Your ears perk at the noise — a dull thud followed by a steady crackle. Seconds later, the sound of jazz floods your apartment. “See? I told you vinyl is better,” your friend proclaims. Surveying his ironic mustache and dime store sweater, your mouth curls into a grimace. He’s lying.
It’s not his fault, however; he’s a victim of the current audio scene. For the past half-decade, vinyl sales have been on the rise. And with the arrival of “posh” headphone lines — such as Monster Beats or Skullcandy — it’s chic to care about sound. However, misinformation, misleading advertising and pervasive hipsterism have led consumers to embrace what is actually pretty poor equipment.
Take vinyl, for example. In 2010, 2.8 million vinyl records were sold in the United States — the highest sales figure since 1991, according to media survey company Nielsen Soundscan. This comes despite a 2.4 percent decrease in overall music sales and continues a trend of rising vinyl sales since 2007.
Many proponents of vinyl cite what they consider a warmer sound quality. Vinyl certainly can be “warmer,” a characteristic of harmonic distortion, which can be pleasing to the human ear. However, with these benefits come limitations. On vinyl, sound information is stored in a groove that spirals from the record’s edge to its center. A diamond stylus travels this pathway, decoding its sound information. However, due to the circular arrangement of vinyl, this groove has less surface area near the record’s center than at its outer edge. This means there is less space to store sound information, and as a result, sound quality suffers. Even with a cheap stylus, the first few tracks may sound stunning. By the end of each side, however, it’s far too often a distorted, abrasive mess. While better equipment, combined with careful installation, can help alleviate issues, improved sound can often cost a pretty penny.
Jumping on the bandwagon, many manufacturers have released 180-gram, “audiophile” pressings of classic titles. Compared to thinner, standard 120-gram issues, these heavy pressings are sturdier and intended to last longer. Yet their sound quality depends on how engineers “master,” or prepare the mixes for pressing, far more than the weight. If the recording and pressing are good, weight is a secondary concern.
Likewise, the headphone market has also exploded. The reason for this is clear: While definitive audiophile headphones have existed for decades, they’re often bulky or clunky. Brands such as Moshi Audio, Monster Cable (which manufactures the Beats by Dr. Dre and Lady Gaga’s Heartbeats lines) or iHip, which manufactures Snooki’s signature line, have attempted to mix aesthetics with the promise of superior sound. However, according to a Gizmodo article, some lower-end manufactures, including Skullcandy, copy the design trends of higher-end manufacturers, but boost their profit margins by using considerably poorer electronics. The result: good looking headphones that can’t hold a tune.
Assuming the headphones are good, what about the source? While the quality of downloads from stores such as iTunes and Amazon MP3 has improved drastically since their inception, some downloaded music — legally or illegally obtained — is of considerably poorer quality. A low quality MP3 will sound poor regardless of what it’s played on; good headphones will not help regenerate this missing sound information. In fact, these files may actually sound worse on pricey equipment that reveals their limitations. In contrast, the cheaper earbuds that ship with iPods or other similar players are designed to emphasize bass rather than treble, hiding audio artifacts in the process.
Besides, it’s likely that this perceived sound difference is in your head. According to a widely circulated forum post on Audioholics, one audiophile and 12 of his friends conducted an experiment to determine whether there was a notable difference between two expensive brands of speaker wire. Unbeknownst to them, the friend administering the test swapped out one of the cables with coat hanger wire that he had re-soldered into makeshift speaker wire. According to the poster, none of them could tell the difference. “It seems the more [audio companies] charge, the more hyped it is,” he concluded.
When choosing audio equipment, there’s only one person who can tell what’s right: you. There really is no “correct” equipment, and buying more than you need, especially when your setup does not support it, is a waste. Learning to judge for yourself, rather than following trends, could not only make you happier with your setup, but also save you quite a few bucks. Find out what you like, and do your research, but remember: You’re the only one who needs to like the sound of your system. It’s an important call; don’t let others make it for you.