I had to explain to my brother how vinyl worked this week. He's thirteen, so he really never had seen it in action, and in the process of explaining it to him, I realized how primitive the process must sound to somebody who was raised in the digital age. It also made me think about the strange effect the digital age has had on sound quality. Rather than improving how things have sounded, the use of compression has caused a lowering of standards for audio quality.
Now, CDs are more convenient than LPs and they can sound outstanding. There are cases where the vinyl sounds better simply because the music was recorded with that format in mind, and a really good CD presentation can equal and sometimes even better an LP. I pointed this out when I discussed the Led Zeppelin records that I listened to on Thursday.
This is a process that was started in the mid-90s with the introduction of Dolby AC-3; while the ability to present a discrete 5.1 track on a laserdisc was a great improvement in directionality, the limp bit rate (384 kb/s) insured that it wouldn't sound as strong. Considering how good lasers had a tendency to sound, it is somewhat surprising that you have a step forward and a step back. Now, DVDs have improved the sound of their Dolby tracks (the bit rate is upped to 448 kb/s most of the time), but Dolby Digital still tends to come up short in direct comparison to a laserdisc's Dolby Surround track (case in point: the original Star Wars trilogy). Mp3, Sony's ATRAC, Ogg Vorbis, Windows Media and all the rampant compression algorithms out there do, indeed, make music much more portable. I won't deny that I make extensive use of the mp3 format for my Nomad and car, and that it is fantastic to have so much music available all at once. But the fact of the matter is that no matter how good you make them sound (and I make mine sound as good as they possibly can), they can never have the raw power that full bandwidth can give you.
I find it strange that as our technology advances, what we expect from it decreases in other ways. Home video is very nice, but it doesn't match the intensity and detail of a film image; meanwhile, in deference to home video, standards in theatrical presentation and print quality of films has been deteriorating over the past ten years. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the benefits that technology has given us, but I feel it's important to be aware of what is being sacrificed for convenience.