It has often been said that in our never-ending quest to make things better or easier through technology, we are collectively losing some parts of our souls. One area where that certainly has been true is with music.
You don’t have to be an audiophile to recognize that a certain level of aural quality has been a casualty of digitization. While MP3s and the devices that play them have made music convenient and immune to the dust and scratches that plagued previous storage media, the actual tunes themselves don’t sound quite like they used to.
Even iPod inventor Steve Jobs couldn’t stand the sound of digital music and listened to vinyl at home, as rock icon Neil Young claimed at a recent conference.
It’s for these reasons that some audio equipment makers are looking backward for inspiration. Last week, Samsung unveiled several home audio products that use vacuum tubes, the light-bulb-like electronic brains of a bygone era, to process sound.
Vacuum tubes were used in the earliest electronics, including computers, as ways of modulating the pulses that comprised data. In computers, when a tube turned on, it represented a “1” in binary code. When it was off, it was a “0.” To formulate a simple sentence, the vacuum tubes in an analog computer would therefore turn on and off many, many times.
Not surprisingly, they frequently burned out and needed replacing. The digital revolution, where data could be calculated virtually rather than physically, quickly killed off the costly and inefficient vacuum tubes. (An interesting aside: the term “computer bug” comes from the fact that when a fly landed on one of the fragile tubes, it sometimes malfunctioned.)
When it comes to music, however, vacuum tubes have endured. They are, in fact, still used in many guitar amplifiers. Musicians swear by the older technology, which they say provides a truer and “warmer” sound.
Samsung is hoping for the same effect in its new premium line of home audio products. At a press event in New York, executives talked about how music consists of pleasant, even tones and less-desirable odd tones. Vacuum tubes do a better job of separating the two and producing more even tones, they said.
The result is the DA-E750 audio dock and the HT-E6730W home theatre system, which go on sale in the United States and Canada this spring at a price of $699 each. In both cases, vacuum tubes are used in the “pre-amp” process, where music is first input, to separate the sounds. From there, the full amplification and output process is done digitally.
The products are part of a move by the company into premium home audio, where it will compete with the likes of Bose and Pioneer. According to estimates from consumer trend analysis firm NPD Group, the overall home audio market is levelling off, but the high-end section is still growing because people are starting to crave better sound.
In demos, Samsung compared the new units to equivalents in its existing product lines. With both old and new systems using the same settings, the differences were clear. In the case of the home theatre system, the vacuum tubes made the vocals in several jazz tracks sound like they were much closer to the listener. High tones were more crisp and clear.
Several of us reporters wanted to try out the devices with more complex tunes than the simple jazz played during the demos. We got our chance with the sleek-looking audio dock. I tried out some heavy metal and, while the vacuum tube sounded considerably better than the other non-tube devices, it still wasn’t able to properly handle a full range of instruments and vocals. Bass and drums sounded fantastic, but they swamped the higher pitches of the guitar and vocals.
Some of this can be fixed by fiddling with the equalization settings on the input device, which can be a Bluetooth-connected phone, MP3 player or tablet. In the end though, it’s back to the same quandary: bad in, bad out.
Strides have been made over the past decade to improve the quality of digital audio files themselves, with increased processing bitrates and different file formats helping somewhat. Samsung’s application of a relatively ancient technology to the problem is an intriguing approach that may also pan out as it develops and matures.
Still, as Neil Young bemoaned, no one has properly cracked the issue of input. Until a better way to digitally capture and store audio is discovered, we’re going to have to live with music that has a little less soul in it.