The Distortion of Sound – a documentary about the decline of sound quality

The Distortion of Sound is an online documentary about the decline of sound quality and how technology has changed the way we listen to music.

This documentary is presented by Harman, an American audio and infotainment equipment company. Some of the artists which appear in it are very fine artists like: Slash, Quincy Jones, Mike Shinoda, Snoop Dogg, Hans Zimmer. Must this documentary be taken as a large advertisement or as an objective documentary?

Spoiler alert! Scroll to the bottom of this post if you want to see the documentary first, or go to distortionofsound.com →

The last fifty years have seen a striking decline in the quality of sound and listening experience. Compressed music, MP3s and streaming, have diminished the quality and flattened the emotion. Marketing gimmicks and convenience now take the place of excellence. The Distortion of Sound is an eye-opening exposé of the current state of sound starring Linkin Park, Slash, Quincy Jones and more. This documentary will open your ears and inspire you to reach for richer, more soul-stirring musical experiences.

I’ve watched the documentary and this is the message I felt they want to get across:

  • lossy formats, like MP3, are bad sounding formats
  • all streaming services like YouTube and Pandora are using bad sounding lossy formats
  • the soul is taken away because of this
  • earplugs and the speakers of a MacBook Pro are bad sounding
  • the experience of using YouTube or any other streaming services is a very lonely experience
  • streaming services are so accessible so it’s too easy to throw the music away

I remember

I was born in 1968 and I remember vinyl, I remember my first Walkman, I remember my first generation Philips CD-player. I can tell you: sound quality has improved a lot over the years. A lot!

Back in the day everyone was listening on cheap sounding home HIFI sets with shitty speakers. The Walkman also sounded far from perfect. Bad headphones were a huge trouble maker. And the cassette-tape was prone to noise and wow and flutter. The playhead of the Walkman often didn’t line up with the cassette-machine which was used for recording the tapes (bad azimuth) so the sound sounded extremely filtered. Often stuff was recorded with Dolby but played on a Walkman without Dolby. I didn’t mind that too much because the experience of taking your music with you outside was a mind blowing experience. But if you talk about sound quality, oh man, back in the days… totally LOFI! (which can also be a cool thing!)

Killing the soul of music

Does bad sound quality kill the soul of the music? Of course not! Even a cheap ass noisy radio can transient the most deep emotions. Hell, an electric guitar sounds better when it’s not totally clean. Pop and rock music was never meant to sound perfect, we compress the instruments, we apply weird effects to it, we overdrive the signal patch. A recording is not a truthful recording of people who are playing their instruments. Even vocals get treatment in the studio using huge amounts of compression to minimise the dynamics. In short: popmusic sounds best when distorted.

Nowadays any smartphone comes with good sounding earplugs. And for a little bit of money you can get some terrific sounding headphones. The output is full range and flat sounding. You can watch HD video on it. Even 4k video! Both the visuals and sound quality is excellent these days. And talking about a Apple MacBook Pro which is shown throughout the video as an bad example, its sound quality is in fact rather excellent for a laptop. A MacBook Pro has an optical audio output connector, so you can connect it to high-end systems. Even my previous MacBook Pro (the one with grey keys) had this type of a connector.

High quality YouTube

still from The Distortion of Sound documentary

still from The Distortion of Sound documentary

In the documentary, shown on YouTube, they give us an example of Uncompressed Audio. And a few seconds later the sound of compressed audio is played. This is a bit strange because YouTube, according to this documentary, offers badly compressed audio. They are biting their own hand with this statement. It’s not true, YouTube offers excellent quality as you can hear in their own example. Like most streaming services. Sure, some of the stuff is uploaded by deaf label managers, but all streaming services offer 320 kbps lossy compression which sounds excellent. And some services even offer non-lossy, uncompressed audio.

Old limitations

In the past the formats caused limitations. But nowadays with digital formats we all can experience an uncoloured sound. No longer are we limited by the format. Any sound the human ear can detect we can put in the digital format. Even with extreme amounts of low end, which vinyl can’t handle. Even with out-of-phase sound, which vinyl can’t handle. Even loud sound which makes cassette to sound overdriven. Even super quiet sounds which would end up buried in noise on cassette.

Music sounds better than ever before. But Harman tells us that it isn’t so. See and hear it for yourself, watch the full documentary in “shitty” online streaming quality:

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7 Responses to The Distortion of Sound – a documentary about the decline of sound quality

  1. john July 11, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Really good piece Marco..thanks.

  2. Alec July 23, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    This video… Demonizing audio compression technology for half an hour without ever mention a single word about the intentional diminishing of audio quality happening on the mastering desks. Also the whole point of this “documentary” being published on YouTube, which itself is known for overcompressing audio levels, seems like a joke to me.

    What about the aspect of more people then ever before finding interest in music, supporting popular & indie artists too obscure and unknown for record deals, discovering beautiful music aside of billboard charts and thus feeding the whole industry just through the power of compression and streaming technology? What a bunch of hypocrites!

  3. Mike August 8, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    Born in 69 myself. I agree with you. It’s gotten better and will continue to get better. I don’t miss the static of records.

  4. monoelectron October 11, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    its interesting that you can listen to music recorded back in the 40s and 50s, which sounds worse than some mp3 formats, but strangely enough you can still enjoy it. and it still has soul. but these people dont want you to think of that because it doesnt fit into whatever agenda they are pushing here

  5. Martin January 10, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    Dear Marco,

    Good comment. Though, you didn’t emphasize one important point which makes the documentary a lie. Their sound and visual examples of compression are NOT the mp3-compression they lament about (“90 % missing …”) but the intentional compression to get an even loudness level. Hardly anyone can differentiate between mp3 320 or wav, not even between mp3 320 or 128. But you can hear compression in the “loudness war”.

    • Marco Raaphorst January 10, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

      I still can’t understand what point they are trying to make. They are showing examples of compressed versus uncompressed sound in a YouTube video! I mean: uncompressed is not an option on YouTube 🙂 Bad examples. Can’t believe someone like Quincy Jones saying these things.

      And al these examples with cassettes. Man, I love cassettes but they are rather lofi. Which is cool. MP3 can be kinda lofi as well, at 64 or 128 kbps. That “watery” sound which in a couple of years people will call nice, but all artefacts have become nice over the years. Low bitrate and aliasing stuff is now considered as a vintage sound. Aliasing is adding overtones like distortion did back in the analog days.

      Everything is colouring the sound. The way we record and process the sounds. Our speakers. And most importantly: our ears.

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