Audio, Audiophiles and the Aesthetic Experience of Medium

Back in December I bragged about predicting the onset of the cassette revival, and five months into 2010 it looks like that revival is in full swing. Articles about the renewed interest in the lowly compact cassette have appeared in as wide variety of sites as the Chicago Tribune, UK Guardian and Pitchfork. Much of the press interest seems to be driven by the wave of cassette-only releases and cassette-based labels, combined with the novelty of renewed interest in a medium many believed to be wholly abandoned and discredited.

This past week my Radio Survivor colleague Jennifer Waits posted about a recent piece at PopMatters by Jay Somerset titled “The Day the (AM) Music Died.” In it Somerset makes the case that the particular sonic dynamics of AM radio–mid-range heavy without low bass or high treble–dictated the production quality for records that hoped to be Top 40 hits:

To sound good on mono AM, you needed a dense, reverberant, everything-at-once sound rather than a dynamic, stereo recording that only sounded good on FM, which the majority of people never even listened to.

Somerset brings his argument into the future by noting how lo-fi production techniques that harken back to that AM radio sound have become popular again amongst indie rock artists. This modern take on it creates,

the sort of sound that reminds you of something, but is inherently different. In other words, while it conjures the past, it’s only retro in its top-coat sheen and could never be mistaken for a song from another era, nor charged with being mere nostalgia art.

Nevertheless Somerset’s analysis resonated with me because I’d been thinking quite a bit lately about the aesthetics of medium. On the one hand, I am a bit of a (cheapskate) audiophile. I enjoy well recorded and reproduced sound. On the other hand, I’ve been a media producer long enough to know that the pursuit of some kind of absolute fidelity is asymptotic, if not Quixotic. Every choice made by a recording engineer, electrical engineer and equipment designer has some kind of impact on the sound. That result of that impact may be more or less pleasing to some people. But any impact means that the sound reproduced by your speaker varies in any number of ways from the original sounds created before the microphone (and that doesn’t even take into account strictly synthetic sounds that were never recorded by a microphone).

Here in the second decade of the 21st century we are well into the second century of recorded sound. In this short history we’ve seen five different fundamental analog recording media: wax cylinder, shellac records, vinyl records, wire and magnetic tape. Vinyl and magnetic tape have themselves seen several forms, like 78 rpm records, 45 rpm singles, reel-to-reel tape, 8 track tape and the cassette tape. The move to digital in the last thirty years has also seen several different media: digital audio tape, compact disc, hard disk and flash memory. With digital the medium is often less important than the format of the data, whether it’s 44.1 khz of 16 bit samples on a CD or 128kbps of compressed MP3. Whether analog or digital, what remains true is that the medium is operative and important.

For listeners, the delivery medium is the variable we have the closest relationship to, and the most control over. We can choose to listen to a CD or an MP3. Twenty years ago people often made the choice between cassette or vinyl. While the choice was often dictated by economics or convenience–vinyl doesn’t play so well in a moving vehicle–the quality of sound was and is often an important consideration. At this point I want to refine the use of the word “quality” with regard to sound. Often we think of sound quality as meaning having greater fidelity, or more closely resembling the original sound recorded in the studio. However, quality also means the nature and dimension of something; a leaf may have the quality of being “green.” Similarly, a reproduced sound may have the quality of being quiet, bass-heavy or sibilant. When speaking of playback medium, then, the notion of sound quality in this respect is important.

Audiophiles primarily argue about the relative fidelity of a playback medium and therefore its ability to reproduce what is believed to be the full simulacrum of the original performance or recording. Of course, the question is never that simple, since everything in the playback chain, from the player itself to amplifiers, speakers and the cables that connect them have some role to play as well. Yet, it’s generally believed that the source medium dictates the fundamental potential for fidelity and the nature of the sound quality heard over speakers or headphones.

Amongst commonly available formats, in the audiophile world CDs and vinyl records are generally held to have the greatest potential for fidelity and sound quality which is relatively uncolored and unmodified from the original recording. Each medium has its adherents who present good arguments for their superiority, or potential superiority. By comparison, cassettes and MP3s have garnered cautious acceptance as inherently compromised media that might be coxed to provide adequate fidelity in exchange for convenience and other lesser reasons.

What seems to mystify many audiophiles is why anyone would prefer cassettes (or MP3s) for recording or playback if things like mobile playback and other logistical practicalities were factored out. I contend that’s because of principle concern of audiophile pursuits is this quest for perfection, for fidelity, overall. If a medium introduces some degree of coloration or change in the sound on hears that’s a deviation from fidelity, it’s inherently a distortion of the original intent of the artist, producer or engineer.

Nearly three decades into the CD era audiophiles generally recognize that even the best vinyl or CD playback systems introduce this deviation from fidelity. Yet, they still nakedly pursue that elusive fidelity all the more fervently the more minute–and costly–each improvement becomes.

At this point in time the average adult music lover has likely personally experienced at least three distinct playback media. Someone who’s eighteen probably has heard cassettes, CDs and MP3s. Someone who’s thirty probably had vinyl as a child, and might have used 8-tracks, too. And now, years after LPs and cassettes were supposed to be dead and replaced by digital audio playback, they’re still with us.

Instead of a Darwinian evolution of playback medium towards something–like CDs–which is inherently superior to those that came before, today we have a menu of playback media before us. It’s as if Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men were browsing next to us Homo Sapien Sapiens at the supermarket and making themselves available on

With the vinyl revival in full swing, the music fan in a good indie record shop again has the choice of whether to buy an album on CD or vinyl. She also can choose to hit up the iTunes music store for an AAC music file or browse to Amazon for an MP3. Heck, she might luck out with an MP3 download code coming for free along with that vinyl purchase. And with the cassette revival just starting to heat up she might be able to find a few more limited releases on cassette, too.

So what dictates the choice amongst these media? Obviously, practicality is the biggest factor — if you don’t have a turntable or cassette player then a record or cassette isn’t likely to be your first choice. The next factor is probably whether or not the release is available on other formats. If you’re coveting a vinyl-only, cassette-only or MP3-only release, then your choice is made for you.

After pragmatics, the biggest choice is aesthetics. If you can get an album or CD or vinyl, why choose vinyl when CD is presumably the fittest medium? I say for myself that I like and enjoy the particular aesthetic peculiarities of vinyl records. From the physical dimensions of the cover and the record itself, to its sonic quality when played back on a decent turntable, I like whatever changes or distortions that vinyl records introduce into the sound playback experience.

It may be that vinyl records have more fidelity, that CDs represent more of an aberration. Or it may be that vinyl’s tonal curve more closely matches the human ear’s sensitivity. It might just be some potent combination of nostalgia, age-related hearing loss and psychology. In the end, it kinda doesn’t matter, as long as I like and enjoy the sound and experience.

Back to cassettes, I have both fond and not-so-fond memories of them. Rocking a favorite mix tape in the car stereo is a favorite memory, while fishing out a string of disembowled tape from a broken deck is not. But I can also distinctly remember buying an album on CD that I’d only ever heard on cassette and being profoundly disappointed. The apparent clarity and revealing quality of the CD seemed to ruin the experience I’d always had with the tape.

We live in an era of aesthetic choice. Other artistic media are experiencing the effects of this array of choices, too. Photographic film, even Polaroids, are seeing a revival a decade into mainstream digital photography. Visual artists are embracing letter press and other supposedly antiquated printing methods. High definition video still hasn’t displaced 35mm motion picture film, while 8mm movies are seeing a small underground resurgence. Not too many people are making the arguments that these older forms are better than the newer. Instead, they’re just different, and sometimes more interesting or pleasing.

For most of the short history of recorded sound the goal of fidelity has ruled the roost. But with the cycle of obsolescence for playback media becoming ever shorter, there’s also a growing weariness with being forced to abandon a particular medium just because something else is purported to be better.

Those of us who never dumped our vinyl records knew that they still sounded good, even if different from CDs. Why upgrade something that works?

In 1992 that seemed like an almost farcical, luddite attitude. Today, when people feel like they’re being asked to abandon their CDs and DVDs that replaced their VHS tapes and cassettes, it starts sounding more logical. Beyond mere economics, we’re left to consider what we liked about these media to begin with.

Vinyl sounds different than CDs just like watercolor looks different than oil paints. If fidelity was the ultimate consideration, then why didn’t photography obliterate portraiture?

The music lover now faces a richer world where she can choose how she hears her music, and the musician can choose how its delivered. Those choices have both meaning and quality. The choices give both more control over the experience.

What’s wrong with that?


One response to “Audio, Audiophiles and the Aesthetic Experience of Medium”

  1. Samsquamtch Avatar

    “It’s as if Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men were browsing next to us Homo Sapien Sapiens at the supermarket and making themselves available on”

    Have you even tried online dating lately? This isn’t really even a hypothetical.

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