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Did early digital audio really sound terrible?
We've all read over and over that "early digital audio" sounded awful. This has been repeated so many times that it's become accepted as true by many. I've even seen people claim that early digital audio sounded terrible, while conceding that the fidelity of current converters is almost as good as analog tape and vinyl records!
I was thinking about early digital recently when I re-read this 1984 report showing that in blind tests, a self-proclaimed audio expert and digital audio hater was unable to tell when an A/D/A converter was inserted into a high quality analog playback chain:
The Digital Challenge - Boston Audio Society
Remember, this was with 1984 digital audio technology. Another even earlier test was published in the October 1982 issue of Gramophone magazine. That report also showed that in blind tests people were unable to tell when a digital audio "bottleneck" was inserted into the playback chain. Unfortunately, they removed the article from their web site and now you have to pay for back issues.
As it happens, my wife bought the first "affordable" CD player in 1984, made by Sony. It cost $700 at the time, which is equal to $1,550 in 2013 dollars! She also bought many CDs back then, and she still has them all. So to test the notion that early CDs sounded lousy, I ripped some tracks from three of her CDs from that era, trimmed them to a reasonable file size (about 5 MB each) for downloading, and put them here on my web site:
Fleetwood Mac Dreams
Pink Floyd Money
Moody Blues I Am
For fun, I also grabbed a screen-cap of Dreams showing how much better music "looked" before the Loudness Wars:
If anything, early digital audio probably sounded better than the hyper-compressed CDs and MP3s we buy today. I think a lot of the music was better too, though that's a different discussion.
It may be that some early CDs sounded harsh due to improper mastering. Apparently some CDs were made from master tapes meant for cutting vinyl records, with treble added to counter the known high frequency loss of LPs. But to my ears, the early CD tracks linked above sound pretty darn good! What do you think?
Ethan Winer has been an audio pro and skeptic for most of his adult life. He now heads up RealTraps, where he designs acoustic treatment products for recording studios and home listening rooms.
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