Have you purchased a Billboard top 10 CD lately? If you have, more often that not, it’s probably very loud. That’s awesome, isn’t it? Not exactly. Most of the public is unaware of this, but this is probably the worst thing you could do to sound reproduction. This is done through a process called Dynamic Range Compression (DRC). In simple terms, it reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. In a normal song, there are highs and lows. Quiet chapters, and loud chapters. With excessive DRC, all the nuance and range between different parts of the song are lost. To the untrained ear, this might sound good since records with heavy DRC are louder. However, you are not hearing what the artist intended you to hear through their music. It’s akin to going to an art gallery, and then having the curator smearing paint all over the art because they think it’s better that way. Generally speaking, many people have never heard a pristine, clean recording, so they have no frame of reference as to what something with minimal compression sounds like. The video below illustrates the detriment DRC is to modern recordings. It really hit the nail on the head.
If you’re a jazz fan, you can even test this out yourself. Buy a copy of the SACD version of Blue Train by John Coltrane on the Analogue Productions label. This version was mastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray. Possibly, the two most respected sound engineers in the audiophile community today. Now, buy the standard CD version of Blue Train. The difference will be startling. The CD version will sound loud, but the dynamics are basically dead. The punchiness on the drums handled by Philly Joe Jones is just not there. The SACD version was sourced directly from the master analog tapes, so it sounds phenomenal. Remember, you own the volume knob on your stereo, thus you should dictate how loud you listen, not the sound engineer.
DRC isn’t the only problem with audio, it’s two fold. The fact of the matter is that, the better your sound equipment is, the less forgiving it is. It will reveal more flaws in your recording. If it’s a poor recording, you will hear just how poor it is. Most people listen to music on cheap earbuds or PC/laptop speakers, so sound engineers use DRC to make the music more palatable to the sub-par systems being used. For the last two decades, the mainstream has been bombarded with mediocrity in terms of audio, and we have unknowingly accepted it. From shoddy, poorly constructed speakers to headphones. Some companies even charge you a premium for poor offerings. The leader of the pack is that company that audiophiles love to hate. It’s the one that has no highs and lows. The one that uses paper cones in their speaker drivers, yet will charge you several thousand dollars.
Ultimately, nothing will change until you the customer takes a stand. Despite what people think, it’s not expensive to enjoy high quality music. Insist on high quality downloads. Forget mp3 audio, it’s the spawn of Satan. If you can, stick to FLAC, Apple Lossless or WAV. If you want to kick it into high gear, try a 24/96 recording. B&W speakers has their Society of Sound that offers high resolution downloads, including 24/96 FLAC files. High resolution disc formats like SACD and DVD-Audio are wonderful, but I realize that it may be too much of an investment for the average consumer.
In my next installment, I’ll talk about how you can easily improve the music you currently listen to, and whether vinyl is a viable option for most people.