Rocker Neil Young’s latest harangues against MP3s and his revelations about working with the late Steve Jobs on higher-fidelity digital audio have brought into sharp focus how people these days are willing to settle for truly crappy ways of listening to music.

I love the dozens of MP3s loaded on my phone that I listen to when I’m out for a walk or I’m stuck in an airport lounge waiting for a flight. But when I REALLY want to listen to music, I always turn to my collection of CDs and LPs.

Music was always a big part of our lives in my hometown of Shillong in northeast India and many friends played in bands. I had my first music system – a National Panasonic boombox – soon after leaving school. Within months, I grew tired of its thin, tinny sound and graduated to an Indian-made amplifier with a built-in cassette deck and three-way speakers.

The whole rig cost me the then grand sum of Rs 4,000 (a little more $300 at the exchange rate for those days). I sold the amplifier for a profit after using it for nearly a decade and I still have the speakers because they sound great.

Since then I’ve had about half a dozen CD players, various amplifiers (including a NAD, an Akai, a Denon and a Philips), two A/V receivers and different speakers (including a Yamaha sub/satellite surround set-up and vintage Celestion and Wharfedale speakers).

The point I’m trying to make? One could put together a pretty decent music system with separate components till about the early 1990s without wiping out the bank balance, but since then separates have virtually become unaffordable for young kids.

Want to know what I’m talking about? Go to the website of popular audio publications like Stereophile, Home Theater and Sound & Vision, and check the prices of components they regularly review. Almost nothing costs less than $1,000 and there are audio cables (yup cables, not even components) that cost hundreds of dollar. In this era of a global economic recession, who buys such stuff?

And when kids can’t afford such expensive stuff, they make do with what they can get. Which, in most cases, is an iPod or some other crappy portable music player hooked up to tiny speakers and a bunch of MP3s either downloaded off the internet or ripped from CDs with bit rates as low as 128 kbps. No one’s told them that MP3s with bit rates of 320 kbps sound better. When those same kids hear the same music on a system with separate components, they usually realise what they’re missing.

It’s actually pretty illuminating to go through what Neil Young says (here and here) about the latest trends in digital audio. “What everybody gets (on an MP3) is 5 percent of what we originally make in the studio…We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving it,” he said.

Young claims a CD offers only 15 percent of the information contained in master recordings and what he and Jobs had discussed was developing a new device for high-resolution audio. Not entirely impossible if one considers gear like the Hifiman HM-801.

But there’s still hope for cheaper but good audio. I currently listen to music mostly on a system that comprises a Playstation 1 as a CD player (if you haven’t heard of the merits of the PS1 as a CD-spinner, head here and here), a decent turntable scrounged from a flea market for about five dollars, a Realistic SA-150 amplifier and vintage Wharfedale Denton 2 speakers. The set-up sounds terrific, and all the gear cost me a little more than $40.

There are guys like Steve Guttenberg, who regularly reviews and writes about good gear that doesn’t cost a fortune at his The Audiophiliac blog. And then there’s a whole world of pretty exciting Chinese-made amplifiers and DACs that have opened up the world of better sound to lots of people. So maybe there’s hope after all.

And for all you folks making gear that’s sold for thousands of dollars? All due respect and I know you have to feed your families, but I can tell you about a place where you can stuff it.