A sweeter sound

How good can laptops and MP3s get? Digital music gets a rethink.

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

For over 10 years, music piracy has been the recording industry’s bogeyman. But Jimmy Iovine, head of Interscope Records, has another beef with digital music: a lot of it “sounds like crap.” As labels scrambled to contain the threat posed by file-sharing services like Napster, they “did nothing about the disintegration of digital sound,” Iovine told Maclean’s from his home in L.A. With the proliferation of cheap earbuds, cellphone MP3 players, and tinny laptop speakers, we’ve lost the “emotion of the music,” he says—the range and richness of sound that artists intended us to hear, and in many cases, spent tens of thousands of dollars in studios creating. “Degrading content is just as severe as piracy,” he says. “I call it a digital revolution that went terribly wrong.”

Iovine is looking to “fix the entire ecosystem,” from headphones and sound files to computers. In 2008, he founded Beats Electronics with music producer Dr. Dre, and partnered with Monster Cable (a high-performance cable manufacturer) to launch Beats by Dr. Dre, a line of high-end headphones. Thanks to positive reviews and celebrity endorsements—Katie Holmes and the NBA’s LeBron James have been photographed with them—kids raised on MP3s were soon ditching their $10 earbuds. But there’s no sense paying up to $400 for headphones if they’re going to be plugged into a computer—which is how almost 90 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 listen to music, says Iovine. That’s why this week, Beats and Hewlett-Packard are launching the Envy 17, a notebook that comes with an in-built subwoofer.

Selling a computer for its sound system is a departure, since “laptops were never designed to reproduce music,” Monster’s Noel Lee told Maclean’s. “They were designed for word processing, spreadsheets, to answer your email.” And as they’ve gotten smaller and lighter, the quality of built-in speakers has suffered: a computer’s whirring and whistling insides can be hostile to sound. Trying to enjoy music on most computers, Iovine says, is like “taking a Beatles remaster and playing it through a portable television.”

Of course, audiophiles have been saying this for years; an array of headphones, speakers and other equipment already exists to get the most out of digital sound. (Richard Bowden of Toronto’s Bay Bloor Radio recommends Bose computer speakers.) Iovine, though, is looking for an answer that doesn’t sacrifice portability—and so entices young people. Last year, HP introduced its premium Envy notebooks (the newest models, including the Envy 17, are being launched this week). Creating the line “wasn’t just about upgrading the speakers and the amplifier; we looked at the entire architecture” of the computer, says Carlos Montalvo, a vice-president at HP. For one thing, the audio signal was completely isolated “from the source, all the way to line out.” To clear space for the built-in speakers, which are on opposite sides of the notebook, other components had to be minimized. Specially designed Beats Audio software lets users play with audio levels and settings. The digital signal processor was even tuned to mimic Dre’s in-studio sound, but the notebooks are not just for “urban music,” Montalvo says.

Tech sites have generally given the Envy models good reviews, while noting their flaws. CNET praised its slim body and powerful components, noting it’s “very expensive” (the Envy 15 sells for $2,200); as for the sound system, Beats Audio will “even make a pair of regular iPod earphones sound amazing,” said PC Magazine (the sound improves when connected to high-quality headphones or speakers). Still, it’s a challenge to squeeze so many bells and whistles into a laptop. The Envy 15’s palm rest got “uncomfortably hot,” Engadget wrote, “perhaps a result of the very thin design and performance parts.” Then there is the inevitably short battery life.

In overhauling digital music, computers and headphones are merely part of the solution. “Your listening system is only as good as your weakest link,” Iovine says. And most music is heard on the MP3 platform, says Sandy Pearlman, the famed producer behind such classics as Blue Öyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) the Reaper, and a visiting professor at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. “This platform is promiscuous and gets music around for nothing, which is good and bad, but it doesn’t get it around sounding very good,” he says. MP3 files are compressed so we can pack thousands of songs onto a laptop or iPod and trade them online, but some of the information, and therefore sound quality, is lost.

The industry is looking to improve digital files: Apple is using Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) in its iTunes store and elsewhere, which has better sound quality. Even better is a lossless format like FLAC, which creates a much larger file but stores a CD track without losing information. But the key step is retraining a generation in how music is supposed to sound. “I have no doubt people want quality,” Iovine says. “They just don’t know.”




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A sweeter sound

  1. A quick whip-around on the internet show that the price point on them really does reflect Monster Cable's involvement. There's no disputing MC's involvement in developing hdmi and that their products work. However, their price points are ridiculous. It's like paying Johnson and Johnson $15 for a box of acetaminophen, compared to the generic version at $5. When you innovate, you get to charge a premium, but when other producers catch up, all you have is cachet and brand momentum. Caveat emptor, folks.

    • It's actually more like Johnson and Johnson selling a box of acetaminophen for $150 and claiming that it will cure cancer.

  2. Monster Cables is an evil company – they've been caught several times 'faking' in store demos that supposed prove how their cables are worth the ridiculous cost and have launched a host of lawsuits against other unrelated companies that happen to use the word Monster in their names. More importantly, if you're worried about the quality of music – how about using a digital connection to a decent receiver instead of footing out 2000$ for a laptop that will otherwise be outdated within a couple years. A good receiver will basically outlast any other technology.

  3. I'm no audiophile but I do follow general tech news and have run into more than a few things posted by audiophiles over the years. What I've read suggests that this article is repeating marketing claims rather than properly informing readers.

    Three points:
    1. Monster Cable is essentially a scam. Unless you're running cables for a long distance, there will be absolutely no discernible difference between a Monster Cable and anything else. At short distances, you could use use coat hangar and get the same results. The reason Monster Cable exists and is promoted is because it provides big-box retailers a chance to sell a super-high profit item as part of a package deal with basically any home entertainment equipment. Monster Cable and its promoters outright lie about the product in order to sell it.

    2. Most people can't tell the difference between uncompressed CD audio and a compressed MP3 encoded at a reasonable bit rate. Yes, if you over-compress, imperfections do start to show up and information does get lost. Yes, FLAC is best, and yes AAC generally does lose less information at a given bit rate than MP3. Still, if you encode a MP3 at an appropriate bit rate (which will result in file sizes much smaller than FLAC), you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who could tell the difference. File sizes are tiny compared to the storage capacity available on laptops and portable players like iPods, so this is really a non-issue.

    3. If you Google "Bose review", the top result says it all. Bose is about marketing and style, not audio quality and value. If you want audio quality, you can do much better at a much lower price than you'd pay for basically any Bose system.

    The best solution to audio quality issues with laptops and portable players is just to get a good set of headphones. Personally, if I wanted something really high quality I'd find out what audio engineers like and what is used professionally for things like recording and I'd avoid anything labeled "Beats Electronics", "Monster Cable", or "Bose" like the plague.

    Between this and the article a couple weeks back about Facebook, I'm finding that Macleans is pretty out of touch on tech issues.

    • Agree on all three points, except for this: anyone listening on good quality, full range equipment that's designed to reveal audio flaws, rather than conceal them, can easily distinguish between CD-quality and lossy MP3s encoded at up to about 128k. Trouble is, nearly all consumer equipment is designed to make bad audio sound better. To the end user, this has the effect of removing the differences between audio excellence and crap; there may be a difference, but they won't hear it. If a tree falls in the forest….

      • Notice how I said "reasonable bit rate"? 128k is pretty much the minimum you'll see anywhere and gives tiny file sizes considering how cheap storage is now. Were I serious about downloading music I'd not touch anything below 256k.

        Also worth mentioning in any discussion of music and sound reproduction is the loudness war. The quality of CDs themselves have steadily declined over the past 20 years as labels look to make their products stand out from others.

  4. Why invent the wheel all over. Confusing the general population on what sounds good when they have know reference to the master recording is not going to make them pay for music. Making a federal utility mandate that requires ISP Internet service providers pay a royalty based on registered users is the only way to solve the download ripoff artist who want to steal music, software and whatever else they can take for free. The music and film industry need to get there s**t in order, stand as one united force together with all who create, write, produce, direct, engineer, drive location trucks or just sit on there ass and get a union check for doing nothing. I truly believe that so many in the industry could give a damn about the global breakdown in copyright protection. We allow the itunes of the world to dictate price and use creative content as a loss leader in order for them to sell there ipods, iphones and whatever crazy promotion they can think of to screw the content creators. This should be a wake up call to stop the monopolies who use music and picture to only benefit there own stock and massive profits at the cost of creative artist. The truth is, they, the monopolies got us by the balls and will keep squeezing until we run out of inspiration, by that time computers will be the creators while we just die as a human species with nothing to create.

  5. I don't endorse Monster cables, but I must defend them. There is a discernible difference between their cables and a bargain brand. if you try to use a bargain brand xlr in front of a sensitive tube preamp, you'll end up with a nifty homa made FM radio receiver instead of a signal chain from your condenser mic to your capturing device, this is due to improper shielding in the cable. Monster cables do not have this problem. As an high current output cable, if you are buying a Monster cable, there will be little difference in sound between brands as impedance and shielding have little effect on output signal, however there is a life time warranty, so you are not just buying a cable, you're buying one for life. I had a 25' right angle instrument cable that the pin went bad on from the early 1980's and Monster replaced it no questions asked without even knowing that I'm a flipping rock star. If you a garage rocker with a used $100 guitar, you won't know a Monster cable from the palm of your hand, but recording engineers and pro's know the deal. Monster cables are worth the money, if it's worth it to you. I don't like seeing good gear get bashed by ignorant malcontents.

    • Well there rock star, riddle me this:
      These are digital cables, which means its impossible for there to be any difference between these and even the cheapest cable available. Yet, the "top end" 6 ft Monster Cables go for almost $200 at Best Buy while the cheap ones go for $30 (and I can get them from other places around town for $20). Why?

      Its nice that you think the warranty is worth it in your specific line of work, but I'd wager that 99% of the people buying these things are getting ripped off.

    • No serious studio uses Monster Cables. If you want the good stuff, you go to other companies, not them.

  6. This is an old story in that engineers have been mixing in immaculate recording studios, spending countless hours getting their mixes "just right", only to have people listen to them on lousy mono speakers (etc.). People need to get over it – it's been going on for decades! Your job as a musician is to write and perform as well as you can, so that, ideally, it sounds good no matter where someone listens to it. Blaming lousy stereos is just a way of excusing oneself from making good art, IMO.

    And any good engineer knows that this is the reality, so they intentionally keep lousy speakers around to test their mixes on to ensure that it still sounds good (i.e. levels are balanced, etc.). People will always be taking your carefully crafted mix and pumping it through $5 speakers with the EQ set with the disco smile (boosted low and high, lowered mids – or whatever they have it set at). Get over it.

    I've got $15 headphones to take with me out and about, and with all of the traffic and subway noise I'm surrounded by expensive headphones wouldn't make much of a difference. At home, I've got a nice stereo setup for when I really want to enjoy music – which requires sitting down and giving it my full attention.

    And for what it's worth, my Macbook Pro has pretty nice sound considering it's a laptop. It sounds a hell of a lot better than my buddy's Dell.

    • You literally just proved the whole point of BEATS BY DR DRE at the end of your ramble, saying the DELL's sound sucks, compared to apple's sound. well Apples sound probably sucks compared to BEATS BY DR DRE. DUH!

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