I suggest that a practical test of a book's quality is how late it keeps you up, reading just one more page and then just another. "Perfecting Sound Forever" kept me up almost all night, and I resumed reading it as soon as I could the next day. It's that great.
Actually, it's at least four books in one. It begins as a concise history of the technology of sound reproduction. I've read many books on technological and industrial history -- some good, some worthless -- and this is one of the best for detailed information on Thomas Edison's only invention, the phonograph, as well as subsequent developments in sound reproduction. This early chapter is fascinating, because as awful as Edison's primitive machines sound to us today, they fooled audiences into thinking that the music was coming from a live soprano instead of from the big horn atop a wax cylinder that was actually making the noise.
As opposed to sound reproduction, the book also provides a brief history of music synthesis, at least where it relates to sound reproduction (i.e., sampling). This part is not as thorough as it picks up the story long after such pioneers as Raymond Scott and Robert Moog did their original work creating new analog sounds, but it also relates synthesizers to the curious and overlooked fact that, at least in pop music, people have come to prefer artificial sounds to authentic reproduction. For examples, how popular would the late Les Paul or the late Pink Floyd have been if their records had only presented accurate reproductions of them performing live?
"Perfecting Sound Forever" veers off on a tangent when it devotes a chapter to a biography of folk singer Lead Belly and the men who first recorded him, but this story is so well told that we don't mind the departure from the main topic. The following chapter resumes focus on recording technology, and it's the best history of tape recording I've read, because it's the most complete. Milner is a superb researcher, and this is even more evident in his account of the development of the now-ubiquitous ProTools recording and editing software.
The main part of the book will be of scant interest to older readers as well as those who only listen to classical music and jazz, as it discusses exactly why it is that today's pop (I mistakenly typed "poop" and had to delete an o) records sound so execrable, and unless you are as devoted to contemporary rock music as Milner apparently is, you may wonder, as I did, So what? He provides numerous examples of recordings which he denounces as being artificially made too loud by the use of compression and limiting. Not being familiar with many of the tunes which he names as examples of egregiously boosted sound, I listened to the snippets available at this site, and they didn't sound all that different from other modern rock. He blames the broadcasters for wanting records which blast out of the radio, so as to hold the listener's attention, but hasn't the goal of rock music always been to be as loud and obnoxious as possible? That's what adolescents, at all times and everywhere, enjoy -- annoying the elders with noise. That's why glass-packed mufflers were invented. None of the tracks which upset Milner sound any more dysphonious (I just made that word up) than what Jello Biafra (formerly of the Dead Kennedys) described as "The wall of abrasive noise" common to the punk era, or the Kick Out the Jams live album made by the MC5 in 1968. (Which was made on a two-track portable Ampex recorder with only two microphones. I was there.) Yes, all this music lacks dynamic variation, but that's hardly the only traditional musical value that's fallen by the wayside (i.e., in the ditch) over the years. Why no complaints about the lack of clever harmonic progressions or key changes (modulation) or melody or musicianship in general?
The thing I object to most about the book, though, is that Milner (who, in a late chapter, recounts how he had difficulty distinguishing the sound of uncompressed sound files from that of various compression methods such as AAC or MP3) continually maintains, as if it were fact, the superiority of old analog recordings over the sound of modern digital recordings, which to me is comparable to the hicks who would shout "Get a horse!" at early motorists.
When I worked in a record shop, I frequently (to my dismay) encountered this opinion, and yes, analog recordings do sound "warmer" just as vacuum-tube amplification does sound "warmer." But just what, exactly, does "warmer" mean? It means you have lost the top 6,000 Hz of your your frequency response, and anything shrill and sibilant is no longer there to annoy you. You want "warmer"? Turn the treble control all the way down.
Obviously, Milner is right when he points out how digital recording can be abused by excessive compression, and obviously some hideous-sounding and defective CDs have been released, but at least for those of us who listen to serious music, the comparison is absurd. I suppose that with the exotic playback equipment described in the book (a $90,000 turntable) LPs might sound a bit better, and I suppose that IF, of course, the surface noise, the ticks and pops, could somehow be removed from the LP, and IF the rumble inherent in a stylus dragging over any surface could be removed, and IF one could restore the lost frequencies of an LP (nothing below 40 Hz, scant above 16kHz and less with each playing as the microscopic bumps in the vinyl get flattened), and IF there were no tape hiss from the masters, and IF the LP is not an RCA Dynawarp® release, and IF the LP weren't based on the standard RIAA equalization curve, then yes, LPs would sound better than CDs. But that's like saying that IF your aunt had a dick she'd be your uncle.
Furthermore, if analog is so superior to digital, where were all the complaints when the nation recently switched to digital television broadcasting. If there were any who opined that the digital picture was inferior to the old analogue picture, I missed hearing them. Yet, somehow, with sound, we have all these golden-eared experts who claim to hear some delitescent beauty in the old LPs. Only, they (especially among the classical phonies) express what they hear only in metaphoric terms such as "warmer" or "richer" or "more compelling" or in Milner's words, "more intimately connected," "made the room shimmer," "more ideal."
Still worse, and the nadir of the book, is Milner visiting some qwack holistic psycho-babble healer who claims that digitally-reproduced music interferes with the body's accupressure points, and this is driving us all Stark! Raving! Mad! The healer then does the old Amazing Kreskin power-of-suggestion routine on Milner, in which Milner's raised arms helplessly fall at the very sound of the insidious digital demon-music.
Well, all this, in addition to his preference for puerile indie rock, does not recommend Milner's judgment to the reader, and it sorta negates all his opinions, of which there are too many in the book, but still, the research is superb, and whatever his other shortcomings, the guy sure can write.