James C Whitson, an architect and writer based in Seattle, writes about lo-fi in Opera News:
I remember frantically trying to reprogram my brother-in-law Brian’s home theater several years back, as I watched a morbidly obese Captain Kirk lumber about the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Brian’s video screen default was set to a wide aspect ratio. “Relax,” he advised, as a 350-pound Vulcan waddled into view. “You get used to it. Ooh, I love this episode.”
I shuddered, aggrieved not just by his callous disrespect for my heroes Shatner and Nimoy but by the careless rejoinder “You get used to it.” The phrase returns to me every time I cringe through distorted music that passes for hi-fi sound. We’ve gotten used to it.
His interesting article concludes asking if we’re not listening any more.
High-fidelity, 35mm, Living Stereo, New Orthophonics, ffrr, quadraphonic, direct-to-disc and finally digital sound — all these advances landed us at the MP3? Forgive me if I seem incredulous.
Is the era of critical listening over? Why aren’t more opera-lovers as outraged as I by this effrontery? My friend Theo has committed much of his prodigious collection of compact discs to the MP3 format, but to what end? Portability? Safe keeping? I hectored him about the skeletal remains of the compressed sound — “How could you knowingly do such a thing to those worthy recordings?” etc. He sniffed at my displeasure: “I don’t need beautiful sound when I’m studying the music.” Yes, well — if one is studying, then I suppose that is critical listening.
If the music can be made portable, accessible and therefore of greater utility to the listener, as Theo might argue, then a loss in quality should be acceptable. Consumers know the tunes are compromised — packaged like fast food, designed to be consumed on the go — and welcome it for convenience’s sake. The consensus seems to be, “If I can tote a thousand songs along with me, I’m willing to accept a fraction of the original audio information and paper over the boxy, desiccated sound by pressing the ‘Club Mix’ preset.”
Are great recordings a thing of the past? I don’t think so. Tempered by the missteps of the early digital era — those parched, brittle sounding period-instrument abominations — modern classical recordings are more sophisticated than ever, and the right playback equipment in the right room still can yield astounding orchestral fidelity. One can preserve sound quality with “lossless” forms of digital compression, but we don’t listen the way we used to. Perhaps when the music left the living room, the true descent began.