Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Was the Cassette Tape Good Enough?

Is the current popularity of on-line downloadable music a sure sign that most of us are content with the “good enough” sound quality when it comes to hi-fi, like the cassette tape did 40 or so years before?

By: Vanessa Uy

Had Philips got it right back in 1963 when they decided to promote the cassette tape – a somewhat lo-fi speech-only recording medium – as a domestic prerecorded music format? Well, given everyone and their dog’s fascination and the indisputable popularity (commercial success?) of on-line digital music downloads on the Internet, it is now safe to say that the music industry probably achieved musical playback perfection – sound quality notwithstanding – back in 1963. Way before the introduction of Philips’ and Sony’s digital compact disc into the global commercial music market back in 1983 – a full 20-year head start.

Haying experienced first-hand comparison tests of a state-of-the-art (in sound quality terms?) a late 1980’s Sony Walkman to that of a 2007-vintage i-Pod. It is quite safe to say that when it comes to the musicality of the analog medium, our wiper-snapper digital sound engineers – who happen to be way older than me – are utterly clueless when it comes to ultimate sound quality. The only redeeming factor of an i-Pod music player is the sheer ease – if you are a trigger-happy private security contractor – to listen to Tori Amos’ Precious Things or Little Earthquakes while you mow down innocent Iraqi civilians with your 5.56mm squad automatic weapon.

Given that my hi-fi / audiophile acquaintances – who’s hearing I can personally trust – have lately admired the World-Music savvy of cerebrally-hip on-line music download sites like We7. I – more often than not – fall back to listening to “physical media” – like compact discs in order to find out how much of the sound quality has been decimated as it travels down through the Internet’s infrastructure. As one of my audio-buddies have the good fortune of acquiring Susana Baca’s Travestías album – in CD format, it has lately become our audiophile community’s version of an audio objet d’ art. As a standard to compare the degree of sound quality degradation that can occur with its We7 downloaded counterpart. The CD – for all intents and purposes had become our de facto version of the Six-Eye pressing of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue LP.

While the small physical size and slow tape speed will always serve to limit the ultimate performance of the “lowly” cassette tape despite of improvements over the years. Like the use of exotic magnetic media – i.e. super Avilyn, high coercivity metal particle tape, ferrichrome etc. – or the employment of various Dolby noise reduction schemes like the B, C, and S variants. Not to mention the Dolby HX Pro or headroom extension to enable the “lowly” cassette tape record signals with a little more decibels that it supposed to achieve.

Though a handful of audiophile purist view the cassette tape as musically superior midrange wise when compared to downloaded digital music media, the consistency of cassette’s sound quality is another thing. While the sound quality of cassette tape will slowly – really slowly – degrade over time the more often it is played, we can always rely on the consistent sonic mediocrity of downloaded digital music. Looks like my 78-RPM shellac of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit could be sold on E-Bay at Harrier Jump Jet prices before I die.