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The downside of MP3s and digital tunes

Apple last week confirmed that iTunes had outpaced Wal-Mart in January and February as the nation’s No. 1 seller of music. The Apple announcement followed an earlier report by NPD Group that compared iTunes music sales with those of major retailers. Pardon the pun but it’s not exactly an “Apples to Apples” comparison because stores typically sell albums while iTunes allows users to download one track at a time. To more or less even the score, 12 tracks were considered the same as a single album. It was only a month earlier that Apple passed Best Buy to become the No. 2 music retailer.

What’s interesting about iTunes’ meteoric rise in popularity is that it is doing very well despite some downsides to the format and the portable devices people typically use to listen to the music. For one thing, most songs purchased on iTunes are saddled with so-called digital rights management that limits what you can do with them, including what devices you can play them on. The CDs that Wal-Mart and other retailers sell don’t have DRM, so they can be ripped as MP3s and played on any digital music player.

Another difference between downloaded music and CDs is compression. Although many people can’t perceive it, there is definitely a difference between the sound of an MP3 and the sound of an uncompressed CD. What’s more, a lot of people listen to most of their music through little earbuds.

When I was in my 20s, I and many of my contemporaries spent as much as we could afford on stereo equipment so we could get the best possible sound quality from our LPs. Even though it was “more than 20 years ago today,” I still remember how incredible it was to listen to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on a pair of Koss headphones. Even with the scratches from the vinyl record, it seems to me that the sound quality might have been better back then than what you get today by listening to compressed files through earbuds. When it comes to audio quality, it can no longer be said that “it’s getting better all the time.” Today it’s all about convenience. We want to be able to listen to our music wherever we happen to be and we’re willing to make compromises to do so, though I must admit I’m not sure at this stage that I can tell the difference between a really high-quality sound source and an MP3 on an iPod. The sad irony is that by the time we reach the age where we can afford high-end audio equipment, many of us have suffered enough hearing loss to not be able to tell the difference.

Now, technology as well as aging can be blamed for that loss. I worry about kids who listen to loud music through earbuds. There is increasing evidence that improper use of these devices can damage hearing.

And as long as I’m on a rant, I have one more complaint. It seems that between iPods and cell phones, many people you see walking around in public spaces are actually in their own private world. I notice this when I need directions while walking on a sidewalk but can’t get through to the person standing next to me because he is immersed in his own little world.

It also bugs me when I ride my bike on the bike/pedestrian/skater path at Shoreline Park in Mountain View. If I want to politely ask a skater or walker to let me pass, I have to shout into their ear because their earbuds are blanking out the world.