When the MP3 format first appeared there were some who dismissed it because it was a step backwards in quality. This is true. Many MP3s are encoded at 128Kb/s at which certain slight differences can be discerned on a good pair of headphones.
Obviously, these people were wrong. The slight loss in quality was a small price to pay for the massive savings in file size. Taking a 30Mb WAV file and turning it into a 4Mb MP3 made it reasonable to move music across dial-up connections, and a breeze to move across higher-speed networks.
In the case of MP3s, the quality was enough. As storage and bandwidth becomes more available and affordable, this quality gap between CDs and MP3 will close (though higher-quality Mp3 encoding, and through new file formats).
What originally made me wonder about when enough quality is enough quality was a local phone call with a friend. We were having a quiet conversation and I listened to my friend’s voice through the tinny phone receiver speaker. It occurred to me that I had all of the equipment in front of me to do much higher quality audio communication. My PC has a 16-bit sound card and a net connection that can easily stream great sounding music. I have a great microphone too.
I want higher quality telephone audio. Why has our technology stopped at the current level? Perhaps it is a limitation of the infrastructure, but I doubt this (I’m downloading MP3s at 300Kb/s on my DSL connection on the same phone line). It’s certainly not the speaker and microphone technology that is limiting quality.
So, it’s not the technology, it’s us – the customers. We must not care enough to demand higher quality or pay for higher quality. Apparently, we are not willing to pay for it.
Note to telcos: I will pay for it (I’d gladly pay $100 for a new handset/receiver that gave higher fidelity audio).
HDTV is another example of meagre customer demand for higher quality. There are loads of factors that I don’t claim to understand (or even know about) that have stunted the adoption of HDTV. However, it seems to me that people don’t seem to care.
I’ve seen HDTV at the local FutureShop. It looks great – obviously a far greater picture than plain-old NTSC. Joe public, with his 19” TV watching Good Morning Regis & Stupid doesn’t need anymore quality. Regis looks just fine with XXX lines.
48 bit color? Not unless you are scanning for the cover of National Geographic. 32 bit audio – does it even exist? When is enough quality, enough quality?