So a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about Neil Young’s new Pono music system. Depending upon whom you ask, the Pono is: 1. A complete and total ripoff designed to separate unknowing fools from their money. P.S. And it’s ugly too. Or: 2. The savior of sound recordings, one that will resurrect the public’s interest in purchasing music, bring joy to all ears involved, and elevate the musical arts far beyond previously known highs, forever and ever, Hallelujah and Amen!
Of course, it’s really neither of those things. This week, a friend pointed out an article in the current issue of The Wire that examined recorded playback from a different angle. Some listeners hold this idea that there’s an ultimate listening experience. In the audiophile world, the quality of both the recording and the delivery vehicle play a large part in this. The writer points out that the listening experience is so much more complex than that. And this got me to thinking about how my listening experiences have evolved over the years.
My current preferred listening routine is the old-school sitting in front of real speakers thing, with the music sourced from either vinyl or a high-quality digital front end. That’s the preferred more of listening. In actuality, I spend a lot more time with a set of decent ear buds plugged into my phone. The formats include mp3s, flacs, and whatever the heck they stream from Spotify. And so I’ve never really thought about this before, but: is one listening experience fundamentally different (better?) than the other?
Mostly, the answer is “no.” There are indeed times when I’m actively listening for certain sonic elements — the wetness of a stick hitting a ride cymbal, the percussive sound that only a nylon-stringed guitar can make, that woody sound of a double bass — but for the most part, I sort of disappear into the music. The reproduction system isn’t really a part of the equation at all.
This goes back all the way to when I was a little kid, with my first “immersive” listening experience being the speaker that I put underneath my pillow before going to bed. I might have been on my way to dreamland, but that didn’t stop me from catching the next radio play of “I Gotcha,” “Rockin’ Robin,” or “Nights In White Satin.” In all of the intervening years, I graduated from that single speaker to a cassette player, then a home-brew two-way speaker cabinet driven by a cheap plastic Radio Shack turntable, an all-in-one unit purchased at a drug store, an 8-track player, a rack system, a Walkman, a boom box, a Discman, and then some tube stuff.
When I picked up American Garage, it was around the time of the Radio Shack turntable. My experience of that album is no different today, and I’d be willing to bet I could still enjoy it using my old pillow speaker.
What does all of this mean? Have I just called bullshit on my previous insistence that fidelity matters? Heck, I just might have. Hallelujah and Amen!