Commentary

Quality Vs. Convenience

Americans have a long history of paying for convenience over quality. Sometimes it makes sense (i.e. plastic utensils or paper napkins) and sometimes it doesn't (i.e. quick serve restaurants or .mp3 files).

In general, it is hard to predict the quality/convenience ratio for average Americans. But let's try. High fidelity (HiFi) audio started to appear in the last half of the last century. By 1995 the best possible analog audio results had been achieved using a combination of analog audio tape and electronics. There are some who believe that the sonic quality of recorded music will never again attain this level of quality. (I am not in that group).

With the advent of digital audio technology, even more accurate recordings have been made possible and --to state the non-obvious-- the quality of modern-day audio recording and playback is (as it has always been) limited more by the playback systems (your speakers) than any other factor.

Although filled with annoying pops and clicks, 33rpm long-playing records (LPs) sounded orders of magnitude better than the factory-made audio cassettes that virtually replaced them. (Although, if you made your own cassette tapes from your LPs, you could achieve reasonable sonic quality.) People of a certain age will remember the advent of CDs and the excellent audio quality they provided. Once the industry started creating and mastering in digital, CDs became a sonically rich medium with far-and-away the best quality for consumer audio playback.

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Then something strange happened. With the advent of .mp3 files, we regressed. Not just a little bit--truly back to the 1970s. A 128k .mp3 file sounds about the same (sonically) as a factory-made audio cassette. Convenience not withstanding, by any sonic measure--they suck!

My back of the envelope, armchair-based, non-scientific observation is that the audio business is usually about 10 years ahead of the video business. This has more to do with the complexity of one frame of content than anything else. It takes more data to describe one frame of video than it does to describe one frame of audio so (analog or digital) it's easier to manipulate audio information than video information. But here's the question.

Will American audiences sacrifice video quality for convenience the way they have sacrificed audio quality? Will .mp4 video files become an acceptable playback format the way .mp3 audio files have all but replaced their higher-quality .wav predecessors?

History says yes, but there's a catch. The CE industry is making much higher quality playback devices than ever. Although literally half of them are improperly hooked up and therefore do not actually display better quality pictures, HDTV set sales are trending up. With the exception of camera acquisition, the movie industry is almost completely digital and the quality of a 2k or 4k digital intermediate is breathtaking. On the creative side there seems to be an unstoppable movement toward the highest quality possible.

But that may only be from the creator's point of view. A trip to any professional audio studio will reveal a commitment to sonic quality beyond the average persons' ability to discern. But consumers don't care. MP3 files are the playback medium of choice.

Will this happen to video? Are we headed for an MP4 world, where super high-quality video is down-converted to cheesy, low-quality, compressed files for convenience?

This is not a rhetorical question, nor is it the musings of an elitist (although I am a card-carrying member of the audiophile/videophile/technophile give-me-quality-or-give-me-death club). This is a question of dollars and sense. Where will you put your time and energy? What technologies do we need to invest in? How is the market for quality playback divided? Can history tell us how to "follow the money?" Will it take 10 years?

Quality vs. convenience is not a uniquely American conundrum, but we would do well to consider which will be the most compressed. The right answer will help you understand the emotional, psychological and financial impact of IP video, mobile video--and maybe even their ultimate level of cultural acceptance.

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