Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A sound investment

Have you ever received one of those invitations from Harris Polls to participate in some "short, fun" questionnaires? They make the offer more attractive by giving you bonus points for each questionnaire you complete. Once you get enough points you can redeem them for various nifty consumer products, the more points, the niftier the products. I took them up on it a while back. I discovered that the more you participate, the more invitations you receive, to the point where your inbox is indundated daily with new questionnaires and reminders to complete old ones. A lot of those questionnaires are neither short nor fun, especially the ones that ask detailed questions about various savings/retirement plans, or about a seemingly endless line of products from say, Rubbermaid. It's easy to opt out by simply deleting the emails unopened, and that's what I eventually did.

But not before I racked up enough points to get a prize, and it came yesterday: a new set of earbuds with built-in noise reduction. These suckers are so comfortable and fill your ear so efficiently you literally can't hear anything else (must take extra care on my walks!), and the sound quality is amazing. I thought the previous set of buds I had (which, alas, broke) were the last word in sound reproduction, but these make that old pair sound like Edison's phonograph.

It's amazing to realize that as ubiquitous as music and the spoken word are today, we are a mere 100 years or so past the time when people had to go to concerts to hear music (or make their own) and gather in large crowds to hear a speech. The advances in communications and the science of sound in such a short time boggle the mind and attest to the human quest for perfection. When I was a kid, Emerson, Stromberg-Carlson and Zenith were the radio-phonograph brands that promised the best sound. They tended to be huge consoles, meant to function as integral parts of the living room, pieces of furniture constructed of fine wood. The radio-record player in our house when I was born was a huge Emerson model. It looked like a big mahogony credenza, except it opened at the top instead of the front. Inside were the controls to the radio (all AM stations) and a 78-rpm record turntable. Below, there was cabinet space for the bulky records of the day. "Record albums" were truly that: a collection 78s collected in a bound book of record sleeves.

The late 50s ushered in the new 33 1/3 "long playing" records with high fidelity engineering ("hi-fi"). The LPs, even bigger and more space-hungry than the 78s, could hold more music, so they swept away those multi-leaved books of records, but the collection, now on one disk, was still called an album. The various components of the best hi-fis were separate, allowing you to put your receiver and amplifier in one place in the house and the speakers in another. The sound was better, the ability to direct it from where you chose proved enticing, and those big, beautiful consoles with their 78 turntables soon became dinosaurs. Stereophonic sound technology built on the separated hi-fi speakers and was yet another quantum improvement.

And then there were transistor radios. They were my generation's portable music, the precursor to the Ipod, and were an integral part of the communications revolution. As far as sound quality went, they were a leap backwards from the concurrently burgeoning in-home music scene, but they were a must-have for any cool teenager. All of us would meet on the street, either plugged into our transistors with earphones or holding the radios themselves to our ears if we were trying to converse at the same time we were listening to them. The radios came with belt attachments and shoulder straps, often encased in fancy leather carriers. Mine was a little white Zenith model with gold trim. John Hill, always ahead of the rest of us, had a big Zenith in a leather carrying case with a shoulder strap.

We're all familiar with subsequent progress. People competed to see how big and fancy their component stereos could get. FM radio, with its superior sound, put a huge dent in AM's position in the marketplace. Transistor radios gave way to casette players, and the compact disk edged out the LP, which in turn made the Walkman possible. Currently, we have a medium which you can't even hold in your hand, the mp3, and its Ipod. You connoiseurs say what you will about sound compression, I am still blown away by the sound reproduction of my Ipod with these new earbuds, with which I started this whole discourse.

These revolutionary changes did have transition periods. For a long time some people had simple hi-fi sets even after stereo came out--for a while, LPs were produced in both hi-fi and stereo versions--and others held on to their LPs after the advent of the CD. As you know, I'm in the middle of that transition myself and still hoping to complete it. God only knows what's coming next. I just hope I can get one change overwith before I have to start on another!


Anonymous said...

I'll pick up on neighborhood get togethers as that's what I loved the most as a teen. We had a talented bunch in our neighborhood and weekends were spent listening to trios sing; singles play guitar; the drummer in the townhouse; four sisters sing in harmony . . .where did those days go? I miss those weekends and only wished my kids had that exposure. I remember my folks and all the other neighbors on Fielding Street emptying their wallets to help "The Wayfares" (our college trio, students from William & Mary) get a shot on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. They didn't win, but 10-20 of us fudged cards to mail in and get them on the next show. Watching them on TV was really "big time" for our little hole in the wall community. Fun!!!

Ralph said...

Z&M, you've made slight reference in the past to that singing group, but I didn't know singing was such a thing in your whole neighborhood.
Very cool! I was in the Falls Church High Madrigal group, and since the school wasn't much known for its sports teams and we Madrigal Singers were really good and wond some awards, we were sort of Big Folks On Campus. And we, too would sing at the drop of a hat, but it was "Allan-a-Dale" or "April Is I my Mistress' Face" instead of doo-wop. I can still remembeer my parts to some of those songs....

Eclecticity said...

I want some of those buds. Can you provide more details, brand etc.

I can't stand iPod buds. Or their imitations.

And I wonder if it is just me, or just my ears.


Eclecticity said...

And thanks for the short memory lesson. Did you leave out the forgettable 8-Track tape system on purpose? E. ;-)

Ralph said...

E, I agree about the Ipod buds. They're really bad, so weird that they're paired with such a great technology. The buds I got are Philips "active noise canceling eawr phones," model# SNH2500. Hope you can find 'em.

8-tracks: I skipped them in my journey through sound technology so I forgot to mention them.

Cuidado said...

Remember just last week talking about your albums. I still have a ton of vinyl and own a working turn table cassette player, cd player and mp3 player. I need them all still.

Ralph said...

Cuidado, even after CDs became dominant, I went to the expense of having my turntable recalibrated and had it out with my other components. But I never used it. I got so spoiled first by the multiple CD changer set on "random" and then the Ipod set on "shuffle" I no longer felt like getting up to turn a record over! Awlful huh?