Trading Quality for Ease: Confessions of an Earbud Junkie

(Page 2 of 2)

My only excuse for relying on it for so long is that it felt good enough. It got me through to the next hit, while obscuring the world I was missing. Which brings me back to the larger point.

In 2009 Wired senior editor Robert Capps wrote an influential piece on the “Good Enough Revolution.” The basic insight was that above a certain threshold, technology consumers seem happy to accept lower quality in exchange for convenience.

Once cell phone coverage was broad and reliable enough, for example, people started abandoning land-line phones. Once the cameras inside smartphones became good enough, people stopped buying so many digital cameras; these days you have to be a professional photographer or a serious hobbyist to be willing to spring for a DSLR. And so on.

The iPod revolution was central to Capps’s argument. In order to squeeze lots of songs onto our music players or smartphones, we turned to compression standards like MP3 or AAC, which throw away much of the data in a CD-quality recording. There’s an eternal, raging argument among audiophiles over whether the lost detail is audible to humans. Most people don’t seem to miss it. But what’s beyond dispute, as Capps observes, is that the ability to “carry thousands of songs in our pockets…mattered a lot more to music lovers than the single measure of quality we had previously applied to recorded music—fidelity.”

Music labels and record stores paid a steep price for that defection to mobile. And in the end, maybe consumers did too.

We love our smartphones because they fit in our pockets and yet take over the functions of so many of our old stand-alone gadgets—phones, CD players, still and video cameras, televisions, GPS units, digital recorders, e-book readers, fitness trackers, barcode scanners, and many more. The problem is that many of these older technologies were highly optimized to carry specific types of information. Forcing it all onto a single digital platform has required many compromises, and it’s easy to forget what we’ve given up along the way.

Despite years of progress, electronic text still isn’t as legible as printed text. Movies shot digitally don’t look as good as those shot on film stock. CD sound, to many people, lacks the richness of vinyl. Text chats aren’t as authentic or empathic as in-person conversations.

And maybe it should have been obvious to me all along, but earbuds don’t sound as good as speakers. If you want to experience recorded music the way it was meant to be heard, you need some kind of home sound system. And as I found out, you don’t have to pay an outrageous amount for that privilege.

There’s nothing wrong with “good enough” technologies. But you should always ask yourself: good enough for what?

If you still care about real sound, as I do, the first step to recovery may simply be to admit you have a problem. Take out the earbuds—and start listening to a higher speaker.

Photo by Chris Betcher, Flickr Creative Commons license

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2 previous page