Five Years Too Late

May 15, 2009

Does Fidelity Matter?

Filed under: Uncategorized — fiveyearstoolate @ 10:34 am
Eric Wiesen

Eric Wiesen

Those who have been over to my place know I’m a pretty big Audio/Video geek. While the constraints of living in a NYC apartment necessarily constrain my ability to assemble a really over the top audio setup, we have a 1080p projector mounted to the ceiling, surrounds all over the place and a blu-ray player.

Yes, blu-ray. In fact, some of my more future-thinking friends from the tech community have questioned the decision to invest in a player (although let’s be clear – you can get one for $200 and we needed a new DVD player anyway) and the discs because, as everyone clearly knows, physical media is a dead-end and it’s all going to be on-demand streaming and/or downloads, whether that comes from the cable provider, a service like Netflix, iTunes or a broader set of web services.

The reason I bought a blu-ray player and a handful of blu-ray discs (mostly those that really benefit from the format’s capabilities – films like Kill Bill, the restored Godfather discs and of course, Wall-E) is pretty simple: it’s the absolute best in-home movie experience by a wide margin. Video and audio are demonstrably better than DVD or even the “HD” offerings from download services or on demand. And it makes sense that it is such – blu-ray is a 25 or 50Gb format depending on the disc’s properties. It’s far less compressed and, frankly, crappy than my alternatives.

For the same reason, I sometimes still buy CDs (although I admit less and less often) rather than buy compressed music on the web. Why? Because if you have decent equipment it sounds much much better. Granted, the majority of my music listening takes place via my iPod or computer at work, so I’m decreasingly likely to benefit from these advantages, but they are nonetheless true. CDs are uncompressed digital music and MP3s (or other formats you’re likely to use) are compressed as much as 12 to 1. It’s unsurprising that when you put a CD next to an MP3 of the same music at the same volume over good equipment, one sounds dramatically better than the other.

And yet all of this is preamble to the question being posed today – does anyone really care? The “hi-fi” community has a reputation for being a bunch of geeky, mostly older men closing their eyes while they try to hear subtle differences between two different interconnect cables. And while that stereotype is probably unfair, it highlights the fact that most consumers of music just don’t care that MP3s sound like garbage. Younger consumers grew up listening to music primarily on iPods with lousy earbuds (and often so loud they can’t hear anyway, but that’s a separate issue). Convenience, not fidelity, is what has been winning in the audio market for 25 years, ever since people gave up the sound of LPs for cassette tapes, the lowest-fidelity medium of all.

And so I agree with those who say we’re likely to see the same trend in video. On my setup, at 106” of 1080p projection, I really enjoy the difference between a DVD or 720p download and a blu-ray disc. But I suspect I’m in the small minority. I don’t agree with the bears on this issue that blu-ray will fail spectacularly, and I think it will continue to exist as a format that serves a segment of the market interested in high-quality video. It’s neither Betamax nor DVD in its future prospects, but somewhere in between.

Where the question gets really interesting, though, is whether the consumer’s preference for convenience over fidelity extends beyond the A/V context. I think that this merits its own post, and so I’ll do that later, but the question posed there is whether or not we’re trading away fidelity in our informational content in favor of convenience, much as we’ve done with our music and movies.

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  1. Interest in fidelity is inversely proportional to attention span/quality–and that sure as hell is going down.

    Most people just don’t sit and focus on anything–continuous partial attention. My mom watches the TV while she does housework. My college roommates will listen to music and watch TV at the same time (that I never understoond) and, just this weekend, I saw that my older brother watched TV with his laptop looking up character actors from Crime Story on IMDB.

    People just aren’t paying enough attention to any one particular medium to make the increase in fidelity worth it.

    Comment by Charlie — May 15, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    • Music and TV at the same time – that’s just odd.

      We do the laptop + TV combo here at home, but typically when we watch anything on blu-ray it’s a movie and that holds our attention. Ultimately, though, I agree that if people are only watching out of their peripheral vision anyway, who cares what it looks or sounds like?

      Comment by fiveyearstoolate — May 15, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  2. I think consumers want BOTH convenience and fidelity, but they care way more about convenience and then price. Ideally all MP3/music purchases would be high fidelity rather than cr@p fidelity. It’s just a matter of time though before we have both. Same thing with digital movie downloads. It’s not that I don’t want MP3s that sound good, it’s just that one decent sounding song off iTunes for $0.99 is better than one great sounding song (plus some other songs I may not want) on CD or SACD for $20. My proof is this: if people didn’t care at all about fidelity, then HDTV and widescreen TVs would have not have taken off. I have a Sony PS3 for Blu-Ray as well and love it, but at the end of the day if it weren’t for Netflix, I would never use it. (Also, in terms of importance, people care about video fidelity more than audio fidelity…its just more obvious to “most” folks.) Convenience trumps a lot of things. One of my personal rules of marketing is that we all want to be lazy!

    Comment by Tom Loverro — May 15, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    • I agree with pretty much everything here, particularly that (clearly) it’s a continuum between convenience and fidelity rather than all or nothing nodes. What’s interesting is that even in a world where both are possible, we don’t necessarily change behavior to go get them both.

      To wit, when I got my first CD burner in 1997 (or even my first iPod in 2003) it was impracticable to store uncompressed music locally – storage was just too expensive. But now you can get a 1TB drive for $99. A full CD of music is 650MB, so that drive can store 1,200 CDs (call it 15,000 songs) without any compression at all. Heck, even today’s 120Gb iPod can store more uncompressed music than most people actually listen to. Yet no one I know (myself included) have gone back and re-ripped all our music to uncompressed .WAV files to take advantage of cheap storage.

      The HDTV example is a good one, but also begs the question – how many hundreds of millions of marketing dollars went into convincing consumers that they “needed” better fidelity (and the silly corollary, how many people bought HD sets but still watch them at SDTV or worse with the wrong cables and don’t even know it)?

      Comment by fiveyearstoolate — May 15, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  3. Convenience dominates fidelity in music. Mass consumers won’t even pay for fidelity in music.

    Convenience also dominates fidelity in video but mass consumers will pay for video fidelity.

    Have you watched Miami Vice 2006 on your rig? It may be the best shot digital movie ever. Their cameras let them shoot with immense depth of field so some of the scenes look like paintings where everything is in focus. Watch the boat race at the beginning to see what I mean. I am not aware of any other film that looks like this.

    Comment by Nivi — May 15, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

  4. I bought a blu-ray player because it was one of the models that allowed direct connections to NetFlix. Convenience for me is king when it comes to video/audio. Sure, I want it to look good, but my experience watching romantic comedies or crime dramas isn’t enhanced enough by Blu-Ray for me to go out and rent the disc; instead I’ll just watch something from my NetFlix Instant queue.

    Comment by Casey — May 17, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  5. Sometimes good enough is, well, good enough. I grew up with records; they weren’t good enough. Tapes were better, but still very, um, analog. Discs were an order of magnitude leap, and instantaneously obsoleted all that went before. DVD’s rendered VHS tapes landfill fodder shortly thereafter. With rare exceptions for true audiophiles, is the actual listening experience differential between, say, 256kps or better (or maybe even 128!) mp3’s versus a CD – in the form-factors where music is most consumed today – really different? Game-changing different? I think not. Likewise, in video, HD is game-change different, and TV sales reflect it.

    Comment by jdrive — May 28, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  6. I think there’s an underlying limiting factor here that you touched on…. capacity, which will show up as either bandwidth or disk space.

    I recently played a CD (shocker!) of a favorite song and was surprised on how much better it sounded than my iTunes copy. Being old enough to remember the advent of MP3, I remember one of the primary benefits was that it took a song that was HUGE as an uncompressed audio file (like .wav) and turned it into a 3-4 MB file, which was much easier to transport and store on the modems and 250MB disks of the day. You’d trade the size for an sound quality. Since MP3/iTunes came of age during this time, so its no surprise that its the dominant standard.

    However, now that we have ever increasing broadband penetration and TB disks available at Wall-Mart, I’m willing to bet that people will begin to rediscover the benefits of uncompressed audio/video, similarly to how you prefer blu-ray to DVD, and push back on the tradeoffs that we had to make before the technology had a chance to catch up. People dropped black & white photography and adopted color photos once the technology was ready… why not with audio & video?

    BTW… I’d bet that the Lord of the Rings set is pretty good in 1080p blu-ray on a 106″ screen. You should think about adding that to your library. @Nivi is right on about Miami Vice. Visually stunning.

    Comment by Degs — June 12, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  7. Here is a better question…does updating a blog matter?

    Comment by Follower — June 19, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

  8. Great post. this is what I looking for, thanks

    Comment by Panasonic DMP-BD60 — June 23, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  9. […] few months back I wrote a post called “Does Fidelity Matter”. I considered the question of whether or not fidelity in audio/visual media (meaning faithful […]

    Pingback by Does Fidelity Matter? (Part II) « Five Years Too Late — August 19, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

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