It is the job of every generation to complain that the younger generations are inferior, or headed for destruction, or whatever the latest cause célèbre is. Even in the lifetimes of those reading this blog, it’s easy to point to the mass hysteria surrounding rock and roll, then heavy metal, then rap, then video games, as examples of one generation making mindless accusations about another.
In the audio world this is just as common, it’s ongoing, and Harman has released a study that shows that the old people need to shut the hell up (I’m paraphrasing).
When I first started in this industry, going on 12 years ago, there was much ado about “youths” embracing MP3. Oh the horror, they’d say. It’s the downfall of audio as we know it. These damn kids (note, this is exactly what their parents said about their generation), they just don’t want good audio. They can’t hear the sound difference, MP3 sounds OK to them. Oh the horror, we’re all going to die, woe is me, what a world, what a world, what a world...
As much as I, speaking as both an audiophile and one of demonized demographic, tried to explain to the “adults” that MP3 was popular because of the convenience and despite the sound quality, no one seemed to listen. After all, what could I know? It’s not like I’m of the age they were discussing, once sold a wide range of audio products (via Circuit City), and had a degree in audio production.
I said over and over: if you gave people the chance to choose better sound quality, they’ll leap at it. It just can’t come at the cost of convenience, or for that matter (and probably more important), of actual cost. You see, that’s what I think a lot of audiophiles, including myself honestly, completely miss: Not everyone is willing to spend lots of money on what amounts to a hobby. How much, exactly, depends on the person.
Now, more than a decade later, the debate about the “damn kids” still rages, even though the facts don’t support it. A few years ago a Stanford professor lit off the audio doomsday fetishists by claiming that informal tests of his students found that year over year, more preferred the compressed MP3 to that of CD. Despite his own claim this was an informal test, those who wanted to hear such information, accepted it as gospel.
Harman has a long history of studying listener preferences. Floyd Toole’s work showing that even untrained listeners preferred accurate sounding speakers over inaccurate (regardless of price), is eye opening if you’ve never read it. More to the point, if there was a shift in younger generation’s tastes for sound, Harman would want to know about it. Harman is a 4.7 billion dollar business, and they didn’t get that way pushing expensive audiophile products on rich audiophiles. Even more to the point, their many clients in the automotive world wanted to know if decent car audio was worth it anymore. After all, if “kids” didn’t care about sound quality, do cars marketed towards kids even need tweeters?
OK, now the doomsayers seem less insane.
Except, turns out, it’s all crap. At the Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in April, Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive published a paper entitled “Some New Evidence that Teenagers and College Students May Prefer Accurate Sound Reproduction.” Yep, engineers sure go after the sexy titles. The full paper will be available online soon, but for now I’ll give you the highlights (and you can check out some of Dr. Olive's preliminary thoughts on the subject at his blog).
58 students, high school and college, listened to four selections, each in CD and 128 kbps MP3. The tests were double blind. The students “expertise” ranged from none (art students) to some (recording arts majors). On average, the students picked CD over MP3 70% of the time. No student showed a preference for MP3, though a small minority showed a difficulty in telling the two apart (a nearly equal number picked CD every time, so...). Interestingly, or perhaps not, the more a student was interested in audio, the more likely they were to choose CD over MP3.
In a second round, the same students went through Harman’s speaker listening tests. These are rather brilliant. Speakers behind an acoustically transparent curtain sit on movable platforms. Press a button, and in a matter of seconds, a different speaker gets swapped into place. There really isn’t any better way to compare speakers. The students listened to four speakers. As a group they preferred the most accurate speaker of the four, and disliked the least accurate. This falls in line with other tests Harman has done with both trained and untrained listeners.
Now, as the paper itself admits, this is a limited sample size. However, I feel some extrapolations are possible. Mostly because my opinions, unlike this study, are not peer reviewed (peer read perhaps...). In other Harman studies, they’ve found that listeners prefer accurate audio, regardless of demographic. The “average person” would prefer a more accurate speaker over a less accurate speaker, given a fair comparison between the two. I think what this study shows is that “young people” aren’t different from “old people” in this regard. People are, wait for it... people.
Do young people spend less on home audio than their parents did at that age? Sure, but there’s a lot more to spend money on now, like student loan debt, iPhones, Internet, food. This doesn’t mean they don’t want quality audio. In fact, I’d argue they want it just as much. Take a look at the sales of high-end headphones in the past few years. There’s gold in them thar hills.
I have covered this industry since I was just out of college. I can sadly no longer claim to be young anymore, but nor am I “old” by most definitions. I seem to be on some cusp, where I think I can offer some bit of objectivity for both these groups.
To the younglings:
There is better audio out there. Find it. Turn your headphones down, studies show you’re going deaf. Also, everyone hates hipsters.
To the elders:
Shut up about people younger than you. By every metric, the world gets better over time, despite some really crappy dips and diversions. Embrace new technology. Also, if the music is too loud, you’re too old.
Now if you want to really talk about what’s ruining music, let’s talk about dynamic range compression.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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