High Fidelity, Today's Music, and Today's Listening Habits
The other day, I saw an ad on TV for one of those ubiquitous tablet computers (sometimes called iPads, but that's an Apple trademark for a particular brand). Anyway, this thing boasted dual-speaker, Dolby stereo sound ("Dolby" in this case refers to an "advanced audio" system.) So I'm thinking, this thing is smaller than your average magazine and it has (I'm assuming since it's "stereo") two speakers. Hmmm, those suckers must be at least an inch across! Wow! That's really big! I'll be able to raise the roof with this thing!
All right, I'm being a bit facetious here, perhaps even a bit sarcastic. Guilty as charged! Music plays a big part in my life - I've been an audiophile since I was in the Army (MANY years ago) when I purchased my first "high fidelity" system (commonly referred to as "hi-fi.") Right now, I could not afford to purchase my current system in toto if I had to replace it (indeed, some of the components are no longer manufactured). The system is the result of purchasing/trading/swapping different components over many years. I must say, in all candor, while the hi-fi "purists" may not deem my system "state of the art," I think it sounds damn good! (By the way, if the reader is wondering what a "state of the art" system costs, it's one of those "if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it" questions. There are hi-fi components selling literally for tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Just go on the internet and search on "high end audio" sometime and see what comes up.)
This brings me back to the quality of sound on the "systems" commonly used today to listen to music. With four step-children, I am around young people quite a lot and I see (and hear) how they listen to music. For the most part, it's digitally compressed pop music playing over the speaker(s) in a "smart phone," or on an MP3 player with earphones, or on a laptop computer, while they do something else. One of my stepsons recently told me he really never sits down and just "listens" to music. I, on the other hand, will sit in front of my system (sometimes with a cigar and a brandy - great way to do it!) and just listen to the music. On occasion, I'll turn off the lights and sit there in the dark, totally immersed in a symphony, or whatever I'm listening to.
Okay, so most young people listen to their music on digital gizmos, so what? Well, I am concerned about two items: first, it seems a shame to me that they don't actually listen to music (this may say something about the "music" they listen to - more on that later) - music has become a soundtrack for other activities. Second, have any of you been in a "hi-fi" store lately? Let me rephrase that: have you been in a store that USED to sell hi-fi lately? Walk around, say, Best Buy, and look for the stereo components isle. Can't find it? That's because it's gone! What you find are little component "stereo" with an iPod dock or home theatre components. That's about it. Oh, there will be a few "boomboxes" there (one piece systems made of plastic that look like something out of science fiction) but they will have their iPod dock as well and, believe me, they are hardly "hi-fi." So the would-be purchaser of hi-fi components has to search for a hi-fi store (few and far between) or go on the internet. (The hi-fi stores that still exist, by the way, generally fall into two categories - home theatre and high end. The latter will usually sell home theatre components as well as the megabuck hi-fi components. A great place, by the way, to really hear what high fidelity reproduction is all about.)
Now for a few words about music. A few young people I know probably consider me to be an old fuddy-duddy, set in his ways, not open to anything new and different, etc. Well, that is not exactly true - I am open to anything new as long as it is good. (I know - "good" is a matter of opinion to a great extent. Well, we all have to pick and choose, don't we?) My first love with respect to music is what is commonly called "classical" music, what should really be called serious music. However, I am also a devotee of rock n' roll. I spent my formative years in the 1950s and 1960s so I have been listening to "rock" for decades. I like music from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. My tastes range from "doo-wop" to heavy metal. Indeed, one of my favorite groups is Blue Oyster Cult (ever heard them? Some of their stuff is almost Wagnerian!) Sometime around 1990, "rock" morphed into "techno," "industrial," "grunge," and a whole lot of what I would term "new age disco." Most of it, in my not-so-humble opinion, is unlistenable. (I'm sorry, but I just think Linkin Park and the Maroon 5 don't hold a candle to Led Zeppelin, or the Stones. Or, for that matter, to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, or Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons. I won't even comment on "rap.") What it certainly is, however, is limited in dynamic range. To quote from another Hub article I wrote on the future of hi-fi: "Now I know today’s music (if such it can be called) consists of three or four minute long pop tunes with a minuscule dynamic range (i.e., the difference between the softest and loudest parts) and is perfect for these new gizmos." So, I guess listening to today's music on a true hi-fi system would not add much to the experience, except in volume.
I hope I'm wrong about this. I hope we someday see ”hi-fi" stores pop-up again and that people actually will sit down and listen to great music on systems that strive to accurately recreate a live performance in your living room. But I won't hold my breath.
Anyway, I wish you good listening!
Update - March 2015
I have large collection of "audiophile" magazines going back many decades and, the other day, I happened to pick up a copy of Stereophile dated September 1997. There is an editorial in that issue on listening habits making, in essence, some of the same points I made above. Now, this was before the advent of the internet and all the iPods, iPads, MP3 players, etc. A couple of quotes from the editorial by then-publisher Larry Archibald:
"Half the CDs that people buy (or more) are heard on Discmans or car stereos."
"We're worried that kids seem to listen anymore, but hear music in the background. And what are they listening too? Noise plus rhythmic talking? You call that music?"
Amen. And it's only gotten worse.