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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
June 2005

iPods and Old Fogeys

Through the years -- many years -- we audiophiles have endured a number of paradigm shifts and have adapted to new standards. From tubes to solid state, solid state back to tubes, LPs to CDs, and CDs to SACDs and DVD-As (and now back again), we embrace anything that sounds better and makes listening to music a richer and more profound experience.

So the idea that compressed audio files played back on iPods or other portable players will have any effect on the audiophile world is a curious one. It is true that the iPod has been a great commercial success, with over a million units sold. This number continues to swell as Apple offers new models, some that cost more than the earliest models due to their greater feature sets, and others that cost less. And there are no signs that iPod sales will slow down. iPod's popularity is due to a few specific things. It opens musical doors -- no more CDs, no more waiting for the music you want. You download and listen, and after you're done, you have no storage worries. The medium is ethereal, the music invisible.

That last point is an interesting one and may be responsible for creating a feeling of menace among audiophiles -- what we value is vastly different. If iPod is the next big thing, what does that mean for the reproduction paradigm that we value?

Not much.

First, the iPod is about as much like high-end audio as the bicycle is like the car. Yes, there are similarities, but the differences are so extreme and fundamental that they obscure any common ground, at least to those of us who know both worlds to some extent. iPodding is about choice and instant gratification, while high-end audio is about the quality of the experience. With an iPod you take your music everywhere, and you can do practically anything while you listen. When you want more music, you can get it just about anywhere, too. With high-end audio, you are tethered to your audio system, and often isolated in a sanctuary where listening is the sole activity. The iPod is a GM compact car and a Huffy ten-speed -- they'll get you where you want to go. High-end audio is a Mercedes and a Colnago -- they make getting there worthwhile, even meaningful. People crave worth and meaning, especially when surrounded by convenience and immediacy.

I don't own an iPod, and I have no plans to buy one, even as my colleagues proclaim it a revolutionary electronics product. I admit that the iPod has much going for it and even wonder sometimes what kind of music lover wouldn't want one. But I can't bring myself to buy. I'm not being stubborn, but I know I won't get my money out of it. I can't go backwards, at least in a way I value, simply for on-demand utility.

In the future, will people like me be seen in the same way as vinyl enthusiasts were at CD's advent and rise to prominence -- first as retrograde nay-sayers, and then as shrewd admirers of experiencing music? I am happy to be in such company, but your average 12-year-old isn't. Kids these days have a lot to learn, but in this case, they'll enjoy doing it. What a vast difference it will be from listening to compressed music on an iPod to hearing an SACD on a high-end system.

So as this paradigm shifts, I'm one old fogey who will sit in his rocking chair -- one that's perfectly placed in the sweet spot -- secure in the knowledge that the next big thing is actually the same old thing.

...Marc Mickelson

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