I listen to a lot of music on YouTube, and though the sound quality varies a lot (and is much improved on earphones as compared to the tinny speakers on my Apple computer), it is always worse than a compact disc. And some say that the sound on compact discs is worse than it was on well-recorded vinyl records.

Speakers of the type that you might have attached to a hi-fi system today have generally improved over the last 40 years relative to their size – the smaller speakers have gotten much better than the smaller speakers of a generation ago – but even a good small speaker is no match for a good large speaker, and a generation ago audiophiles (remember that word?) had speakers in their listening rooms the size of washing machines. Those speakers made classical music sound startlingly lifelike.

In sum, the fidelity of the recorded music that I (and most others) listen to now is inferior to the recordings we listened to in the 1970s.

That seems odd, doesn’t it? With far more sophisticated audio equipment available to us, we choose not to use it, and we accept an increasingly distant simulacrum of the real thing. 

Alex Ross has an article in The New Yorker entitled The Classical Cloud: The Pleasures and Frustrations of Listening Online.  Most of the article is about what kind of music is available online versus what’s available on a CD, and how compensation to musicians is affected by distribution of music online. The issue of fidelity is given only a passing mention. The thrust of the article is that Ross is nostalgic for compact discs, for a number of good reasons, including sound quality.

But the issue of what kind of listening environment compels people to listen to classical music has always interested me, and about 25 years ago I stuck my neck out and declared semi-publicly that attendance at live performances of classical music would suffer because of the ease, comfort, and sterling sound quality that could be accessed by anyone with a decent stereo system. Basically my argument was, why would anyone pay two to ten times the cost of a CD to buy a ticket to a live performance when neither the sound not the performance will be as “perfect” as what they could enjoy sitting in an easy chair in their living room listening to a CD on their stereo, sipping a glass of wine?

It was a logical enough argument, but it hasn’t proven true. Attendance is down at concerts of live classical music, but it has nothing to do with “fidelity choice.” (Briefly, and possibly to be explained more fully in a subsequent post, the decline in the number of people attending classical music concerts is mostly due, I believe, to people deciding that they are not attracted to social conventions of a classical music concert. If your friends are choosing not to attend because they don’t like the social environment, then you are less likely to attend.)

But contrary to the dystopia I predicted where people would choose a recorded version in preference to the real thing, live performances have maintained their status as the first-choice way of experiencing music. (And classical music is becoming a friendlier, less socially-uptight art form.) So it is, too, with spectator sports: to an extent that seems illogical to me, people are willing to spend enormous sums to attend professional sports events. The fact that you see what happens on the field less clearly that what you would see if you were to watch the event on television does not inhibit attendance. It’s not a “fidelity” issue.

So I am not going to join Alex Ross and bemoan the departure of the CD and the rise of online streaming music. I think that the increased access to free classical music is basically good, and that our ace in the hole is that the relatively lousy fidelity of what you hear online is actually a boon to the richness of the experience of hearing music live.