I am the happy owner of an iPod shuffle, which has improved my cycling commute experience greatly, except for one small element. Before the iPod I used a radio to listen to MPR, which is mostly talk. A few times per hour, however, they would play a snippet of music as a transition between stories, or to make some point. This used to drive me nuts, because I was listening to quality radio.
Why does the quality matter, you ask? Commercial stations, desperate to sell ears to advertisers, modify the sound they are sending out so that it seems to be louder than your average station (though of course they’re all doing this, which gives us the vary Minnesotan situation where everyone is above average). The idea is that as you bounce around the dial the loud signal wil capture your attention. A similar thing is done directly to many CDs, compounding the effect. None of this is good for the sound quality, but as CDs and radio are both mostly about sales, not quality, that’s not a problem.
MPR, on the other hand, is from a technical point of view at least, a quality station. That means that the sound isn’t pumped up to grab your attention. A fine thing, as one of the results of this care is a greater dynamic range; quiet bits are quiet, and bits that are supposed to be loud are loud. All of which is great, except when you’re listening in a compromised environment such as your car, or even more so on a portable device in the street. To overcome ambient noise you have to turn the volume up, particularly so when you are listening to speech, and even more so when you need to catch the soft parts of an individual’s speech. Not a problem in itself, but then A DELIBERATELY LOUD MUSICAL ‘STING’ COMES ON AND SUDDENLY YOUR EARS START TO BLEED. See, wasn’t very nice was it? Now imagine actually being able to hear that.
Where am I going with all this blather? Well, up to now this was an intermittent problem when listening to the radio. But with my iPod, and my propensity to listen to a mix of music (loud) and spoken-word podcasts (quiet) I get to be deafened on EVERY OTHER TRACK. See, it doesn’t get any better does it?
There are solutions to this. One is to use Replaygain in the podcast and players. Another is simply to pump up the relative volume of the podcast, to make it more consistent with the average music track (compared to the audio compression podcasts use the quality loss is negligible.) This would seem particularly sensible given that many users will be listening on portable devices such as, erm, iPods, and are therefore most vulnerable to SUDDEN CHANGES IN VOLUME.