Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Conversation with an Audiophile

Everybody hits this wall it seems. Approaching 3,000 songs on my iPod, I'm starting to wish there were better gear around to wrap my audio content across all of my hardware platforms. That's not to say there is a shortage of activity in this market, or a shortage of workable moderate-fidelity solutions. But if a person wants high-fidelity reproduction and efficient wireless broadcast, the picture gets a little muddier.

In these situations, I call my certified audiophile buddy Bruce. Bruce Borgerson is principal of Wavelength Communications, a technical writing and consulting firm serving the professional audio industry. He has three decades of hands-on experience in both live sound mixing and studio recording, and he is a member of the Audio Engineering Society. Phat, right? In 04, he got paid to write an extensive piece comparing the sound systems used at the two national political nominating conventions. As in interesting aside to that story, it turned out both the R's and the D's used basically the same gear. Guess they agree on something, but I digress. Talking to Bruce often sends me to Dilettant's Dictionary (of audio, video and computing), founded by Sandy Lerner of Cisco Systems fame.

Bruce listens to vinyl. He's prickly about his music. And analog is his choice. Good vinyl, he notes, lasts for years. He spins his collection of very well cared for albums on modest gear, a Technics table with the top-of-the-line Audio Technica cartridge. For portable tunes, he lugs an analog cassette tape deck. For real. He's done all the head-to-head comparisons, and has a well-developed ear. I trust his judgement completely when he tells me that you just can't beat the sound of analog audio. And his reasoning makes sense. Digitization, he notes, actually enhances hiss through a process called quantizing. "It's just part of the 16-bit sampling and conversion process."

Bruce does listen to SACD stored audio. That, he says, is the best available sound that can be extracted from the CD format. Should be, each song recorded in this lossless digital format takes as much space as a DVD movie. For that you get zero distortion from 0-to-100Khz. Not a format one can stream, however. There's just not bandwidth anywhere at any cost for wireless or net transmission of files that size.

So we compress. The standard CD format, Bruce points out, is "lossy" by design. "We throw stuff out," he says. "Compressing audio means losing information deemed non-critical. But that changes the experience in small, but important ways. That's why an album or analog cassette is always going to sound better than a CD."

He's quick to point out that the digital music picture is constantly improving, and that the mp3 standard is not static but comes, "in a broad spectrum of quality levels."

I'm told my posts are way too long, so I'm going to break my conversation with Bruce into two installments. The next will feature his take on digital audio hubs, wireless networking and the Squeezebox. I was struck during the interview, however, with the differentiation my friend continually made between "casual listening," which he defined as awareness of background music; and, the active appreciation of music accurately reproduced with zero loss and soundstage intact - delivered in true high-fidelity sound. Not something my iPod can deliver quite yet.

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