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Quality is something that we all claim to recognise, but which, I venture, none of us could define. I’m not going to write a column trying to define quality – Robert Pirsig did a much better job than I could ever hope to do when he wrote Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig put forward that we all knew that some things were of better quality than others, but that it was almost impossible to define what that better quality was.

In some respects quality can only be described as a feeling. Take a suit of clothes for instance – you could pay £150 for a cheap suit from a high street store, or you could spend five times that amount for a designer suit from the likes of Kenzo or Valentino. On the surface both garments serve exactly the same purpose, so why would anyone possibly be tempted to spend all that extra money? The answer is simple, yet intangible – it’s the feeling you get from wearing a well tailored suit that makes you spend that extra cash. Surrounding yourself with quality, makes you feel good, even if you can’t really define what that quality is.

But for me, the problem isn’t so much the definition of quality, it’s the fact that the majority of people just don’t care about quality at all. With High Definition video just around the corner, we’re on the brink of a whole new era of picture quality in our homes, but I wonder just how many consumers out there really care.

Back in the days of the original video format war, consumers had a choice between VHS and Betamax. Obviously VHS came out on top and became the de facto standard in home video, despite the fact that Betamax was a better format and produced far superior image quality to VHS. In the end, the best quality format lost out.

Another prime example of the consumer’s complete disregard for quality is the mass adoption of MP3 and other music compression codecs. With the ability to store thousands of tracks on a single, pocket size device, it seems that consumers have become as disinterested in sound quality, as they were with image quality at the time of the VHS/Betamax battle. Convenience is most definitely more important than sound quality these days.

Now, don’t get me wrong, digital music players are great, and I use MP3 playback when I’m out and about or in my car. But if I really want to sit down and enjoy some music, I’ll want to listen to a CD on a decent HiFi. I want to be able to experience the entire sound envelope, without the high and low frequencies being lost due to compression – I want to listen to the music the way that the composer and musicians intended it to be listened to.

Unfortunately, with digital music playback becoming part and parcel of just about every consumer device these days, from mobile phones to gaming consoles, the de facto standard for listening to music will soon be low bit rate, compressed digital files. And with users wanting to carry more and more music with them, we’re seeing harsher levels of compression employed in an attempt to increase the number of tracks, despite the consequent drop in sound quality – even one of my own team has re-encoded his already compressed MP3 library in AAC in order to get more songs on his iPod and he should really know better!

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