Sunday, October 18, 2015

Devolution of Hi-Fi and Evolution of Mountain Bikes

In what now seems like a prior life, I was an audio enthusiast. I was obsessed with following the latest loudspeaker advances, amplifier linearity enhancement tricks, speaker enclosure design and more. I had a 12-speaker system in my Mustang GT that could have potentially won awards, although I was not interested in competition. The system was 100% designed and built by me, none of this marketing hype BS stuff you could buy at a "high-end" car stereo shop.

My 2000 Watt power supply, designed and built around 1995. Power cables on right to battery are finger diameter. Frightful to look at, but flawlessly powered the best audio system I've ever heard in a car.

I never had a high-end turntable stereo system for the house. When I became old enough with enough money to buy such a system, CD's had already replaced LP vinyl records. I had older friends though, that had very nice turntable systems. The best reproduction of Pink Floyd's song Time from the Dark Side of the Moon album I ever heard was on vinyl.

When compact disks came out in 1982, they were touted as being superior to LP vinyl in every way. Curmudgeony audiophiles weren't buying it. I have to admit though, you could not play LP's in your car, so CD's were a huge improvement over cassette and 8-track tapes. CD's could also hold twice as much music as an LP, and you didn't have to flip them over half way though. Consumers immediately fell in love with the new format, even though some critics claimed the digitization and reconstruction process removed some soul from the music.

Another 12 or so years later, the MP3 format was introduced. Now not only was the music digitized, it was also compressed so you could fit lots of it into limited memory storage. This resulted in a huge step backwards in music quality by virtually anybody's standard. Consumers didn't care again. All that mattered was "I can put my whole CD collection into this tiny player?" Sold! To make this situation worse, most new music is now sold digitally in this compressed format. You can't even buy recordings of quality that was available more than 50 years ago! Devolution of high fidelity audio reproduction was complete.

I find all lossy compression techniques very abrasive to my ears. Even the high bit-rate MP3 formats sound awful. When I bought my last car in 2011, I paid for upgraded radio that would receive digital FM, as it was touted CD-quality. When I first tuned into a HD station, I thought something must be wrong with my receiver. You gotta be shitting me. Really? I was duped. It was worse than MP3.  Lossy compression puts many artifacts into the reproduced sound that are not harmonically related to the original content. Old school distortion is one thing, but compression artifacts destroyed the listening experience for me. I rarely listen to music any more. Never at work, on the bike, hike or skis. Music was ruined.

The sad thing is, there is no longer a need to compress music with lossy techniques. Hard drives measure in terabytes, MP3 players in hundreds of gigabytes. That can hold more uncompressed CDs than most people will ever own. Yet the crappy norm persists. We transitioned from 40 minutes of purist analog music on a 12" platter to thousands of hours of crap in a memory card the size of your thumbnail. Progress.

So you may be asking, "Hill Junkie, what in the heck has this got to do with mountain bikes?" Stay with me here.

I picked up mountain biking in 1996, roughly the pinnacle of competition in the sport. Mountain bikes had become a distinct thing from road cycling. Components were becoming more refined. Most bikes sold up until then were hardtails, and nearly everybody raced on hardtails. After all, the monkey motion in back added weight, and weight was evil, right? Pro's even pooh-poohed suspension forks when they first appeared.

It seems weight savings were driving a lot of the "innovation" in mountain biking's big growth years. Alloy supplanted steel, titanium was the dreamy material, and carbon fiber was just starting to make wrinkles in how things were shaking out. Parts kept getting lighter, wearing out sooner and costing more. Is this what we wanted? The marketing folks sure led us to believe that.

Then something happened. Not sure just what, but probably a combination of many things. Racing stopped being a big thing with big sponsor dollars disappearing. Lance Armstrong caught the fancy of many mountain bikers and made road converts out of them. The mountain bikers that remained loyal to the sport continued to ride for fun. The emphasis shifted from how silly light and efficient can you make my bike to how well can you make it perform in the terrain I like to ride?

This started a revolution in suspension design. Many new frame linkages appeared, forks became beefier with more travel and damping that really worked. Gone were the flimsy SID forks that instilled confidence only on buttery smooth trails. In were larger stanchion tubes and five or more inches of travel. Now riders had confidence to ride terrain that was previously inaccessible to them. Riding became a whole lot more fun!

High-end mountain bikes grew in weight during this period. Going back to earlier marketing hype, on the surface, this seemed that things were going in the wrong direction. Those consumers, they don't know what's good for them! Heavy bikes, bad!

The fact is, we were duped into believing that the weight of a bike mattered much. Turns out, that for how most people ride, weight is really not that important. How the bike handles and responds to terrain matters so much more.

A case in point. I've long believed that a lightweight hardtail was the best bike for the Vermont 50 mile MTB race, a race with over 8000 feet of climbing in it. Then two years ago, I decided to put fun before results and took my long travel 29er full suspension MTB to the race. It weighed much more than my carbon fiber hardtail. But to my surprise, I posted my fastest time ever on that course. And this year, I brought the same bike back and posted my second fastest time. At 53, I'm not exactly getting faster any more.  So what gives? Suspension lets you flow so much more smoothly on rough terrain and on descents that it more than makes up for weight penalty on climbs. You can stay relaxed and get much more enjoyment out of the experience.

My Tallboy when it was new in April 2013. Over 6000 miles on it now, pivot bearings, shock and fork all still going strong.

So by abandoning a metric, weight, that held high value at one time, the quality of the riding experience improved. It moved in the opposite direction to what a metric would suggest. To be sure, weight still matters to some riders and can make a difference in certain competitive events, but to the masses that drive sales these days, "what does it weigh" is not one of the first questions asked about a new bike.

What happened in the MTB world is exactly the opposite to what happened in the audio world. Here, the metric of how many songs can I put on it mattered more than the quality of the listening experience. I'm really confounded by this, as when I used to enjoy listening to music, I wanted to experience the depth of everything the artists were trying to share. I didn't want a compressed, digitized approximation of it. I'm glad the MTB world got over the "how many grams does it weigh" period and shifted focus to the riding experience. I think it's time the world of recorded music do the same.