Rolling Stone on “the death of high fidelity”

Hearing protection requiredI’m certainly no audiophile: although I can tell the difference in quality, the fact is I’m too cheap to pay for high-end equipment, and I know I’ll rarely have the time to immerse myself in the kind of sensory isolation necessary to really appreciate it anyway.

That said, I still want things to sound good, and I notice when they don’t. I’ve observed with frustration the ever-shrinking dynamic range on CDs over the last decade, as the mastering process has been refocused on the singular goal of making everything absolutely as LOUD as possible.

Rolling Stone has recently published an interesting article on the phenomenon. Hopefully this bit of negative publicity will mark the turning point where we return to quality.

But I think blaming MP3 compression (as the article does, at least in part) is misguided; the problem predates the iPod and seems only tangentially related to the MP3 phenomenon. Although MP3 does drop certain details at the dynamic and frequency extremes, higher-quality MP3s sound indistinguishable from the uncompressed original versions on all but the highest-end equipment. And the loss of quality that comes with MP3 compression — data compression — has absolutely nothing to do with the dynamic compression being applied during the mastering process. The former removes data that will likely not be missed; the latter actually changes the relative loudness of different parts of the recording, making everything sound more homogeneous.

A good example of dynamic compression gone horribly wrong is in the new remixed versions of classic Genesis albums, released in 2007. (Of these, I currently own Duke and A Trick of the Tail. While I’ve got mixed feelings about the new stereo mixes — or more specifically, the masters of those stereo mixes — these CD/DVD sets are worthwhile for the rare archival concert footage alone.)

While overall I find these recordings to be a fascinating reinvention of the originals — with fine details originally lost in murky analog mixes suddenly brought back to life with bristling vividness — they also suffer to an almost incomprehensible degree from the current trend in excessively loud dynamic compression, particularly in sections of the music where the band is rocking out in full. The more delicate passages in the music sound wonderful and are a joy to discover, but the louder sections are compressed to such a degree that I can hardly pay attention to anything else.

Part of the problem may reside in my listening to the stereo mixes; these albums were remixed primarily for the purpose of creating 5.1 surround versions. Since I don’t have the equipment to listen to the 5.1 mixes, I have no idea what they might sound like, but I’ve been told that surround mixes rarely suffer from the mastering compression flaws that so severely plague the CD market today. Presumably that’s because the record labels don’t care about slapping the listener upside the head with the music in the surround mixes, whereas that’s apparently their primary objective with stereo CDs. Either that, or this is part of a long-term strategy to convince the public that stereo CD technology is woefully inadequate compared to 5.1 surround (which is true, but not to such a large degree), in order to get us all to invest in new audio equipment.

Day Out with Thomas

We have a 3-year-old son, which means, inevitably, that our house is filled beyond capacity with Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia.

Over the year-plus of his ongoing obsession with the little blue “Really Useful Engineâ„¢,” we’ve learned that the owners of the Thomas trademark will spare every expense where quality is concerned. They know, 3-year-old boys don’t care about quality. They want it, even if it’s crap, and they’ll whine until their parents shell out $20 for 10 cents’ worth of Made-in-China plastic.

Then, of course, there’s the wondrous phenomenon that is “Day Out with Thomas.” This is basically a traveling Homer Simpson-quality carnival (minus the moldy mattresses, but including several barely-appealing attractions partitioned with soggy hay bales), topped off by a teenager in a Sir Topham Hatt costume and an overpriced ride on a train pulling a flimsy full-scale model of Thomas the Tank Engine, apparently constructed of plywood and fiberglass, with a dry ice machine inside the funnel.

Now, if I seem a bit cynical and negative when it comes to an event designed to appeal to people just discovering the fascination of smelling their own underpants (trust me, it’s true), it’s only because the coordinators of said event went beyond simply doing everything on the cheap; I am convinced they threw in added touches that didn’t cost — or save — them so much as a penny, but were sure to add to parents’ frustration and dismay with the overall experience.

We arrived in Stillwater, MN for our own Day Out with Thomas today around 1:30 PM, a full hour and a half before our scheduled train ride. By 2:45, our son’s excitement was at fever pitch, so we were relieved and genuinely enthused, if not excited ourselves, when we could begin boarding the train. My wife and I viewed it mainly as an opportunity to get a taste of riding the Minnesota Zephyr without shelling out $71 each for the full-blown experience that includes a gourmet 5-course dinner.

But… oh, man.

We knew going into it that our $17 (each, mind you, including our 3-year-old) was only buying us a 20-minute ride. But we knew nothing of the distance, or lack thereof, involved. The ride consisted of 10 minutes out, stop, reverse, and 10 minutes back. Fair enough. But the train never surpassed the pace of a brisk stroll. At one point the train was passed by a guy on a bike. Seriously. The outbound limit of the journey, on a track that runs parallel to highway 95 on one side and the St. Croix River on the other, was just slightly beyond, but still within sight of, the wayside rest we used as a turnaround while trying to locate a parking space.

But our son loved it, which made it all worthwhile.

Wait, how much did I spend on those tickets…?