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I was reminded by an article in an old copy of the FT’s HTSI (How To Spend It) magazine about the diversity of what listening pleasure means to different people.
For many of us, the personal equivalent of muzak masks distracting sounds in the neighbourhood or the odd sounds emanating from the heating pipes. It is a listening pleasure of sorts, masking things that might otherwise side track or agitate us while we carry on our own lives. Prior to COVID this meant an office or coffee shop full of workers with Bose noise cancelling headsets on, now its more likely to be Apple AirPods firmly implanted, although they struggle to hold up to the demands of a days worth of Microsoft Teams calls.
In the home it can be: your smartphone, your computer, BlueTooth speaker, the radio, an old boombox or the TV set. I have a ritual in hotel rooms where after dropping my bags, the 24 hour TV news channel goes on low volume, ideally CNN. If I can’t get that, then I connect up my laptop and stream Bloomberg Live or podcasts.
If you derive listening pleasure by focusing more on what you are listening to then a higher quality system makes sense. Digital and analogue media can both provide a high quality audio experience. There are some fantastic vintage systems out there, it’s worthwhile educating yourself on products and setting up those eBay searches. Some streaming services now claim better than CD quality audio too, but more on that later.
Good quality speakers can be inexpensive, though brands and models which were bargains just five years ago are now expensive as purchasers have educated themselves. A good deal of the listening pleasure from these kind of systems is the hunt and building the system as much as what you have playing through it.
Space is the place
Good quality audio performance is dependent on the source, the hi-fi, the speakers and the room that the hi-fi is set up in. A room can enormously impact speaker performance. When I used to DJ, I found this out to my cost. Perfectly parallel walls create reverb meaning you can have multiple versions of a recording coming back to you. Furniture and people are great at absorbing bass.
Despite what you might see in hi-fi shows held in hotels, few of us have a room that would do a pair of B&W Nautilus justice, nor do we need a top of the range Mark Levinson amplifier.
Instead it makes sense to look at good quality headphones, I use AKG K872 headphones. But this also means that you can get supporting hardware by the likes of Schiit Audio for a much more reasonable price.
What sounds good is subjective and different equipment lends itself to different use cases. Do you want to listen to music, films or games? What genres will you be listening too?
If you like fuzzbox-driven rock music, you probably wouldn’t like my audio system. My tastes vary from Vladimir Cosma and Manuel Göttsching to The Reflex, Jeff Mills and even a bit of Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash. I spent a good deal of my youth in friends bedroom recording studios and DJing in night clubs. All of which affected what sounds good to me. My own listening pleasure leans to a more analytical, transparent sound.
Finally, there is the fidelity of recordings themselves, in the late 1990s and 2000s we saw what some musicians would call the ‘Loudness’ wars. Recordings were overly compressed by mastering engineers and we now have a generation of engineers who think that this is how things are done and genuinely believe that they are addressing the listening pleasure of the general public. Veteran audio engineers and hi-fi enthusiasts have noticed a 10+dB difference in recording sound levels. In reality each dB a doubling in volume as you hear it, so 10dB is a 1,204 times louder. Why did the over-compression happen? There are a number of hypotheses:
- Digital signal processors and digital audio workstation software made it easier to tweak everything and so people did.
- Older recordings get digitally remastered with an expectation that these recordings will be played on BlueTooth speakers and smartphones.
- I have heard the remastering is also for car stereos as well, but the reality is that many car stereos have been better than the average persons home audio system for decades – because they are designed for the vehicle cabin.
- The decline of consumers actively listening to music, using it as aural wallpaper, so looking for a constant volume.
- The rise of nascent streaming services like Real Networks and Yahoo! Music.
How do you know what is the best level of compression? This is a matter of personal taste. It depends on the genres of the music you like, does it have highs and lows? Are there quiet segments or pauses before a breakdown? Does it makes use of stereo spacing to move its sweeping sound around you?
Audio spacing is important not only for listening to music but gaming and the home cinema experience.
The problem with modern streaming services that look to provide ‘better than CD quality audio’ is as much on the original source as it is about the quality of streaming. Apple has tried to address this with its ‘Mastered for iTunes’ tools optimising for its platform, but that doesn’t have universal adoption in terms of remastering.
The reality might be closer to what I saw at Yahoo! Music in the mid-2000s where ‘mastering’ for the service meant ripping retail compact disc using a HP desktop PC and uploading the song to the servers. Nothing particularly special was involved in the process.
The Vintage Knob – some of the best content on vintage quality Japanese hi-fi