Harman’s The Distortion of Sound

A Tool to Educate Music Lovers about Audio Data Compression

Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
Harman’s The Distortion of Sound

Card-carrying audiophiles are not infrequently expected to advise civilian acquaintances (that is, non-audiophiles), who are not enjoying reproduced music as much as they could. Not long ago, that meant guiding the poor souls still listening to rack systems they bought at Circuit City as grad students to better gear. Well, our job has gotten harder. Over the past six or seven years, while we were worrying about whether DSD sounded better than high-sampling-rate PCM, or if an SPDIF digital interface was superior to USB, an ever-expanding majority of the music-consuming public has been listening exclusively to mp3 files off their laptops and phones. Those of the audiophile persuasion have never seemed more out of step with the mainstream; it’s possible that any counsel we offer may be viewed as quaint, if not elitist.

To aid substantially in making our case against lossy audio compression, Harman International Industries, the company behind a number of respected brands including Mark Levinson, Infinity, AKG Acoustics, JBL, Lexicon, and Revel, has produced a 22-minute documentary that won a Gold Dolphin at the Corporate Media & TV Awards at Cannes in 2014, and has been posted as a YouTube video for about a year-and-a-half. The Distortion of Sound addresses the nosedive that recorded sound—at least as it’s experienced by the great majority of popular-music consumers—has taken in recent years. More than a dozen music industry professionals, both performers and engineers, offer their viewpoints. The high-profile artists include Quincy Jones, rapper Snoop Dogg (who does get a bit off-topic but clearly is passionately engaged with the issue), the guitarist Slash, singer-songwriters Lianne La Havas and Kate Nash, film composers Hans Zimmer and A.R. Rahman, and Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. Joining the musicians is a distinguished assembly of engineers, producers, acoustic scientists (including Dr. Sean Olive, a past-president of AES and now Director of Acoustic Research for Harman), and a music journalist. Each participant comments for no more than ten or fifteen seconds at a time, as graphics illustrating the nature of data compression are presented. The musicians reiterate, in various ways, how disappointing it is for them to devote heart and soul to the creation of a recording and then have their work heard in a significantly compromised fashion. La Havas: “You’ve spent a lot of time getting something right. You’d like it to be how you imagined it, how it was when you were making it in the studio.” Slash: “It’s pretty laughable. What you’re doing is taking the worst possible representation of the music and listening to it through the worst possible equipment.”

Some of the most penetrating commentary, which provides context and makes the point that the music consumer is an aggrieved party, comes from Andrew Scheps. (He engineered and mixed the likes of Michael Jackson, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2.) Scheps notes: “With TV, as soon as there was any technology that would make it look better, everybody wanted it. Because they could see it, they believed it. Whereas with music, there was all this functionality that people wanted. No one ever said they were giving up music quality—they pretended that it was just as good because [functionality was] what they were selling and they basically hid the fact that it sounded like crap.” And: “I started cataloging what all the different music services were using for their file types, and it was only about the size of their catalogs and the ease of delivery. They are in a ‘content delivery business,’ and the content just happens to be music. If people want to substitute kittens, that’s it—they will start delivering kittens.”

At the very end of the film, before the credits roll, comes a black screen with stark white lettering—clearly meant to underscore the message in quasi-apocalyptic terms.

Over 25 billion songs have been downloaded.
Over 50 billion hours of music have been streamed.
Compression has stripped emotion from every note.

And then:
It’s possible to bring it all back.

The Distortion of Sound is a compelling documentary that has the potential to educate many general listeners. (Obviously, TAS readers are not its target audience.) I do have a couple of caveats, however. To be fair, the film doesn’t give the entire picture. Yes, listening to highly-compressed audio files through lousy computer speakers and earbuds is now the dominant form of music consumption, but numerous higher-quality alternatives have gotten a foothold, both in the realms of downloads and streaming. And what exactly does “it’s possible to bring it all back” mean? If you go to distortionofsound.com (as opposed to simply finding the YouTube video) and scroll to the bottom of the page, past the photos of all the participants, you get to three Harman-related links. One is to the company’s main website and another is to the Infinity site. The third is to Clari-Fi. This is a Harman software company, and its product is described as “music restoration technology.” Clari-Fi “intelligently adjusts to every audio format to match source quality with the precise level of audio restoration necessary.” This is a little like a doctor recommending to someone who has smoked for five years and is beginning to get short of breath climbing stairs that he start using portable oxygen, rather than making the obvious lifestyle change. In terms of changing attitudes, Harman and others with a stake in the cause of high-quality audio (such as audiophiles) definitely have their work cut out for them—just read some of the hostile and poorly-informed comments posted after the YouTube video. But the solution to the ubiquity of compressed audio files isn’t technological. As with the smoker, it’s behavioral: Just Say No.