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.”