The big squeeze

Music - Richard Cook turns the tables on the latest gismo to transform the hi-fi industry

Some of the audio descriptions on the sleeves of ancient long-playing records make charming reading in the digital age. Decca's "FFSS" (full frequency stereophonic sound) or Mercury's "electronic groove depth control" dazzled the first hi-fi nuts of the 1950s, even if the boomy radiograms of the day didn't always do them justice. In fact, Decca's engineers really were second to none. Next time you're in your local charity shop, see if you can find an old Mantovani or Stanley Black LP: the gorgeous timbre of those orchestras still sounds almost painfully beautiful.

You need a turntable to play them on, obviously. Today the very bulk of the hi-fi system endangers its survival. Convenience and portability are now driving the industry. The hi-fi culture has always been sweet on gismos of one sort or another, but now they're becoming an end in themselves. It's no surprise that the hit listening device of the moment, the iPod, has been developed and manufactured not by a maker of audio equipment, but by a computer company.

Like it or not, computers are ruthlessly invading the home entertainment system. A new golden age of accessibility seems to beckon: your iPod can store 10,000 songs, your computer can download and keep on file many more. Digital formats such as MP3 and Apple's AAC free us of shelves laden with LPs or CDs, and the sound they deliver is crisp and resonant, scratch-free and invulnerable to sticky fingers. There's just one small issue: "compression".

In order to squeeze (and boy is it a squeeze) all this music into MP3 files or on to cute little iPods, musical frequencies have to be hugely compressed. Perhaps you don't notice it much when you're listening on miniaturised earphones or through feeble little computer speakers. But try it against a CD played through an even halfway decent system of hi-fi separates and the differences would be glaring. Against a fine old analogue LP, it would be worse.

Luddite LP lovers have largely been consigned to one side as digital sound has swept forward. The CD versus LP debate raged on for some years, but it now seems a quaintly esoteric issue. I like CDs, and although the standard digital format of a 16-bit signal has its flaws, each succeeding generation of CD players has got closer to genuine refinement and reproductive skill. However, if you like symphonic music, or jazz, or anything that asks for something with a bit more sonic atmosphere than jukeboxed pop music, you might start to worry about the way hi-fi is going. Two-channel stereo, one of the great inventive strokes of the 20th century, is being steadily outflanked by multichannel sound, brought about by the huge boom in home cinema systems and DVDs. Spend a few minutes in your high street music store and you'll see how many rows of DVDs there now are where once the CD ruled supreme. This is fine if you like to spend your leisure time being deafened by the gunfire in Saving Private Ryan. For music, it has less happy consequences.

When CDs first came along, we were promised immaculate sound that lasted for ever. The music industry was on to a very good thing. But it did not reckon on computers, which now threaten to destroy it altogether. To fall into line, the industry may be ready to compromise what were once extraordinary standards in bringing music to music lovers. The temptation now, with digital formats, is to keep squeezing them: to reduce the sampling frequency which makes the music live, in order to reduce the storage space needed. It's a bit like cutting the sky out of a Constable to make it fit on your wall.

A musician recently sent me some tapes of a concert he did in the 1970s, recorded on a fairly average cassette machine of the time. Nobody ever felt cassette tapes were any kind of hi-fi medium; people liked them for their convenience and portability - sounds familiar? They started the whole Walkman craze, in fact. I listened to the tapes, and even though a modern MiniDisc or MP3 recorder would have eliminated the tape hiss, and would undeniably have done a much "cleaner" job, they wouldn't have much of the ambience and feel of the music, either - I was astonished at how lifelike it sounded.

Maybe iPods weren't made to carry Mantovani around, but my advice is to save your CDs - and if you still have some LPs as well, don't even think about taking them to the charity shop.

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