How is recorded music supposed to sound? Tim Robertson, our energetic publisher, is an audiophile who makes a firm distinction between casual listening and serious sound quality. David Weeks, a reformed audiophile, by his own admission, values good music playback, but he doesnâ€™t get hysterical if he canâ€™t hear every possible woof and tweet. Where are you on this sliding scale?
My personal listening experience began circa 1960, upon receipt of a small transistor AM radio manufactured by an unknown company called Hitachi. This was when â€œmade in Japanâ€ did not indicate precision engineering. Radio station WLS in Chicago was then beginning its reign as the premier pop and rockâ€™nâ€™roll location on the AM dial, and I spent every available waking and sleeping moment tuned to Dick Biondi and the other jocular disk jockeys.
Music was great then, and who cared about tinny playback from a sub-pipsqueak speaker? During high school the songs got better and better, but my listening equipment didnâ€™t. Radio was radio, and if you wanted to hear something sound better, you bought the recording for a dollar and played it on a one-piece record machine with its supporting changer arm that eventually damaged most of the 45s in your stack.
By the end of college I owned a medium-quality component stereo system on which everything sounded sensational. I was set for life then, with no ambitions to listen to anything except the LPs and reel tapes of my choosing, until death do us part. Weâ€™re up to 1970 in our chronology, and for those of you who werenâ€™t with us yet, rock music was at its pinnacle then (all wisecracks can be posted in our Article Discussion area below my column).
Fast forward 35 years, and high-performance audio is now reasonably affordable, while low to mid-quality sound is everywhere for not much more $$$ than a song. In my home I again have decent caliber equipment, while my office is more casual, especially when Iâ€™m auditioning different computer and iPod speakers.
One major factor remains constant throughout my 45 years of intense listening: song quality in = song quality out, or SQI=SQO! If a song or musical composition is a winner, Iâ€™ll listen to it with pleasure on the crummiest speakers with not much less satisfaction than on the best component system. If the tune is substandard, lousy playback never helps, but decent sound sometimes does.
Six current examples allow me to confirm this absolute truth:
1. Top-notch permanent component systems, when adjusted properly, often produce music that is worth hearing.
2. Great computer speakers, such as Harman/Kardonâ€™s SoundSticks can fill a room and make you want to boogie until breakfast.
3. Lightweight speaker systems, like MacAllyâ€™s IceTune suffice for recreational listening, without any tonal depth.
4. Portable mini-speakers, such as MacAllyâ€™s PodWave, recreate the 1960 Hitachi AM radio experience, for maximum convenience with minimum volume or frequency response.
5. Built-in computer speakers stink, except when playing great oldies songs.
6. Not one of the expensive or budget iPod custom speakers sold in an Apple retail store brings a smile to my lips or a twinkle to my eye. Why do all of them sound so bad?
(Car listening is so variable that it wonâ€™t enter into this discussion of home speakers, but good auto audio can be very intense, and enjoyable. Ditto for headphones, which we hope to consider in a subsequent feature.)
Choose one of your all-time favorite songs from any genre. Iâ€™ll pick â€œSaetaâ€ from â€œSketches of Spainâ€ by Miles Davis. Listening to it progressively on every available speaker and playback equipment, from my humble iBook to living room components, the experience becomes more immersive as the quality improves, but the essence of the performance retains its integrity throughout the spectrum. No such luck with an inferior song (take your pick).
I have six different playback options available that go up in size and quality as they become less portable (or expensive). Each has its place in a typical music loverâ€™s lifestyle, budget, and personal audio preferences.
As technology advances, your goal could be a high-quality, low-to-mid-priced, good-sounding, attractive speaker that hits a sweet spot and impresses everyone within range (except perhaps your neighbors, if you prefer excessive volume to sublime subtlety). With a bit of luck it could work with different audio sources, from iPod to stereo component.
According to Tim Robertson, â€œAn Audiophile enjoys music as much as you do, and appreciates the tonal quality of good music when the desire to fully embrace a particular piece of music strikes. Most times, we listen to whatever is handy, be it a cheap computer speaker system or a high-end vacuum tube system. We simply â€˜hearâ€™ the benefits of very good quality more so than most other people.â€
How stubborn or flexible are you in your listening demands, and how much fine audio is required to enjoy the music you play most often? I vote for great music played ANYWHERE, ANY TIME, that I can savor because it speaks to my inner being.
I welcome your comments below. Then crank up some Stravinsky or Stones or Sade or Santana or Sonny Stitt, and get into your own special groove.