our people have never had it so good.”
And yet, I can’t help feeling there’s trouble in paradise.
The trouble isn’t about the quality, though. We’ve got great sound, and it’s getting better by degrees. The trouble is we’re kind of keeping it to ourselves, by potentially creating a gated community between audiophiles and the wider set of music lovers.
What we have now is a series of excellent products that produce outstanding performance across a wide range of formats, but in the process we have raised our own bar to eliminate anything below high-resolution as ‘sub-par’, making this seem like a minimum criteria for entry to the Good Sound Club. This, I feel, potentially disenfranchises those who seek good sound, but either have not made, or have no plans to make, the jump to high-resolution audio.
The reasons for not crossing that particular Rubicon are entirely understandable. Many have extensive CD collections amassed over the last 30+ years, and to re-buy some or all of that collection in high-res is daunting and punishingly expensive. Also pundits outside the audio world are quick to ridicule what they consider to be unnecessarily large file sizes for audio formats.
However, we don’t make it any easier for ourselves. We are apt to dismiss and look down upon anything apart from our format of choice as being inferior, regardless of how it sounds. A perfect example of this is the discussion about MQA. It has been discussed and almost dismissed before it appears in some audiophile circles. Why? Because it is increasingly looking like a format that takes high-resolution PCM audio files and compacts them down for one-bit streaming. ‘That’s all it is,’ is the plaintive cry, expecting instead an even higher quality audio format.