Fidelity (Part 1)

This (probably) three part post requires an introductory explanation. For Father’s Day, my wife Muri bought me a High Resolution Music Player and a pair of audiophile quality earbuds. The quality of the sound is astonishing, reminding me of the way music used to sound before music moved from large music systems to phones and earbuds. This is a (probably geeky) retelling of that process in my music-listening life, with perhaps some old-guy philosophizing at the end.

IMG_7786When I started listening to music, there were two popular forms of recording … 45 rpm discs, popularly known as 45s … and Long Playing or 33 1/3 rpm discs. High quality recordings and players capable of reproducing the sound at a level of quality commensurate with the recordings were termed high-fidelity, or hi-fis for short. Of course, exactly what constituted hi-fi depended upon who you talked to. The Magnavox TV and Music Console in my parents living room was (according to the brochure that came with it) hi-fi but the group of sound equipment aficionados known as audiophiles would find that hysterical. Butw-5m our stereo was good enough for me to develop what would be a life long love of music. In high school, I built a 25 watt Heathkit amplifier which I combined with a set of cheap speakers and a turntable, my first component hi-fi. Audiophiles were still laughing. When i got married in 1968, I bought my first serious system, a Yamaha receiver and turntable and a pair of Heath speakers.

thAs the quality of my equipment was improving, so was the fidelity of the music on vinyl records. While fidelity often referred to the issue of how accurately the recorded music matched the actual sound of the performance, it also could include the effects of noise such as extraneous sounds produced by the needle in the record groove. Record companies were improving both through better vinyl, better equipment to cut the grooves in the master discs, press the discs for distribution, and in some cases, alternative recording techniques that required special equipment. But vinyl records had issues. They were awkward to carry around … and fragile. They could warp or be easily scratched. A scratch could produce a click roughly every 30 seconds through your favorite aria, produce a skip over several grooves, or worse, a skip backwards causing the same notes to repeat over and over (hence, like a broken record). Vinyl tends to build up static electricity which attracts dust, also creating clicks unintended by the recording artist. Several companies produced pop-removers which eliminated the sounds of scratches and dust though unconventional signal processing during playback. But the market was open for something more convenient and less fragile.

eight-tracks-three-stackEnter eight-track cartridges. Developed in 1964 by a consortium led by Bill Lear of Lear Jet Corporation using an endless loop of magnetic tape inside a plastic cartridge, eight-tracks were portable and durable, perfect for use in vehicles.  While audiophiles turned up their noses at the fidelity, they were popular for music from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.  In 1962, Phillips introduced the compact cassette, a mini-reel-to-reel tape in a package even smaller than the eight-track. In the early years sound quality was mediocre, but it improved dramatically by the early 1970s when it caught up with the quality of 8-track tape and kept improving. In particular, Dolbyth2 Noise reduction addressed the annoying high frequency tape hiss by emphasizing higher frequencies during recording, then attenuating it to normal levels during playback also reducing the hiss. Cassettes also allowed recording of music from vinyl records, providing a portable medium for use in cars and in portable players like the Sony Walkman. 8-track cartridges became the symbol of being behind the times musically as the industry moved to cassettes which were here to stay, at least for a while, sacrificing fidelity for convenience.

At this point, Older Eyes’ music system consisted of a 150 watt Yamaha Receiver, a Sony Cassette Deck with Dolby and two huge Infinity speakers. But digital sound was around the corner, waiting to change everything, not all for the better.

**Older Eyes thanks Wikipedia for many of the facts in this post, linked by topic in the text.

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