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January 6, 2009

Earphones vs. speakers; low end vs. high end

This probably won't be of much interest to anyone who's not a music critic who listens to recorded music at home, but... (Note to prospective arts journalists: How's THAT for an inviting lead?!)

A few weeks ago Bob Christgau posted an entry on this blog about a Joe Levy article about earphones as the preferred listening mode of Today's Youth. Bob offered some anecdotal statistical counter-evidence drawn from a poll of his students, but the trend seems readily apparent, no matter how pervasive.

Bob's main interest seemed to lie in the loss of sociability, of communality, that solipsistic earphone listening entails. My interest is more with sound quality, and how in our culture the bad seems to drive out the good. Which in turn could lead to gloomy meditations on the inherent drive toward mediocrity that democracy implies.

When I was young, I always tried to have the best sound system I could afford -- which meant pretty good, if not multi-hundred-thousand-dollar madness. (For that, I could penetrate to the innermost sanctums of Lyric Hi-Fi on Lexington Avenue and hear the latest toys with which Mike Kay beguiled the super-rich.)

My all-time best system consisted of a couple of gigantic Magnaplanar electrostatic speakers and a subwoofer. Great string sound, crisp attacks, and when organ pedal pipes or the drums from the Police album Synchronicity kicked in, the loft shook. Unfortunately my cat at the time decided that the Magnaplanars made excellent climbing walls, and shredded them. Now I have a new loft with a smaller, narrower office (before the sound could bloom in the living room, which was half the entire loft) and smaller speakers (with surround-sound smaller satellites) to match. Still sounds pretty good.

When we lived in Paris for three years in the early 90's and I still regularly reviewed CD's for the NY Times, I used a Walkman and very good earphones. The music sounded OK, but it just wasn't the same. So when I watch young folk (like my 20-year-old daughter) seem perfectly content with mediocre earphones and compressed MP3 sound, I feel saddened.

In a mass capitalist democracy, sales rule. So does corporate muscle. Most everyone agreed that Beta was the superior videotape system, but VHS won out. SACD's and Super Audio DVD's sound way better than regular CD's, but not enough people buy them to sustain the market. Now we have Blu-Ray, but the Times today suggests that Internet downloads (of whatever quality: what's more imporant, good sound and resolution or more songs/movies on your iPod?) may soon consign them to irrelevance.

I'm all for the spread of musical pleasure to more and more people at modest prices. I readily concede that profound musical enjoyment can be derived from a little radio perched atop a toilet. But great sound allied with great music (no matter the genre) provides great pleasure. You can still find niche hardware (insanely expensive LP turntables and speakers and CD/SACD players). But the software, meaning the music, is not so plentiful, and hence to hear most things, you have to settle for inferior sound. 'Tis a pity.  

January 6, 2009 1:14 PM | | Comments (3)


Just found an interesting panel discussion moderated by recording engineer Greg Calbi. It's sort of a marathon, but not terribly exhausting. Click on "Watch Video."

How about a theory? Even though modern life seems saturated with music, from personal stereos to in-store sound systems to the incidental music behind movies, TV shows and commercials, the average person's exposure to live music is probably at its lowest point in a century -- even lower if you count only unamplified live music. As a result, most people really don't have much of a reference point when considering sonic fidelity, because they aren't familiar enough with the original sounds to care about extremely faithful reproduction. (And the fact that much "listening" is essentially backgrounding doesn't help, either.)

By contrast, the visual world we inhabit remains as it always has, so there's an ongoing and universal point of reference for visual reproduction. Then there's the fact that people are more likely to be familiar with the visual experience of a movie screen (particularly in comparison to, say, the sound of a live string orchestra), and can easily appreciate when a TV picture moves more in that direction. Hence, HD seems well worth the average consumer's dollars, whereas SACD seems just another easily-ignored gearhead gizmo.

Glad you posted this. It’s of tremendous interest to the folks I talk to, the majority of whom are late 30’s.

Doug Wolk wrote a paper called “Collecting Pop: How Your Favorite Song Got Squished”, collected in Eric Weisbard’s This is Pop’ (2004) in which he discussed ‘the loudness wars’: “clients just want their disc to be the one that leaps out on the CD jukebox….They won’t pronounce a CD ready for manufacturing if it’s as quiet as a typical CD of the early 90’s and that means an engineer has to compress it to within an inch of its life.” Greg Calbi makes the same point, along with many others, as does his panel, in tru blu’s terrific link. I’d think something similar applies to mixing for MP3’s.

I think J.D. has a point. But in many cases something like the above is going on at concerts, too, at least the pop ones I attend. For starters, they’re so loud you can’t feel anything except a kind of buzz, or the base is mixed way up so it’s all that sticks with you. “The beats were slammin’”. Even for the kind of music you think was not intended to sound that way. Even with plugs Calbi has to walk out. Me too. So I wish I thought going to concerts would help as much as he says. But he oughtta know. And I’ll buy that ‘fast food’ music is too ubiquitous. In one of Robert Christgau’s recent posts he quotes Little Richard: “He got what we wanted but we lost what He had.” So did we. Still the panel in the link tru blu provided offered some hope. Down the road. Which is: if people like Rockwell and Considine keep howling, they will find increasing ways to make the new medium sound better.

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