Tech Innovations Great but Lacking Quality

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I appreciate all the great technological advances of the last 25 years or so but I sometimes question whether it's all for the good.

Don't get me wrong - I love my big-screen TV, my cell phone and my digital music player, and I wouldn't dream of giving up my personal computer. But as I use all of these modern devices, I sometimes miss what they've replaced. For many devices, we're opting for convenience and portability while sacrificing quality.

The cell phone is an obvious example. Sure, it's great to be able to talk from anywhere, but there's a reason we can all relate to those ubiquitous "Can you hear me now?" Verizon commercials. Who among us hasn't experienced dropped calls or difficulty hearing or understanding someone talking on a cell phone?

I don't recall having those problems with the land line I grew up with. Sure, that wired phone in my parents' living room couldn't go with me when I left the house, but that wasn't entirely bad. At least I never had to worry about losing it and it never had to be charged. Even now, in addition to our cell phones and Internet lines, we still have one old-fashioned "POTS" line (stands for Plain Old Telephone Service) at our house with a couple of old-fashioned corded phones that work even if the power fails.
I always know where they are, and those are the phones I always use when sound quality counts. Speaking of quality sound and corded phones, am I the only one who misses pay phones? Because of my work with CBS, I need to go on the radio every day and, for quality reasons, prefer using a land line. Trouble is, finding a working pay phone when I travel - even at an airport or hotel lobby - is increasingly difficult.

I also miss my old typewriter. I feel certain nostalgia for the clicking sound it made when I banged the keys. Writing felt somehow more deliberate in those days. But what I miss most is how easy it was to fill out forms. Have you ever tried filling in the blanks on a PDF file? Unless it's one of the few that are designed for that purpose (hats off to the IRS for using interactive PDF forms on its site), it's really hard to do, even if you have a PDF editor. I don't, however, miss having to use buckets of Wite-Out and wasting reams of crumpled-up paper.

My biggest complaint is what we're settling for when it comes to music. These days, most young people listen to virtually all their recorded music through those little white earbuds connected to an iPod or some other digital player. IPods are great and those white earbuds are fine as far as they go, but listening to a highly compressed MP3 file through earbuds is not the same as listening to a well-mastered LP record or CD through good speakers or good headphones.


Even if you connect your iPod to a good audio system, you're still suffering from a narrower harmonic range - there is simply less information in the file.

I did make sound compromises in the '70s and '80s when I would make cassette tapes of my favorite LPs (and later CDs) to listen to in the car or at my office. I had to put up with hiss and other imperfections, but I still owned that original LP or CD, which I could put on when I wanted to get the best possible sound. That may still be the case if you rip your own MP3 files from CDs. But if you buy your music on iTunes or any other download service, you don't even have the CD to fall back on.

Apple and some other download services now offer higher-quality files. Apple says its iTunes tracks, which are encoded as 256 kbps AAC files, are "virtually indistinguishable from the original recordings." But "virtually" isn't the same as "exactly," which is always the goal for serious audiophiles.

In the old days, when I wanted to kick back and really enjoy my tunes or impress a friend, I would carefully remove an LP from its album cover, gently place it on the turntable and run a cleaning cloth over it before carefully placing the needle on the record.

And it wasn't just about sound. Many of those LPs had wonderful album covers with great images on the front, plenty to read on the back and often printed liner notes with even more information. Apple is trying to bring that back with its new iTunes LP feature. Admittedly, it can offer video and other media that those old record producers could only dream of, but that doesn't completely make up for the aesthetics of those old printed LP albums.

Before you write me off as a Luddite or just a grumpy old man, Google the term "vinyl comeback." You'll find articles from Time, Rolling Stone and other sources about how college and even high school kids are now collecting vinyl records because of the warmer sound as well as the covers and liner notes.

I'm still waiting for land lines and typewriters to become hip again.

This column originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
  • Larry Magid

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