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How Do You Describe Poor Sound Quality In Words?

Mark Smotroff takes language seriously…

Not all digital recordings are bad. There I said it. Don’t hate me, analog evangelists.

But seriously folks, there’s a fine line we tread these days in defining what sounds good and what doesn’t.  Some argue that there are technical differences and the pros and cons pointing to the superiority of one over the other may vary depending upon your perspective. 

Over the years the word “digital” has become something of a darkly negative term to some folks in the audio world.  I get it but I don’t always agree with that notion in a blanket sense.  As a writer I have struggled with and juggled this issue over the years, seeking language to help paint a picture with words as to why the sound of certain recordings — digitally processed or other wise — might negatively (or positively!) impact your listening experience.

Pre-recorded sound has been on quite a rollercoaster ride, especially since the advent of digital sound as a consumer medium in the early 1980s. From the rough early 16-bit digital days to 24-bit mastering, tracing its path from CD to Super Audio CD (aka SACD) and DVD Audio platforms, there have been moments of hope and optimism for digital platforms. 

Things got ugly in the days of the lowly MP3 which effectively pulled the rug out from good sounding audio for a while. In a related issue, there were many reasons why CDs took a big hit and sound quality was just part of it, but that is a discussion perhaps for another article. But while MP3 was a cheap and (to many, a seemingly) cheerful movement, ultimately listeners are waking up to the notion that things can sound better. In a way, there is a whole generation of music fans who are “stepping up” their listening game — oddly, it is a sort of parallel universe to how I transitioned my music habits from the time I was a little kid listening on a crummy portable record player to where I am today able to play most anything from a 78 RPM disc made in 1903 onward to high resolution streams and multi-channel surround sound. It has been quite a journey! More on that in a moment… 

The good news is today we have the potential to hear great sounding audio through both physical and non-physical media. On Blu-ray Discs we can enjoy music presented in PCM, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD and most recently Dolby Atmos formats.  

Many of the streams on Tidal and Qobuz sound excellent depending largely on how the quality of the audio provided to the services as well as the quality of the Digital-to-Analog Converter (aka DAC) the listener is using. I’ve heard good things about the newer Apple formats which I plan to check out in the near future. 

And then, contrary to all of this — and surprising many in the industry — the vinyl renaissance started happening over the past 10 or so years! This didn’t surprise me as I was aware of the considerable efforts by some passionate audiophiles who were out on the front lines trying to correct public perception about the MP3 vs. analog formats like vinyl records. There has been quite a lot of education going on!  In recent years here on Audiophile Review I’ve been trying to do my part to share my knowledge from a lifetime of music listening, collecting and music making as well as my work in the industry as a PR and marketing communications consultant

Younger music fans have been jumping on the vinyl bandwagon again for numerous reasons.  In part at least it is because they can hear the difference and the improvement in sound, especially compared to their crummy old MP3 files of unknown origin as well as the compromised sound of the most popular streaming service (which shall remain nameless). 

Plus I think younger listeners are simply getting into the process of playing physical records. Seriously, I’ve been told this even by some who are listening on entry level portable record players or those hip industrial players made for use in schools back in the 60s and 70s (its thing folks, like retro console stereos some folks dig these things). There is a fun factor at work there.

There is always room for improvement on both the digital and analog fronts. There are so many factors outside the scope of this article which can impact the sound quality you hear at home (recording sources used, recording techniques employed, mastering processes, manufacturing quality controls, etc.). 

While there have been hiccups along the way — with some supposedly high resolution versions of albums released that didn’t sound especially good — I remain optimistic as there are many new releases and reissues which can sound absolutely fantastic. 

Some modern vinyl reissues sound arguably better than original pressings. I’ve written about these a lot here on Audiophile Review.  

The digitally restored recordings I’ve heard which have been processed via Plangent Processes technology sound absolutely incredible. Clearly the artists get it as legends like Bruce Springsteen, David Crosby, The Grateful Dead and many others have gotten behind this crucial step in the restoration of many archival and original recordings. I’ve written about Plangent a bunch in recent years (click here for my most recent review which discusses the technology) 

The point of all this is to draw some attention to the notion that there are many variables impacting good sound.  But now, I hope you can see the notion of simply saying that analog is “better” than digital is problematic. It is just not that simple… 

Going back to the opening discussion of language, I suspect that there are probably better ways to talk about digital in an educated manner other than simply saying “digital sucks” and “analog rocks.” 

When I talk about something that bothers me in a recording I’ll often try to describe what I am hearing in non-technical terms so others can hopefully understand and begin to listen for nuances they may not have considered before.  

Some phrases I’ve used described the sound of poorly processed sound (digital or otherwise) include:

  • Harsh-edged 
  • Crunchy
  • Coarse
  • Raw
  • Painful

What are your favorite words to describe poor quality sound?

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