Technically, digital music sounds just fine.
NoiseAddicts did an online survey in March, contrasting the same file at 128kps and 320kps, and nobody could hear the difference (a few more thought the smaller file sounded better). I've had numerous people, from casual listener to music producer, tell me the same thing: 128kps files played through reasonably accurate speakers sound great. There's wiggle room for codecs, so there are definitely "bad" files out there. But you could also get bad audio cassette recordings, or scratch your LPs (I remember the sound growing fuzzy after repeat plays). I'm told that Apple's AAC produces sound that is all but indistinguishable from CD recordings, even at 128kps.
From a hardware perspective, sound reproduction technology has only improved with time. "Better" quality is ultimately a subjective conclusion, so there are devices that let people play music in a nearly endless variety of configurations and circumstances. Consumers are able to match music to their specific needs, whether it's listening to songs sitting in the warm enveloping embrace of a home theater, or hurling down a mountain on a snowboard. The ecosystem is far from broken.
But then we get to the marketing story.
We consumers have a generic expectation that "more" equates with "better," so we're continually subjected to marketers who want us to upgrade.
Bigger sound files (like Apple's gracious offer to let iTunes subscribers buy all of the songs they already own, only at 256kps). Pricier headphones, such as Dr. Dre's "Monster Beats," that retail close to $300. Branding campaigns that associate equipment makers like HP with celebrity musicians, because famous people can tell us things we can't decide for ourselves. Who cares if the technology behind it just doesn't hold up?
HP and its partners could "fix" the digital music ecosystem by coming clean on the facts, and talking to consumers honestly about authentically reproducing sound...and then giving us the tools to mess it up via customized controls and transceiver technology.
Instead, I expect they'll try to charge more for laptops and accessories with names and logos on them. And that's just another marketing ruse.
Jonathan Salem Baskin writes the Dim Bulb blog and is the author of Branding Only Works On Cattle.