MP3 is not home audio’s enemy

I just accepted an invitation to attend a session at CES about high-performance or, as the invitation puts it, “HD” audio. The invitation notes:

While MP3s offer convenience, the quality of the audio experience is greatly diminished. High-resolution audio — or HD Audio — heightens that experience and demonstrates that consumers need not sacrifice quality for convenience.

And so continues the home audio crowd’s self-defeating crusade against MP3. Instead of embracing this popular format that can produce very good audio at high bitrates and expanding its market, the high-end continues to cling to the compact disc and lament the failure of SACD and DVD-Audio.

Lossy audio compression is here for the foreseeable future; it’s part of the ATSC broadcast specification and it sounds fantastic. I’ve seen only one company that truly is combining “no compromise” digital audio with most of the flexibility of media-independence; Unfortunately, I doubt that more than five percent of consumers woud appreciate the quality advantage that uncompressed audio has over, say, WMA encoded at 256 KBit/sec.

Can you imagine if video vendors acted like this? “Oh, sure, MPEG-2 lets us put a whole movie on a DVD, but you don’t want the compromise of compressed video, do you?” To the contrary, DVD manufacturers are embracing new codecs like DiVX and Windows Media, while the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps are moving to even more efficient encoding schemes such as VC-1 and MPEG-4.

This strikes at the heart of a theme that I have turned to again and again in the past year — the need for consumer technology providers to strike a better balance between quality improvements that have traditionally driven industry growth and flexibility. Show me the benefit of these marginal (in terms of customer perception) quality improvements achieved with the same level of convenience that especially unprotected MP3 offers.

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