There was a time — and this is dating us — when Dave and Rick drooled over high-end stereo components and huge speakers. After all, no music-lover’s home was complete in the 1980s without a rack full of stereo components and towering speakers. But it’s The Future now, and people don’t get as excited about names like Denon, Onkyo, and NTT Audio anymore; these days, it seems that people just play their iPhones through earbuds or tiny computer speakers. Has the home stereo kicked the bucket?
Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners. Want to watch Dave and Rick in action? Geek Vs Geek is also a weekly video series — check out the latest episodes!
Dave: I definitely grew up aspiring to own a super high-end stereo system, and I’ve meticulously built a very respectable rack of components and speakers over the years. I love the high fidelity sound that wrings every ounce of sonic information out of my recordings. But looking around, I seem to be in the rare minority. You listen to your iPhone through a tiny Bluetooth speaker system, right? Do you have no respect for the music? Or your ears?
Rick: Wrong again, sir! I respect not only music and my ears, but also my wallet. I find it ludicrous to spend all kinds of money on a receiver (an antiquated piece of hardware if ever there was one) and huge, decor-killing speakers. Granted, I don’t live in a mansion the way you do, but in my modestly sized home, a good Bluetooth speaker works wonders in pretty much any room. And goes from one room to another with ease. And pairs wirelessly with my phone or tablet. You enjoy your overpriced vacuum tubes and snake’s nest of wires, old man.
Dave: Therein lies the core problem: A good Bluetooth speaker doesn’t work wonders, unless “wonder” is simply being amazed that music can be transmitted wirelessly, like YouTube videos and the flu. First and foremost, a stereo is an investment in source material. If you connect your phone to Bluetooth, pretty much all you get is the music stored on your phone and whatever you stream from the Interwebs, like Pandora and Spotify. Sources that are highly compressed or streamed at a low bitrate. But a stereo lets you pull in music from CDs, from music you’ve ripped uncompressed, from vinyl on a turntable. Even from DVD-Audio or SACD, if you have any of those lying around.
Rick: And therein lies your core problem: You’re a fidelity snob. Yes, Bluetooth compresses audio on the path from your phone or tablet to your speaker. And services like Pandora don’t provide CD-quality streaming (though the bitrate is far from “low”). But you know what? So what! To my ears, all those sources sound great. I’ve never listened to music through a Bluetooth speaker and thought, “Gee, this would be so much better with a few extra bits to really bring out the high end.” The technology has reached the level of “good enough,” and that’s obviously “good enough” for the majority of music lovers–hence the staggering popularity of Bluetooth speakers. No one cares about bitrates and compression because they’re too busy enjoying their tunes.
Dave: At the risk of sounding like an old man telling technology to get off his lawn, that’s a problem. For over 100 years, we’ve been evolving home audio, improving fidelity a little at a time. There was a time — in the 60s and 70s — when the goal was to make audio recordings match the quality of a live concert performance. And then we blew past that, so albums like Sgt Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon created a better sonic experience than seeing the band perform live. From that moment on, concert audio engineers strived to make live shows sound as good as the original studio recording! And now, here you are 30 years later, saying, “music that’s more or less equivalent to FM radio is good enough for me. I don’t mind regressing 20 years. Tinny speakers and lack of bass response is good enough. Well, it might be good enough for you, sir, but there are still people whose ears aren’t made out of tin.
Rick: I’ve never understood that mentality. Why would I want a recording to sound like a live concert? Live concerts sound terrible, unless you’re lucky enough to have Coldplay performing an acoustic set in your living room. (That’s right, I said it: Coldplay.) The point you’re missing (or perhaps avoiding) is that home stereos just don’t deliver enough benefit to justify their high cost and space requirements. I’m in my 40s; I’m not throwing big ol’ house parties, so I don’t need speakers so big I have to move out, and I don’t care about window-rattling bass.. I want music that plays in the background while I read or do housework. Occasionally I crank it up so I can dance around with my kids. Tell me again why I’m going to pay big bucks for a big stereo that’s stuck in one room? The fidelity argument ain’t cutting it, old lawn-man.
Dave: Dude. Sometimes I think you miss the point on purpose. There was a time, back when you were a toddler, when audio recording technology didn’t sound as good as a live performance. And I’m not talking about listening to Coldplay, because I’m referring to music. Imagine instead an orchestra playing classical music; in 1950, playing a recording was simply inferior to hearing the show live. And now we’ve come full circle; you can’t possibly appreciate every pluck of a bass or every inflection of a singer’s voice through a tiny Bluetooth bookshelf speaker. Physically impossible. Audiophile speakers are large not because bigger things are cool, but because the laws of physics require larger speakers to reproduce music accurately. I guess that bookshelf speaker streaming low fidelity music is fine for your Coldplay fetish, but those of us who have some taste in nuanced, delicate, or complex music will continue to appreciate the sound of an actual stereo system with large speakers and a subwoofer.
Rick: Miss the point on purpose like a fox! I honestly have no interest in “nuanced, delicate, or complex music.” I want to listen to what I want, when I want, where I want, and today’s on-demand music services and inexpensive wireless speakers make that possible. As long as it doesn’t sound like AM radio–and it absolutely doesn’t–I’m perfectly happy. Sure, small speakers will always sound small, but there are plenty of mid-size products that can fill a room very nicely. As you noted up top, in our youthful days, one measure of success was to own a big ol’ stereo so we could listen to our LP records good and loud. But we don’t have to chase that dream anymore; the very definition of music-listening “success” has changed. Or at least it has for me. And I’m glad I don’t have to chase aural perfection. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go stream eight million songs in my bathroom.
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Photo Credits: Jawbone, Pandora