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Thousands of songs in your pocket: An audiophile's nightmare?

Will consumers who demand portable music always have to compromise on sound quality?

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Two trends say a lot about music today:

• Online music aggregators keep rising, pushing a blizzard of compressed, mostly MP3-format, digital tunes bought individually and crammed into hand-held players.

• Live-concert revenues keep soaring – thanks to mesospheric ticket prices, to be sure, but thanks also to long queues outside stadiums and more intimate venues.

What they appear to mean, taken together: Listeners demand portability and a la carte song purchases. But at least some also want "fidelity," to experience a sound that's true to the full aural expression the artist poured out at the moment of a work's creation. Technology, artist advocacy, and buyer behavior will determine the degree to which listeners can have both, experts say.

The main issue: size. New technology can deliver ever smaller, more storable music files – but the process carries a cost in terms of sound quality. Most of what all those earbuds-wearers are hearing, say experts, is bass-heavy noise.

"With the growth of portable audio, people have been rushing to build their libraries; it's been more quantity over quality," says Jennifer Boone, who tracks audio developments for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.

A CEA survey earlier this year indicated that clarity and richness of sound were important to most audio-equipment buyers. It also betrayed some befuddlement.

"[Our] research shows that 56 percent of consumers have never even heard what they would consider to be a 'great audio experience,' " says Ms. Boone, "so they don't know how to evaluate [audio]."

Last month the CEA launched a campaign (www.greataudio.com) to educate buyers about available formats and devices, enlisting the help of the band 3 Doors Down to help reach an audience younger than the typical audiophile.

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