Audio fidelity is more a matter of subjective emotion than empiricism. But what are we trying to be true to?
In June, NPR published a widely shared quiz called “How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?” It tests a listener’s ability to perceive distinctions among different recordings of the same track. Presented with six songs from a range of genres, listeners were asked to select the highest quality version of each song from among three of the same recording encoded at different bit rates.
How I yearned to ace that test, proving to myself that my ears are not only capable of perceiving slight shades of sonic nuance but also discriminating correctly, ordering such distinctions from best to worst. I took it twice. I flunked the first time. The second time I got three of six correct.
I was not alone in my failure. The aggregate results of quiz takers suggested that few listeners can correctly distinguish a lossless, uncompressed FLAC file from an MP3; overall, listeners scored barely higher than if they had guessed at random.
When I failed, I, like many listeners, blamed the quiz’s authors for choosing tricky songs. Then I glared at my headphones for leading me astray. Finally, growing desperate, I resorted to critical theory: “What even is real?” I asked, channeling Baudrillard a few decades too late.
Counterfeit money is real if someone accepts it. Is counterfeit sound real, then, if someone hears it as such? If someone likes it? If someone buys it? If someone shares it with a friend?
Simply put, there is no such thing as an “authentic” reproduction of a sound source. Philosophers such as Joshua Glasgow have exhausted themselves trying to prove that full fidelity, identical replication of an originary musical event, is possible, but myriad factors impede perfect replication of a listening experience, however pure the signal: the varying lengths of our stereocilia (ear hairs); variations in the acoustics of our studios and in our playback equipment; and most significantly, our unique memories and aesthetic ideals. But, they say, imagine if we could listen in a vacuum. Okay, but we can’t. From nearly every angle, listeners keep getting in the way.
In an era of T-Pain Autotune apps and vinyl pressers ripping “hi-fi” cuts from YouTube, fidelity should be a lost cause. Miraculously, it’s not. The terms of fidelity remain pervasive and persuasive marketing tools. Facebook, for instance, flaunts its “high definition” audio messaging, borrowing branding terminology from music-based social-media platforms. Chicago-based coffee roaster Intelligentsia offers an “Analog” espresso blend, comparing their coffee’s “true” taste to the “real” sound of the pre-digital. What enthusiasts love about analog technology—the weight of those buttons, the tug of that tape—would seem to have little to do with the berry notes of a breakfast roast, but the ideal of fidelity is flexible, applicable across the senses. The word analog, like fidelity, is pure gimmick. These terms easily detach from any clear meaning and become fetishes ready to be enlisted in the service of a variety of agendas.
We know the concept of fidelity to be a sham, yet many of us still pursue it as a mode of resistance to haste, waste, and careless consumerism. The notion of “hi-fi” sound, though eventually exploited by mainstream record labels, stereo manufacturers, and lifestyle magazines, emerged in the 1940s among hobbyists interested in small-batch craftsmanship, in opposition to the mass production associated with television. Today, cutting edge technology is put in service of aims that have remained stagnant since those early days: sonic immersion, the pursuit of perfection, and escape from the dullness of everyday life. As early as 1939, these values were described, in a General Electric ad for “high fidelity” radio receivers, as spectacular realism: sound engineered to not merely resemble its source but transcend it, becoming realer than real, like a GMO apple that improves upon any apple found in nature.
Today as before, hi-fi shops are testaments to our belief that the perfect combination of copper and gold might bring us one step closer to what was lost before it was ever once found: full fidelity. In gadget-filled shops from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, expert gearheads quibble with clients on the finer points of each jack, cord, and coil. Storefronts become model living rooms, resembling bachelor pads circa 1970. Men regard tube amps as living creatures. Steely Dan is played at “ideal” volumes.
If you listen to Steely Dan as a 128-kbps MP3, do you really hear it? At stake in the possibility of “counterfeit listening”—listening that acknowledges degraded sound as equally real—are some of our deepest moral values, including mindfulness, attentive citizenship, and conscientious consumption.
How we listen seems to echo, if not dictate, how we think about the world. Though audiophiles’ obsession can border on egomania, their resistance to low quality is instructive, a form of conscious listening that, at best, may be likened to a kind of political consciousness.
Sound has long been imbued with the power to influence our dispositions. A Spotify tagline tells us: “Find playlists to fit—or change—your mood.” Inattentive listening can open one up to deceit, control, and manipulation. From this perspective, to accept degraded sound is to give in to ethical decay in other realms of life. To be not only fooled but happily fooled by unfaithful sound can indicate the worst sort of decadence.
But sonic verisimilitude is just one way of understanding fidelity. In genres such as punk, lo-fi, and noise music, unwanted sounds conventionally heard as impediments to fidelity are heard as signs of enhanced authenticity. Those who appreciate these genres are not dupes; rather, they are drawn to what Jonathan Sterne, the author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format, calls the “affective intensity of low-definition experiences.” On recordings, audible transduction noise, mistakes, and ambient sounds establish their own histories of resistance, flouting unrealistic standards of beauty and perfection. “Noise occasions presence,” in Stan Link’s words, connecting us both to the embodied world of mediation and to the past that recordings document. Imperfection humanizes recordings, bringing us closer to ourselves.
Should we dismiss hi-fi logic as materialistic and vain? Or should we pursue high fidelity, combating compression with all our might, letting our ears guide us to integrity at last?
The NPR quiz was framed by its authors as service journalism, signaling to listeners that “higher quality” streaming services, such as Tidal’s “HiFi” option, are not worth the cost, given that aesthetic benefits of higher quality will likely go undetected.
The quiz recalled a similar experiment from a century earlier, when sound was the epitome of ephemerality and listeners were genuinely befuddled by the possibility of capturing it. Edison Records, while marketing the newly commercialized phonograph, sponsored a series of “tone tests” in which listeners, positioned behind a curtain, were asked to distinguish between a live performance of a piece of music and the same piece played through the horn of a phonograph. Like Spotify today, Edison was interested in convincing listeners that they couldn’t tell the difference. That they were expected to fail the test suggests that what humans hear as noise is historically contingent. Today, it is unfathomable to us that listeners then could not distinguish between a phonograph disc, its sound laden with fuzz, and a performer there in the flesh.
The tone tests, like the NPR audio quality quiz, articulate an enduring truth: Fidelity has less to do with what is heard than with who hears it. Listening for fidelity is not about empirical comparison between two measurements, but about similarity, or resonance, between two emotional experiences. Fidelity is not something absolute but something dreamed, sensed, and felt.
Spotify exemplifies this notion, making no claims to high sound quality. Instead, it deals in its own logic of fidelity, in which its seemingly infinite music library is meant to evoke the same feelings that our tangible music libraries can. The Spotify interface, which allows users to browse through folders, compile playlists, and stream radio, aggregates past modes of listening through metaphor. It refers to many media at once: milk crates filled with vinyl, mixtapes lovingly curated, and the surprise and surrender of radio listening.
By referencing our listening pasts, Spotify constructs historical continuity, even as it claims to transcend limits of time and space. They are concerned not with the accuracy of our perception of sound waves in time but with our entire experience of music listening, engaging not only our ears, but our fingers, minds, and memories—in short, our deepest, fullest selves.
We have been freed from comparing recordings to originary live musical events held to be “real,” but we remain as tied down as ever to our own originary moments of feeling, of loss, of discrimination and evaluation. We seek affective fidelity: faithfulness to our own pasts, preferences, and principles.
Many audiophiles find it difficult to admit this. When a person aces the NPR quiz, he may appeal to empiricism as a higher power to anoint his ears as super-human, honed perhaps by years of experience as a musician or sound engineer, attuning him to the slightest nuance of each cymbal scrape, each hushed whisper. He is a sonic hound dog, detecting differences among EQ ranges as though sniffing out sacks of weed in someone’s carry-on bag.
But what he cannot admit is that his expertise is drawn not from hard facts but from his own affective past. The reproduction of sound introduces at least two levels of technological mediation—recording and playback. Nothing warrants labeling a particular playback of a particular recording as the right one. The gradations the audiophile perceives are not realer or deeper or closer to the “true sound” but rooted in patterns of listening he has established for himself.
Affective fidelity reframes what is false in sound as a byproduct of our own subjectivity rather than some flaw of sound design. This places responsibility for unfaithful listening onto the listener, potentially shaming us when the signal seems spotty to us. SoundCloud, a platform for artists to share their own music, is riddled with bugs but blames users for its errors: “Sorry, something went wrong. Is your network connection unstable or browser outdated?” Maybe we should have bought more bandwidth! Better speakers! Some lessons in taste!
But the history of fidelity has taught us that we can no longer blame our dissatisfaction on the sluggish bit rate, the faulty needle, or our lousy headphones, acquired second-hand. Even if they were perfect, perfection is boring, and not what we want.
Fidelity is deployed to compensate for the loss it reveals. The achievement of what we call fidelity has always involved the recuperation of things once lost: loss of information, loss of quality, and—more so today than ever before—loss of self. The ambivalence of contemporary discourse on selfhood, from feminist reclamation of narcissism to research on brain plasticity, suggests a destabilization of our very concept of self. How can we be true to our own listening habits if our ears are unsteady to begin with?
To cope with loss of all kinds, we aestheticize loss as a gain. Early sound engineers used the loss of information that occurs during recording and playback as a space in which to explore untapped creativity and imagination. Composers Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch crafted one of the earliest pieces of experimental turntablism by deliberately recording the sound of gramophone discs being played back at the wrong speed. In 1930, they presented the resultant Trickaufnahmen (“trick recordings”) at a new music festival in Berlin, transforming the glitches of a medium that felt clunky, even to its contemporary users, into high art.
Today, in response to precarity, we celebrate infidelity, interruption, and imperfection, elevating transformation as a value. One of the earliest media for recording sound, the wax cylinder, wore out after only five or six plays. Contemporary sound artist William Basinski exploited that loss, inherent in sound recording since the start, for profit. You can buy a vinyl version of his Disintegration Loops, which digitized the sound of old tape loops literally crumbling, for $358. Fidelity, in this case, is to degradation itself—decay Basinski has tried to render poignant. What is lost in depth of sound is potentially regained in depth of meaning.
Perhaps audiophiles are concerned less with loss of quality than with loss of motivation to recover from that loss. When Spotify instructs us to “just sit back” and listen, immersed in passive pleasure, who among us is not tempted to comply? And even if we maintain consciousness, what if we are among the 80.6 percent of listeners who failed NPR’s audio quality quiz, yearning to resist but never knowing how? Consumer capitalism leads us to believe that lapses in listening are best offset through increased consumption.
If fidelity can be achieved only through our own faithful performance of listening, then to accept loss is to risk losing something of ourselves. My own fantasy of achieving full affective fidelity is a lost cause; I know I am far too fickle to ever feel the same way more than once. Fidelity to ourselves, however appealing, joins high fidelity as an impossible dream.
What we love about noise is the way we lose ourselves in it. The trouble settles in when we are not even sure what we’re losing.