For all of the benefits the digital revolution has brought to music - like streaming, unprecedented portability, and the ease of sorting and managing large collections - some people see it as not only a travesty but also a threat. Granted, these are usually the same people who lament the supposed lack of any advancement in audio quality since the birth of vinyl. But do they have a point?
Their main concern is that a generation is being weaned on music that has had the life, soul, and passion compressed out of it. With millions listening only through earbuds and from computer speakers, is the Golden Ear audiophile facing extinction?
For my sixth-grade graduation, I received a General Electric clock radio. Its silver-dollar-sized speaker ensured that its sound resembled cries of pain coming from a tin can rather than actual music. Yet, I would lie in bed and listen to that radio for hours.
Eventually, I moved up to the original must-have portable device, a Sony Walkman. Playing cassettes, it actually sounded like music - after Dolby's noise reduction cut through the hiss. Besides truly portable tunes, the cassette gave birth to the mix tape, which was the analog-era equivalent of an iPod playlist.
In high school, my most important possession was my car, and any spare money I had went to tricking out its stereo: three amps, six speakers, two subs, a trunk-mounted CD changer, and a 10-band equalizer set in the classic "V" formation.
Now, if you're worried that I'm on a senseless tangent down memory lane, you're only half right. My main point is that people enjoy music in the manner that best fits their lifestyles. For most young adults, an iPod and a computer are the right match for their live-at-home but on-the-go existence. So if you want to start your Podling down the road to high-quality sound, think about getting him a great pair of headphones.
Soon enough, he'll get his license and graduate to a car stereo. Of course, it'll likely emphasize bass and sound-pressure level over accuracy, but quality will be important.
Then he'll move to his first apartment or condo, and likely dive into a home theater in a box. He'll probably want a system that can stream music from his networked computer and that has a place for him to jack in his iPod, but the HTiB will introduce him to the world of surround sound, and a new hook will be set.
Ultimately, after progressing in his career, he'll buy a house. Without parents and downstairs neighbors imposing constraints on the volume level, and with some discretionary income, he'll be in a position to experience a truly high-performance system. And as his tastes and budgets change, they'll move from beer to brandy, from lawn chairs to leather sofas, and from compressed sound to losslessly encoded music.
Because digital music has played a part in his life from the start, embracing cool technologies like streaming audio and video files from servers will be second nature. And it will seem only natural to dock his iPod in a station (from companies like Sonance and SpeakerCraft), allowing him to enjoy music in every room of his house.
So when I see a teenager cuddling an iPod, I smile and think, "Save up - I'll see you in about 20 years!"
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