The Internet has democratized many things, including the ready availability of music and information about it.
It has also changed how we listen to music: from hardware to software to new formats and delivery platforms. Despite my preference for things analog, I support these changes if only because they give artists (performers and songwriters) the ability to reach more audiences and hopefully, in the process, to make some return on their work.
One of the chief complaints about mass-market music delivery is that as technology has improved, sound quality (and consumer’s expectations about sound quality) has declined. Perhaps it is an unintended consequence of the “digital revolution”– mobility and easy access to content make “background” listening even more common.
Listening to reproduced music as a primary activity is today less common than it was 30 or 40 years ago; it also overlaps with “critical” listening, where the aim is less musical enjoyment and more analytical. This is the space where engineers, musicologists and audiophiles dwell. But, they are all listening for different things. And in “audiophilia,” the focus is often on how well the gear works at reproducing the recording, in pursuit of better, more faithful reproduction.
This sort of critical listening to assess system performance is often an end unto itself, divorced in large part from musical enjoyment. But whatever improvements may be gained by focusing on the quality of the reproduction chain (to make changes to gear or set-up) do not always translate into greater musical enjoyment. Achieving more “detail” or getting an extra half octave of bass may have little to do with conveying the musical and emotional message of the recording. There is an old joke about the audiophile who has finally achieved what he knows to be an accurate system because it is so “revealing” that everything sounds awful!
I was recently afforded the opportunity to hear an original transcription of a very famous pre- WWII live performance. That transcription had been made by sending the microphone signal over a telephone line to a disc cutter in a different location than the concert venue. The original discs were noisy, and sounded tinny, flat and constrained. The bandwidth of telephony at that time was roughly around 8Khz, or so I am told. And, though the discs had not been abused, they were almost 80 years old.
The restoration specialist cleaned each disc, played it back over a specially modified turntable run through an interesting, mostly vintage analog chain, then through a high grade A/D converter into a large, purpose-built server. With an array of digital tools, and his considerable expertise in audio restoration (and a lot of time-consuming work), what I heard played back in his studio left me dumbstruck!
A kick drum with dynamics, the sense of “air’ being moved and a lifelike sound of the skin of the drum. My point? Ancient, bandwidth-limited recording, re-processed digitally, resulted in something that was highly involving and musically satisfying to me. It wasn’t just “good enough”- it was great sounding!
No one would claim that this recording was a “purist” recording, or that it was free of sonic artifacts, either due to the limitations of the original “recording” process or the digital manipulation that made it so listenable. In other words, it was not “accurate” in the sense that term is commonly used in audio. (And, it wasn’t even all analog!) But it was very engaging and that drum sounded like a real drum, despite all the hurdles before it got to my ears.
Where am I going with this? To say that we should be spending a lot more of our time and money on quality source material and worry less about the elusive pursuit of the “best” gear. I am not advocating that you listen over a mediocre system. But, once you get your system to a certain level, the real joy comes from finding great recordings of compelling musical performances. Yes, that is a statement of the “obvious” but it is worth thinking about:
Are you listening to a particular recording because the music and performance moves you, or because it makes your hi-fi rig shine? 
Jules Coleman wrote an interesting “think piece” several years ago. He asked the not–so-rhetorical question why we “elevate” the recording to a vaunted place in the hierarchy of what is important- and more to the point, why we regard it as essential that the playback system “accurately” reproduce that recording. Coleman’s thesis—if I’m reading him right—was that the recording was not an accurate representation of the live performance to begin with, so trying to assemble a playback system that was “true” to the recording was largely a pointless exercise. I don’t think he was advocating that you listen to music over a highly colored, inaccurate system, but instead, that the “measure” of what constitutes a good, or proper or “correct” playback system is, in some ways, (mis)guided by the notion that the source material is itself accurate. Coleman offered no substitute “test” for determining whether a system is good, other than to observe that when all was “right,” emotional engagement in the music occurred on a very visceral level.
I cannot offer an alternative benchmark to “accuracy” either, so I suppose I’m condemned to the “subjective” camp of “I know it when I hear it.” But I can offer a few insights into listening, based on my own experience.
The “WOW” factor is often just that- hyper-detail, and in-your-face-bass are not what real music usually sounds like. It may be impressive, but it is fatiguing at a certain point. If you listen to enough different pressings of the same record on vinyl, you’ll hear significant differences among them- some will sound “clearer” or more detailed, but are often “tipped-up” in the high frequencies (one of my complaints about some re-masters). Some just sound flat and sterile. This is true, even with some “all analog” remasters. Vinyl can also be noisy (which is one reason remasters are often preferred) and is certainly less convenient and more labor-intensive.
Digital, which can be dead quiet, often has a processed quality to my ears—even very good digital—that is immediately noticeable if you switch to an analog recording.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not “down” on digital. As my example of the pre-war recording above shows, it offers a huge tool box for those making or restoring recordings. I also think digital recording and mastering are as much an art as analog recording/mastering, and there is still much to be learned.
I do believe that the recording has primacy, despite Coleman’s observations about how “inaccurate” most recordings are- they are not true representations of the live performance; once they are fiddled with and manipulated in the recording process, the mixing stage or the mastering, they are even further away from whatever that real performance actually sounded like. Yet, these commercial recordings are all we have (unless you have access to master tapes and even then, they often have been processed and mixed).
I want to spend more time with the people that made some of the recordings I think sound lifelike and find out what they did (or didn’t do) to capture the magic.
June 7, 2015
To be continued….
 The premise of the U.S. copyright system is largely economic- that if authors are rewarded for their creative works, they will be induced to create. Artists may not do it “for the money” but getting paid for their work affords them the opportunity to create.
 Before someone takes me to task for focusing only on the bass drum sounds, and not the full spectrum of that recording, recognize that “processing” can be done for any recording, new or old. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons the audiophile community leans heavily on jazz and classical recordings.
 I am not ignoring the possibility that a record can be both things~ a great recording and a great performance, but if you find yourself caught in that trap of spending more time listening “to the system,” you might want take a step back. Is there music you love but don’t listen to, because the recording doesn’t make your system sing?
 See Coleman, Jules, Musical Value and its Reproduction, Inner Magazine (Mar 1, 2010). For those unfamiliar with him, Coleman spent much of his professional life as a professor of jurisprudence, i.e., the philosophy of the law and taught at Yale, Berkeley and NYU. He also wrote about audio and is now retired.
 Assuming there was an actual performance to begin with, as opposed to a pastiche of sounds cobbled together from different times and places.
 For those who bought The Beatles “stereo” boxed set a few years ago (remastered from a digital source) and also have the more recent “mono” boxed set (remastered from analog source material via an all analog chain), the difference is pretty striking.