Friday, 17 February 2006

Sound opinion

All of us remember Luke Skywalker's immortal line from Return of the Jedi, "I am an audiophile, like my father before me". And if you think he was actually saying something else then it's only because you never had the pleasure of listening to Return through a decent hi-fi setup.
But I did, and like Luke's family I am an audiophile, too. After all these years I am not as crazy as I used to be; I no longer buy CDs and laserdiscs/DVDs at the rate of a medium sized country, and I no longer buy them solely for their sound or picture quality. At this day and age I can enjoy good music for what it is, regardless of the way it was recorded or the way it was reproduced. That said, I get so much bigger a kick if the music is properly recorded and properly reproduced, and time and time again I notice just how important these things are.
Which is why I have a lot against the latest trend in music reproduction that requires only one word for its introduction: MP3.
For someone who does not think particularly highly about the CD format, which despite improvements over time still produces a bit of a strident sound which overall does not sound as pleasant as the analog formats it replaced, MP3 is a giant leap backwards. It starts off with CD sound, but with its heavily lossy compression it simply butchers the recording.
Play it through your computer or through your average iPod like device with your very average set of el-cheapo speaker/amp combination or headphones and you will not know why I'm making such a fuss out of it. Play it through a decent setup, though (I'm talking hi-fi), and it has all the sound qualities of a chain saw at full roar. It could be impressive when you play Doom, but it sucks when you try to get into your music.
Alas, I can complain as much as I can, but the fact is that I don't properly listen to music much anymore. I could do it for hours and hours when I was on my own, but with Jo around

darkening the room and listening the music does not sound (pun intended) like the best thing one can do. Fact is, the last time I had a proper listening session was when I got my power amp back from repairs and did my best to challenge it: It demoed yet again the greatness of proper music reproduction, but also emphasized the fact we just don't have the time for it (read: we have higher priorities).
This doesn't mean I don't listen to much music anymore. I still do, and quite a lot. But... the vast majority of my music listening takes place at work now. In that dreaded MP3 format. Using headphones.
Now, I do my best to improve this experience. The Senheiser headphones I keep at the office are by far the best set of affordable cans I ever had the pleasure of listening to (the overall "best" title is quite secure with Stax). There is much to praise as far as listening to music over headphones is concerned: with the sound going directly to your brain, resolution is very high; and with the lack of reflections from your room's barriers marring the original sound you can more easily notice the subtle nuances of the recording.
That said, I think the cons outweigh the pros when it comes to headphones. Low frequency reproduction is not really there (because size does matter there), and good headphone amps simply do not exist anymore (they definitely don't exist in your average iPod, regardless of what iPod enthusiasts will tell you). But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Fact is, no music playing band ever plays less than a centimeter from your ear and directly into it. And when recording are mixed at the studio, they are never mixed for headphone reproduction - they have proper speakers and amps, and the better mixers have some very tidy setups sporting Krells and their likes.
And last, but not least, headphones ruin your hearing much quicker than anything else. Terminator 2 at blockbusting sound levels has had the better of my hearing about 10 years ago, but headphones will do it much quicker and much more effectively. Personally I'm at a point where my ears ache after a couple of hours of headphone listening, and by now that is exclusively limited to low volumes only.
With all my anti MP3 sentiments, I do admit there is more then a slight merit to the iPod revolution. Not that I approve in any way of what Apple's marketing department has done to the world, but because I do find the idea of having a vast collection of music stored in a tiny mobile device. This is very practical for all non critical music listening experiences, which as I mentioned already are the majority of music listening experiences, and also quite handy as far as backing up and sorting one's collection goes.
Which sort of brings me to the climax of this blog entry: Why is it, then, that MP3 player manufacturers fail to give us devices that would truly achieve that? Why is an iPod limited to one particular software and certain particular formats, and why things like using it on more than one computer (the way one would use a backup) cause incidents of the diplomatic level? And what's with the no FM on iPods?
The answer, of course, is because these companies want to make more money; they couldn't give a shit about our music listening needs, especially with the way they manage to sell us their gizmos at their incredibly inflated prices.
As far as I can tell, iAudio seems to be the only one that makes decent MP3 players, although at this stage they only have 30gb models (and I would prefer the 60gb offered by Apple). They still sport a stratospheric price tag which means I won't buy them anyway on principle.
And where does that leave me? It leaves me listening to a bit of music and podcasts on the train, through my PDA (aided with a 1gb SD card) and using cheap headphones that I can walk around with. But as I said before, Jo will be in charge of morning entertainment; and there's nothing wrong with some people watching anyway.
People managed pretty well before; it's just the companies trying to score on the fact they managed to convince us we need to be continuously stimulated to enjoy our lives.
Well, f*ck off. Good old fashioned stimulation work much better for me.

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