TechTalk: Toxic Audio?

I recently drove cross-country from Phoenix to Nashville to start a gig as co-director and instructor at the new Blackbird Academy. I’d made the opposite drive 10 years earlier, moving west to star

Kevin Becka

I recently drove cross-country from Phoenix to Nashville to start a gig as co-director and instructor at the new Blackbird Academy. I’d made the opposite drive 10 years earlier, moving west to start working for Mix after a stint as editor of then-Nashville-based Audio Media magazine. Not wanting to wrangle CDs on a road trip, I bought XM Radio, knowing how lonely it gets between towns. XM was only available as an install on higher-end vehicles at the time, so I bought a removable head unit, had it installed in the car and I loved it.

I had reviewed XM for Audio Media, and although it didn’t live up to its “CD quality” pitch, it was listenable. After selling the car, I never re-upped and hadn’t heard satellite radio since. Fast forward 10 years: Sirius and XM Radio, once competitors, are now one company, and either/or comes as a standard option on many car models. My car was one of those, and had a promotional three-month free subscription. So a few days before my trip, I signed up and was looking forward to being entertained on the long drive with just me, my luggage and Rex the Pomeranian.

I was shocked to discover that the quality had taken a considerable nosedive. Frankly, it was awful, and if I had paid for it, I would have asked for my money back. With the old XM, you could hear the quality hit for talk, but music seemed to have higher bandwidth. But not now—talk and music both suffered. On complex musical material, symptoms include squishy transients with no “point,” ambience and reverb swimming in a wash of phase oddities, and a collapsed stereo image. And God forbid a talk channel should play music—that’s when it really gets painful.

There was one shining exception, though: On Sunday of my trip, the Real Jazz channel played Wynton Marsalis’ excellent Jazz for Young People. It was recorded at Lincoln Center and centered on the history of Duke Ellington, his influence on music and his innovations. For just that show, the quality literally took a 50-percent uptick. Ambience was much less phasey, the stereo picture improved and I found myself engaged for the entire time.

All this started me thinking about audio quality and how it affects us—both in our decisions when tracking and mixing and in how we perceive music. Can we as humans be programmed to accept a crappy standard as “good?” Absolutely! A friend of mine did an experiment once that really stuck with me. This is a guy who has an audiophile system in his basement, knows great sound and understands what it takes to produce it. He has an excellent ear. For three months, he listened to nothing but 24-bit/96kHz audio, vinyl and live music. He wouldn’t turn on his car radio, refused to be in a room where music was playing, didn’t watch TV and relegated himself to sonic monk-hood. After coming out of his audiophile cave, he put on a CD and was blown away at how different it sounded. Over time, he had trained his ear to a new standard, and to his “tuned” head, CD quality stuck out on the downside.

So, at least anecdotally, what you hear on a regular basis can affect your opinion of audio quality, and I’m not talking about the decade-long MP3 lament. No stretch there. But will we pay for quality? I would and have been any time I buy gear for music production. But as a consumer, if XM/Sirius had a higher bandwidth option, I would pay for it. But I don’t think they can pull it off. They’d have to drop the channel count, and that’s their model for expansion. More channels offered is more channels to sell. How about video? Satellite TV is quickly reaching a zenith. Yes, it’s convenient, you can get the east/mid/west feeds to your house and watch the Grammys as a New Yorker, even though you live in Santa Monica. But have you tried navigating channels on a satellite TV system? It sucks. During my trip, in my hotels where satellite is king, I’d turn on the TV to do some channel surfing. Navigation is slow, clunky and dumps you to bad analog if the weather goes bad. I don’t see the attraction, especially since 4k is just around the corner, and satellite is toast in that realm. Cable marketers must be jumping for glee.

So where is my perfect future? High bandwidth into my home. The U.S. is way behind countries like Japan and South Korea, sitting in the teens on the list of highest bandwidth offered. After bandwidth comes a great playback system to hear and see these high-quality sounds and picture. Will Dolby Atmos be possible in the home? You bet! It may not be called just that, but the trickle-down will be there. I’d be shocked if next-gen systems didn’t improve exponentially. And once OLEDs become affordable, it will be a beautiful day in suburbia. I can watch a concert at 4k, with 96kHz playback on my 60-inch OLED while sipping a margarita in my living room. Even Rex would love it.

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