Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Good Thing #26: Hi Fi

I finally managed to get my stereo system hooked back up this week. Sadly, it's been years since it was all together. It's an old-school system of many parts (pre-Klipsch Aragon and Acurus components hooked into Magnaplanar speakers, if you care about such things). I spent more on it than I have on most cars that I've owned. But really, I've been working on it for more than 20 years, and I bought the most expensive pieces when I was a bachelor, working jobs that paid me far more than I make now. I was very aware that I had a window when it would be OK for me to spend such extravagant amounts on pure entertainment. But I was also aware that if I invested the money it'd be a one-time buy. Good audio equipment lasts. The Magnepan speakers I bought more than 15 years ago sound every bit as fantastic as when I bought them and with any luck will continue to do so until I lose my hearing. 

I don't consider myself to be an audiophile, however. In fact, I blame audiophiles for destroying the audio industry by fetishizing the equipment while losing sight of the fact that the whole point was to be enjoying music. MP3s with their compressed range, crappy earbud speakers and car stereos helped to nail the coffin shut, but even before those came about, the audiophiles made it possible. If you stepped into a high-end audio shop in pre-iPod days, you could expect to be belittled and scorned if you didn't identify as an audiophile. You were treated like an idiot if you didn't think spending $7,000 + on a pair of speaker cables was a good idea when there was no real evidence showing that they sounded any better than lamp cord from the hardware store. The general public had already been alienated and when MP3s came around, nobody was there to make the argument against it. 

The argument would have gone along the lines of, "MP3s are OK, but you're trading convenience for quality. You're only hearing maybe 10% of what the artist intended for you to hear." Then I might have brought you over and sat you down in a chair strategically positioned for optimum listening, and I would have played for you the same piece of music on your MP3 player and on the stereo, and hopefully you would understand that both convenience and quality have their place.

That should have been the role of the audiophiles, as defenders and educators of what quality music really means, gently guiding people to make informed choices about their listening. Instead audiophiles copped an attitude and insulted anyone who didn't get it. Now we have a generation who have only heard recorded music through headphones attached to MP3 players or from car stereos. And the audiophiles have become even more insular and elitist.  

But I digress. The point is, my stereo brings me pleasure because when the music is playing, it's as close as I can get to hearing it live. Even better in some ways because I can set the volume to levels that are comfortable for my ears, and I don't have to deal with crowds. While I love the convenience of my iPod/headphone arrangement, when I hear a note I might know it was plucked on a guitar. On the stereo I can hear the differences between the kind of guitar, that it was made of wood and had a hollow body. I can hear the differences between the acoustics between a small, warm room and a large, cold room. With the MP3, music is just the background soundtrack to my life while I do other things. That's important and has its place, but when I hear that same music on the stereo, I'm aware of the music as a work of art created by an artist, or many artists, who are trying to communicate a message and share a feeling that's important to them. 

It's a simple joy to sit back and listen, really listen to music. 

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