Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Music to Our Ears

I recently encountered a great magazine called Stereophile. It is now available on a digital reader program, Zinio, which has some nice features to combat the far-sight that comes with mid-life. The magazine focuses on what it calls the High End of audio.

Reading it takes me back to my first week as an undergraduate and the thrill of discovering that the students' union building had a state-of-the-art listening room for our LPs. You could book it to wallow in your latest record acquisition while sitting in really comfy chairs and with truly great acoustics. Carefully made new recordings (sometimes even direct-to-disc!) heard through new hi-tech cartridges were a far cry from teenage 'doo-wap' years listening to cheap sounding 'record players' or tinny portable radios. Us '60s undergrads spent our time auditioning potential hi fi equipment purchases and dropping audiophile jargon endlessly to our peers (then mostly men), when we weren't off listening live to the latest pop group, jazz or folkie 'discovery' in a local dance hall.

College kids today are of necessity more committed to the 'journey of learning' but they love their music just as much as we did.
However, they listen to it on MP3 players. These have unparalleled convenience but a sound quality actually substantially inferior to what came before. Today's publishers and product developers of the audiophile world are hoping that, if you can get today's young folk into Audio Shows, you can get them to embrace better sound because the show gives them the opportunity to hear the difference. So there is likely to be a sponsored audio show coming soon to a big city near you.

Any potential solution to upgrading the public's appreciation of lifelike playback is hampered by how hard it has become to learn on an ongoing basis what is really good recorded sound in today's digital on-the-go world. The bit rate on nearly all Internet Radio stations is too low for hi-fi, ditto satellite radio, and, with the dumbing down of CBC Radio 2, good ol' OTA radio is now chat and wallpaper music, usually between runs of commercials. How does a young person get to know the joys of classical music or fine jazz if they never properly hear their true and marvelous highs and lows? Who'd be seen dead today carting around a clunky and uncool Sony Portable CD player? While a few high-priced portable media players can accept memory-gobbling FLAC and other audiophile codecs, the iPod rules supreme.

One of the unintended consequences of technology downsizing and convenience is a loss of listening skills. The ease and facility of pocket digital-on-the-go has created new behaviours; if something doesn't instantly appeal, it's just a touch to the next tune of thousands stored, all in your favourite genres. No need to make the effort to listen through what sounds challenging or has an unfamiliar category designation.

However, as the world turns, we can quite often be surprised by a renaissance of what once was. Discos and DJs have kept analogue vinyl alive through its redundancy by digital recordings, and now it is resurfacing into the mainstream of music purchase. Issues of new and rescued music on the newer heavier format vinyl records, and to a lesser extent, on AudioDVD and SACD discs, are growing in number, helped by the growth of indie labels. These demand High End equipment, heard while the listener is relaxed in an appropriate acoustic venue. Encouragingly some of the purchasers, and the denizens of used vinyl and CD stores, are younger people who weren't there first time around.

One of the joys of the period in one's life when many of the time-consuming obligations of mid-life have passed into history, is making time for old pleasures like listening to fine sound. If enough of the newer generations can be introduced to that satisfying pastime, perhaps one of the great creations of our civilization, truly lifelike recorded music, can be permanently kept from becoming no more than an artifact from a gentler time?


  1. Well written, well expressed.
    I believe what he have observed is a ffurther evidence to the disposible nature of today's world.
    sadly, it also means that people of advanced age (ie us) are also viewed as displosible by today's youth.



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