“When Did THEY Do THIS To US?”

The other day I had the opportunity to meet with a local journalist who anchors one of the local TV morning news programs. He had been trying to upgrade the audio system in his house and I had been offering suggestions via Twitter. During the course of our conversation, he happened to take a look at our website and came back and said “Hey I looked at your website and the stuff you make is pretty cool.” So, I invited him down for a visit, and he stopped by our offices and we gave him a tour and a demo.

We gave him the standard trade show newbie demo, where we play a track from an MP3 and then switched to the same track using a high resolution, uncompressed file of the song. After that we were standing around talking and, like most people who have never heard the difference, he was blown away. So, while we were talking, he looked at me and he asked me the question: “When did they do this to us?” Think about that for a second.

“When did THEY… do THIS… to US?”

Who exactly are they? —and what, exactly, did they do to us?

Now, this question came from a guy who is a well-regarded journalist and was recently recognized as one of the Top 5 journalists on social media. He’s also young and very technically savvy. This decline in music quality had happened entirely in front of him and he missed it. And he was completely shocked. And from the look on his face, not entirely happy either.

Now I admit that I look at this situation from my perspective within the industry, and that I’m not a completely unbiased observer. But this is how I explained it to him:

Back before the iPod, there were already personal music players and people were already ripping CDS but to be completely charitable, the whole experience sucked. And then Apple brought out the iPod.

The iPod allowed you to simply stick a CD into the CD reader of your computer where it would be ripped to your computer, the metadata would be imported into the library, and your music would be available for you to listen to on your computer or on your iPod. Apple also had the foresight to develop a decent user interface that made the entire experience reasonably simple.

Not entirely coincidentally, most laptops have crappy internal speakers or were connected to outboard speakers that also weren’t of a very high quality, and the iPod used earbuds where high audio quality wasn’t necessarily their first design consideration. In addition, the whole point of iTunes was to allow you to carry a vast amount of music with you but the compromise that you made was that the music was compressed and therefore of lower quality. That loss of quality wasn’t really an issue when you were playing it through lousy speakers or less than ideal earbuds. That also opened the door to headphone manufacturers who wanted to create better quality headphones which might improve the quality of the music. But that’s only tangentially relevant. The real point is that this whole paradigm shift was such a sea change that the average consumer readily accepted the loss of quality in exchange for a larger available library of music in their pocket.

Eventually, audiophiles realized that they could connect these computers to DACs and then connect those DACs to better quality audio systems, although at that point they were feeding their audio systems digital audio that didn’t sound very good. To this day, many audio purists will complain about the quality of digital music and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they heard some of this early digital music and came to the unavoidable conclusion that digital sucks. And they see no real need to revisit that experience.

Over time, digitally-inclined audiophiles began to insist that higher quality uncompressed music be made available so that when played through these DACs they could enjoy an experience that was much more like the days when they listened to turntables and vinyl. Companies like HDTracks, Blue Coast Records, and even iTunes made higher quality tracks available, but it was at a slightly higher price.

Streaming services like Pandora came along and offered a radio-like experience which gave people the opportunity to discover new music although soon some customers wanted higher quality music, the ability to create playlists, and much richer catalogs of music of varying genres. Now you have services like Tidal and Spotify that have premium offerings that offer higher resolution and you have other services like Roon that provides a simple to operate user interface so that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to listen to your music.

So, while audiophiles may have figured it out, the average user still exists in a world where their music is compressed thanks to services like Pandora, SiriusXM, and the free versions of Tidal and Spotify. They move through their life everyday listening to their music on crappy earbuds, headphones of varying quality, Bluetooth speakers, and if they’re really lucky systems like Sonos. Without even realizing it, they traded a world of quality for a world of convenience and never even noticed.

As manufacturers who work in this industry, we frequently have the opportunity to introduce somebody who’s never heard this kind of music, although perhaps what I really mean is this quality of music, and they have a palpable and visceral reaction. They’re shocked, they’re stunned, and in many cases, they’re pissed off. They react as though something was taken from them completely without their permission. And in truth, they’re not wrong.

We as manufacturers are doing a terrible job of exposing these potential customers to higher quality music sources and equipment. Memory, streaming speeds, and audio gear have gotten so cheap that customers can replicate the same experience they first had with their iPods over 15 years ago, but now with much higher quality. Instead of engaging these customers and pulling them in, we turn them off with childish arguments of “analog vs digital”, “vinyl vs CD”, and “my DAC technology is better than your DAC technology.”

We need to declare a truce on all these squabbles and start exposing customers to better quality music. It’s not too late to build a new and enthusiastic base, but we all need to do it together. I think this really is a case where a rising tide will lift all boats!