Sick of all those debates with your audiophile friends that vinyl is the superior format? That its warm analogue tones are the last resort for quality sound in an increasing digital age? Well news has surfaced that could be a very interesting spin to those arguments.
One of the pioneers of the CD format has recently revealed that digital sound is capable of being as good as analogue, and with the speed of developing technology, it’s also becoming a viable, cost-effective option.
UK’s Telegraph ran a story speaking with Ken Ishiwata, a crucial figure in the development of the CD format as a former audio engineer at Marantz, one of the firm that helped developed the compact disc format before it was bought out by Philips.
A hifi industry veteran with other three decades experience, Ishiwata was responsible for some of the first CD players developed which were actually capable of producing analogue quality sound, but instead focussed on making the format affordable as opposed to equalling the quality of the vinyl format that was then the cultural standard.
“We had great analogue sound, but our industry needs something new every 15-20 years,” says Ishiwata, “back then they had cassette, but it reached a peak and they had to come up with something new.”
“Sony and Philips came up with the CD in 1982,” he continues, “all-new quality was possible, but we decided to come up with reasonable technology for the price. We designed it to be affordable.”
The result was a format that revolutionised the industry but also dragged down the level of quality in reproduced audio, “the quality of sound has degraded ever since, “sound quality has gone down for the average user over the last ten to 15 years,” agrees Ishiwata. The introduction of mp3 players, such as Apple’s world-conquering iPod, introduced the digital revolution, relying on compressed music such as the mp3 format to ensure its accessibility.
“When the MP3 player first came out the memory was so expensive,” explains Ishiwata. “But now there’s 32GB on your iPod. You don’t need to compress – the majority is still MP3 but your recording capacity is big enough to have non-compressed music.”
In fact, Apple have begun offering ‘Mastered for iTunes‘ albums and singles on their iTunes store, which boasts “music as the artist and sound engineer intended” with a lossless digital format created from studio-quality masters.
Ishiwata however, isn’t so convinced by the new move from the computing giant, “I’m not sure improving quality is a benefit for Apple.” Their focus on enhancement, says Ishiwata, has not come at “the right time yet… their product is not sold for quality. It’s sold for sexiness and convenience. They are interested in audio but they are very business oriented.”
So while the technology is available, and more importantly more affordable now, Ishiwata predicts it’ll still be some time before we can expect analogue quality audio at convenience and on our mobile phones and computers. Speaking of streaming services, such as the recently Australia-launched Spotify and it’s Telstra-launched rival Mog, Ishiwata remarked of their audio quality, “they’re not bad, and in five years time I think they’ll be a lot better.”
Ishiwata is even putting his money where his mouth is with the release of the new Marantz Consolette, an iPod dock that plays like a high-end stereo system that’s retailing for around $AU1,400. “I think usually engineers do not understand music; but I’m coming from the music side and then I studied engineering,” argues the Japanese ‘Master Tuner’. “I try to see people’s lifestyle and how they think and feel so I can manipulate sound.”
For now though Ishiwata admits that the majority of people are content with using highly compressed mp3 formats, “it’s unfortunately more convenient,” he remarked, “but in the nature of people they always want something better. It always goes down, hits the bottom. But it’s already coming back up… it’s beginning to improve.”