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Sonic vs Aesthetic Trends in Technology

The digital age is one of endless possibilities in choosing hardware or software products, whether we are looking for technical quality, durability or aesthetic beauty. Sound engineer Jordy van Wijk shares some experience in consumer choices when it comes to audio technology.

We live in a time where technology is the lovechild of fusion and fashion. One of the most obvious examples of this is perhaps the mobile phone – a device where telecom, music, photography, internet and social media are fused into one, not to mention the variety in terms of size, functionality and design. Design-wise, mobile phones immediately react to the latest trends. The only problem is that whenever you buy a phone, it is actually already dated and because of the fast movement in fashion and technology it is almost impossible to keep up. A trend dies as fast as it is born. 

One thing I find peculiar is the fact that we have the need to make things smaller, even in the way we listen to music. In the early 2000s there was a trend of moving from CD quality to mp3 format which in equation sounds rather poor. The only profit we gained from using mp3s is that we can upload more songs onto our phone, media player or mp3 player. So apparently consumers preferred the quantity of music file to their sound quality. It seems to me that nowadays we believe that smaller is better.

There is another good example of fusion and fashion in technology: Speakers and hifi installations. As a producer and studio /mixing engineer, I have to keep up with this. In this case I specifically mean the setup people have in their living rooms. It seems that not only has the quality of the sound source been brought down to a lower quality like mp3, but also the way we listen to it is often of a low quality.

A couple of years ago I used to sell hifi systems and speakers and at that time I noticed something strange: people often preferred compact and designer speakers rather than sound quality. As a matter of fact, when people were interested in buying speakers, they first went for the design and the sound quality was often a nice little bonus. I often wondered why people would buy an audio setup in the first place. A 5.1 system is very popular nowadays (5 speakers, front, left, right, rear right, rear left plus a subwoofer) and even 2.1 (left, right plus subwoofer) but often used as an accessory.  

It is not that a lot of modern systems sound bad. Not at all. It is all about the purpose of the setup. For example, 5.1 setup is designed for movies and 5.1 music. Most of our music is mixed in stereo. So you could say that it would not be the best setup for listening to your music. Also, stereo speakers often do not need a subwoofer. The acoustic shape and resonance box of the speakers brings more body into the sound than the little speakers from a 5.1 setup. 

There is one more important piece of evidence that shows the sheer amount of people that prefer fashion and style to sound quality. That is the way people set up their audio systems in their living rooms. It happens so often that people set up their 5.1 system in a way that makes it impossible for the surround sound to reach its potential power: a subwoofer tucked away in a corner, or speakers placed in a random spot in the living room just so that the wires won't catch your attention. I even experienced one house that had an audio setup, but instead used the sound of the flat screen TV.  

But do you know what the funny thing is? Our ears (and with our ears I actually mean brains) are able to adapt so quickly to sound. We get used to poor sound quality very easily, the same way we are capable of getting used to louder music or to higher quality. It is miraculous how our brains work. When low or high frequencies are missing, our brains will restore the lack of that by itself. It is only when we realise bad quality that we find it possible to get to know good quality. So there is still some room left to win. 

One final point I would like to make is the following: whenever you are willing to invest in an audio setup, whether it is stereo, 2.1 or 5.1, if you do not know how to place it in your living room, ask the experts or do your research online. The placement of the speakers can bring your enjoyment of your music to the fullest. So invest some money and time in figuring out what the best setup would be. This could mean you will have to rearrange your living room. You will have to decide what is more important: the placement of your fancy furniture or the way you can enjoy the sound of your music. Trends in fashion and style come and go, but music is everlasting.

Jordy van Wijk