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What matters when we listen?

This post was originally published on the Mumubl.com Newsletter. For updates and recommendations direct to your inbox don’t forget to subscribe.

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Not long after the Kindle was released I remember getting into a conversation, on Twitter I think, about the process of reading. E-readers were quite new and a lot of people were sceptical about the whole idea. They could never imagine themselves doing anything other than reading a paper book, they enjoyed the feel of the pages, loved the smell and the experience too much. To which I questioned what on earth were they getting out of the material they were reading? Surely a great story is just as gripping and engaging in e-ink on a screen as it is on actual printed paper?

It would be a few years before I got a Kindle myself (yes, other e-readers are available!) and to this day I enjoy the ease of the Kindle but I still love a good book and a well stocked book shelf. The material, the reading, the stories, they’re just as good, just as compelling and engaging in either medium. The content is king, but that Kindle library doesn’t look quite as good as collection of physical books.

There’s plenty of parallels with my music listening. I enjoy a well stocked shelf of CD’s and putting one on, I’m not a vinyl collector which we’ll come to, but I also listen mostly via streaming, or digital. The songs are just as good, they sound the same – or do they?

A number of people, we all know them, the audiophiles of this world, shun digital in any form, they bemoan the compression, the distortion that apparently only analogue is true to. They’re the kind of people who will tell you of the superiority of the “warm” sound of vinyl, essentially a form of distortion of ti’s own. They ignore the science of the algorithmic construction, how there are genuinely very few people who could hear the difference in certain changes and compressions. Recently MoFi, a company who promote their analogue only approach, from master tapes to vinyl, have been exposed as having used a digital step in the process on some recordings. Some of these recordings have subsequently been found to have turned up in “best of year” lists promoted as great analogue experiences – it’s an accidental blind listening test and the ethos has been found wanting. If you want to read more about it I suggest you head to Dada Drummer and read “The Contingency of Listening” for a great coverage of the whole thing.

My point though is not to necessarily belittle these people, they are right in some respect, there is some difference when digital music is over compressed, but there are also so many variable’s in the whole listening experience. I’ve enjoyed songs through low-fi cheap laptop speakers, buzzy over cranked bass on car stereos, on top quality headphones and in studios through top quality speakers. The key word there is “enjoyed”, I’d always listen to music through the best quality I have to hand if I can. It shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment of a song though. If you can’t enjoy a song on crappy speakers then why are you listening to it?

Which is where I’ll pick up the vinyl point, I like the idea of vinyl, the curating of a physical collection is great but I don’t like the preaching about the listening experience, talk of the superiority of the “warm” vinyl sound. They’re fantastic as an art piece, as a companion with sleeve notes and artwork, as something to have on a shelf and show off. I also think it’s fantastic as an income stream and a way to support artists, that side of it I very much like. It’s when we get to the snobbishness that comes from some. Much as I don’t like the the preachy attitude of analogue only. Enjoy the music at the best quality you can, however suits you, because it’s the music that matters, not how you listen.

[main image – https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a19180 ]

This post was originally published on the Mumubl.com Newsletter. For updates and recommendations direct to your inbox don’t forget to subscribe.

Subscribe to the Mumubl.com Newsletter

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