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Apple is Fisher-Price of sound quality, says Neil Young

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Over five decades Neil Young has played a variety of roles including sixties protester, folk singer, Ronald Reagan supporter, grunge rocker and film maker. Now he's donning a new hat: Apple basher.

Young says Apple, with its ubiquitous iPod and iTunes, has dumbed down sound quality to "Fisher-Price toy" levels that place convenience ahead of high fidelity.

"We have beautiful computers now but high-resolution music is one of the missing elements," he told attendees of the Brainstorm Tech conference. "The ears are the windows to the soul."

Fortune's article reporting Young's comments didn't detail exactly what his criticisms were, but we're guessing they boil down to the widespread use of dynamic range compression, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a song. Producers use it to get listeners' attention by making songs sound louder. In addition, many digital formats, including MP3 and Apple's AAC, strip out much of the signal from the original CD file, leaving the songs sounding tinny.

Both of these practices are hardly limited to Apple, but it was Apple Young singled out, saying the company has brought down audio standards.

Maybe. But judging sound quality, at least when lossless formats and high bitrates are used, is a little like tasting wine. Is that a smooth oak aftertaste or a hint of pepper? Who the hell knows. Most audiologists say the only real way you can tell there's a difference between one format and another is by giving the listener a double-blind test, where neither the subject nor the administrator knows which is which.

Young has long resisted new-fangled digital music technologies, but recently he's turned to Blu-Ray for an ambitious project archiving his entire career. He hopes the medium will become the de facto standard because of its (supposedly) superior sound quality.

Porting those files to an iPod may pose a wee bit of a problem, though. For the foreseeable future, Blu-Ray's massive storage capacity will dwarf the iPod's modest means, meaning the device will have to sit on the sidelines of Young's proposed revolution. ®

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