John Meyer may be making really expensive loudspeakers, but when it comes to high-end audio, the audio engineering pioneer prefers free. FLAC, the open source audio format developed by Grateful Dead fans to trade bootleg recordings, is “the perfect format” for music aficionados looking for higher-resolution audio, Meyer told me during a recent interview. And to him, any company pushing trying to make a buck with selling upsampled music is just out to sell snake oil. “It’s tricking people who don’t know enough about technology,” he said.
Ordinary music fans may never have heard of John Meyer, but chances are, he has helped them to enjoy music at one point or another. Speakers from Berkeley, California-based Meyer Sound, the company he co-founded with his wife in 1979, have powered tours from artists like Bob Dylan, Metallica, Herbie Hancock and Usher. They’re used for Cirque de Soleil shows, have helped address crowds of 800,000, power churches, concert venues, casinos and movie theaters around the world.
In professional audio engineering circles, Meyer is regarded as a pioneer, because he was one of the first to take the idea of linearity — meaning that the audio coming out of the speaker should sound exactly like the input, just more amplified — from studio monitors to concert venues and stadiums.
He also was an early proponent of self-powered speakers, which are basically speakers that already contain the amplifier and all related electronics. Most recently, Meyer has made waves with acoustic systems that can shape the sound of a room through a combination of microphones and loudspeakers, helping churches to adapt to a wide variety of performances and keeping the noise level in high-end restaurants at bay. In other words, he knows a thing or two about audio.
I recently got invited to visit the Meyer Sound production facility in Berkeley, where the company locally produces each and every part of their speakers in a slow process that ensures quality control from start to finish, and chatted a bit with Meyer about how technology has been changing his industry. Overall, Meyer was very optimistic about the impact of new technologies. But when I asked him how this shapes the way consumers get to experience sound, he struck a cautious note. “I’m worried that my generation has gotten too lost in the technology,” he told me.
That’s because Meyer sees a move towards two extremes. One the one side is highly compressed sound, which Meyer called elevator music, only to add: “There is nothing wrong with elevator music. It just shouldn’t be the diet that everyone has.” One the other hand is a trend to ever higher bit rates that resembles the megapixel wars in the digital camera space, with companies trying to push digital music towards a resolution of 192 kHz, often combined with proprietary formats.
Meyer said that it simply “doesn’t make sense” to go higher than 96 kHz / 24 bit, which already is an order of magnitude better than standard CD audio. He also lamented that companies are trying to sell upsampled music — songs that were recorded with lower bitrates and resolutions, but are then altered to offer the appearance of a higher-resolution. “Using 24/96 is not the answer unless it is recorded in 24/96,” Meyer quipped, adding that people are getting wiser about snake oil claims, thanks largely to internet forums. “You can’t win those fights anymore, you can’t bamboozle the public,” he said.
Music companies and high-definition music vendors should instead embrace the open FLAC audio format, he suggested. “It’s well worked out, it’s geeky,” he said, adding that by his estimates, around 250,000 people are already downloading FLAC music files from the internet. He called on people in his industry to educate consumers about the value of something like FLAC. Instead, many would waste their time chasing new technologies. “I’m saying we should stop,” Meyer said.