The sound of music

I'm old enough to have grown up listening to AM radio. As a kid I listened to Top 40 music (and short wave broadcasts) on an old tube radio that sat on my desk. Later, I got a really nice transistor radio that actually had an FM band. But even with FM sound quality, we're still talking tiny transistor radio speaker. The fidelity of my parents' stereo in the den was better, but even that was far from audiophile quality.

I grew up appreciating music more than sound quality.

Later, when I was at university, I had roommates and friends who owned nicer stereo systems. I also worked at a stereo store, absorbing the prejudices of audiophile salespeople. The self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, the first with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was so well recorded that we used it for speaker demos. John McFee's bass! Mick Fleetwood's drums! The crispness of the cymbals and fullness of the voices! (Fleetwood Mac were early users of the aural exciter.) We had a jazz record that had been recorded directly to disc, played back on some of the finest equipment then available. Vibration-damping wooden tonearms! Multiradial styli! Speakers with nearly flat response from 20 to 20,000 Hz!

I definitely got spoiled working there. And fortunately I was able to buy some pretty decent equipment at employee rates, below cost. Even then I couldn't afford the high-end stuff, but my system was pretty good for the price. I kept it long enough for it to become an antique. The was always the first thing you set up when you moved into a new place. It provided the soundtrack for the move.

Sadly, I no longer have that system. It was not really that good by modern standards, and I thought I was going to get some newer, better equipment. I have yet to do that.

Instead, what do I do? Listen to MP3s on my computer while I work. Listen to what I have stored on my phone via Bluetooth in my car or through earbuds when I'm on a plane and occasionally while riding transit (although there I'm more likely to read a book). Occasionally pop a CD into the car player. But nothing like the old days of indulging in substances while the Skull and Roses album was blasting through speakers, or lying on the floor with awesome headphones on while "Revolution 9" made your head explode.

So I'm basically almost back to AM radio. Okay, not nearly that bad, despite Neil Young's fulminations. MP3s provide reasonable fidelity. But they do provide much less audio information than a CD or vinyl record can convey. The sound truly is degraded. But how much does that matter? Even though I still appreciate good sound quality, not much. I'm mostly concerned with hearing a variety of music, new music, old music, rock, blues, jazz, whatever. The music. Not so much the sound quality.

This was true even when I had a good stereo. I still listened to music on cassette. I still had my Sony Walkman in my bag. I still heard songs on my none-too-fancy FM car radio.

Have you ever listened to field recordings, the kind that Alan and John Lomax made in the early part of the 20th century? They were lugging around the best reel-to-reel recorder they had, using the best microphones they could, but you're still hearing very degraded sound, full of hiss and scratches. And if that's too distracting, then it is. I have known people who could not have got past the poor sound. But if you can focus instead on the music itself, as degraded as the sound quality is, you hear real people playing real songs and singing with voices that shoot electricity up your spine. High fidelity is great, and it's best to be able to reproduce a performance as faithfully as possible. But in the end, it's the music that matters most. At least to me.

I still want to get a new stereo setup. For one thing, I want to listen to some records that I haven't heard in years or even decades. And I wouldn't mind getting back into collecting classical and jazz recordings and playing them on some good equipment. But no doubt I will continue to buy music in MP3 format, or whatever improvement comes along next. I won't give a shit about Young's Pono system. I won't use up tons of hard drive space with FLAC files.

I can hear the difference between my band's recordings in lossless WAV format (as originally recorded) and in compressed, degraded MP3 format, even on my inexpensive Sennheiser computer headset. I will always want to put the best sound on CD or, with enough money, vinyl. But I will always be more concerned with the music itself than with sound reproduction. Anyone who grew up with inferior sound quality is pretty skilled at filling in what they can't hear.

No comments: