By Lou Washington

I remember the first time I listened to music through a commercial grade set of headphones. I was lucky enough to attend National Music Camp at Interlochen Michigan one summer many years ago. The school maintained a first class listening facility for those of us studying music theory, composition or music history. Some of us just loved to go there to hear, I mean really hear, our favorite compositions.

It was still a mostly vinyl world in those days. You could request any LP recording you liked; take it to a small desk equipped with a high-end turntable, amp and those fantastic headphones. They were heavy. They had a gel filled pad that surrounded each ear. This had the effect of putting you into a sound proofed room. You would drop the needle, close your eyes and the music would start.

It was fabulous. It was better than live but not in an artificial way. You could hear everything. The separation of the stereo signal was perfectly tuned to the way the ensemble was arranged in their recording environment. The clarity, depth and richness of the sound were just exquisite. It was, in a sense, a virtual reality with you seated in just the right position in an otherwise silent concert hall. It was perfect.

In the years since that time, we have all become willing to give up that level of perfection. We gave it up a little at a time. As the automobile became the venue where we listened to most of our music, we learned to be happy with the most elemental parts of musical recording. Melody, bass line and beat were elevated above texture, depth and timbre in our musical experiences.

This process continued with our increased demand for portability in our music. Devices like Walkman players and ultimately MP3 players all place a higher value on compression, file size and download speed at the expense of a full and accurate digital reproduction of the original recording master.

Within the recording studio, the quality is still there. Recordings still start out as 32 track (or more) masters. The technology of microphones, musical instruments and the rest of it have all improved since those days I spent with my headphones at Interlochen. But, it is all for naught if 80 to 90% of the recording signal is pared away and removed from the recording.

Couple the low quality recording with low-end ear buds as a delivery device and you have a seriously compromised musical recording.

The photographic equivalent of this would be to take pictures with your 15 megapixel camera, store the images as a 2 megapixel image and then blow the 2 megapixel image up to an 11 by 17 printed image. Believe me, it looks lousy.

Lucky for us audiophiles, there are folks who take this trend seriously enough to do something about it. A story ran in USA Today just last week about the pursuit of high fidelity recording. It is a great piece with some interesting numbers to consider.

The best news is that products are being developed and evaluated that will conserve as much of the original recorded signal as possible as the signal is processed and made ready for a distribution format.

There are also more and more recording artists that are part of this movement to bring back hi-fi as a quality standard in the industry. But, ultimately it will take the consumer pulling out a wallet to really effect a major change in the arena. That is not a small consideration either. Many people out there have never heard just how incredible the old vinyl can sound on a high-end playback system.

I have to think, remembering my own first time headphone experience, that once people hear how good it can sound, they will demand more.