Harman Kardon has joined forces with artists, including Slash, Snoop Dogg, and Lianne La Havas, to lament a trend that you usually only hear about when it’s time for someone to market new speakers or headphones. You hear a lot about listening to music ‘as the artist intended,’ which is a phrase presented out of context, isolated and accepted on the surface, much like a single taken out of the context of its album. This new documentary, Distortion of Sound, never gets around to explaining what that phrase means in great detail, but it’ll at least give you a sense of what you’re missing when you listen to streaming music with bad audio equipment.
The documentary is more What Is to Be Done than This Must Be Done, ending without giving any clear suggestions on how to fix the degradation of music that the streaming revolution has wrought. We hear a lot about how music got to be degraded, though. As you’ve probably heard by now, mp3 is a lossy format. Music is compressed into smaller files by a process that excises bits that the human ear probably wouldn’t pick up on. As the doc points out, that actually amounts to 90 percent of the recorded music, a portion that the human ear most definitely does pick up on. A comparison of compressed and uncompressed music shows how much richer and less distorted uncompressed music sounds, which is a drum audiophiles have been banging ever since mp3s became big with the iPod.
Virtually all major streaming sites, where millions of people now get their music, use compressed files. This makes those enormous music libraries that the likes of Spotify boast possible. Spotify’s library, stored in lossless formats, would require much more storage space, which would cost them a whole lot more money that they most likely don’t have. The artists in the documentary lament the fact that streaming sites can get away with using compressed formats because millions of music listeners are satisfied enough with the service as is. Where there are no complaints, there is no impetus to improve quality. That bums artists out, especially those who put in tons of production work, all to have most of that work deemed unnecessary by compression algorithms.
The artists don’t sound sure how this problem can be fixed, aside from vague allusions to ‘artist-driven solutions.’ They feel like technology has let them down, and that does appear to be the case. That said, technology could still be music’s saving grace. While lossless files will never get any smaller, physical storage can and will become cheaper to produce and more cost-effective to purchase. There could be a point in time in the future where server storage becomes affordable enough for streaming services to start experimenting with storing lossless formats as a way to differentiate themselves from competitors. As it usually is, the technology is already there, as the artists themselves note. It’s a matter of that technology becoming cost-effective for businesses, and that’s a matter of time.
Until then, if you’re a music enthusiast, you probably already know that to get the most out of music, you need to buy quality speakers and headphones and stick with physical media or buy digital music in lossless formats. Of course, that’s much more expensive. Then again, the saying almost always holds—you get what you pay for. We highly suggest you check out the documentary, if for nothing at all , it will be 22 minutes of education that is actually worthwhile.