All my old records are new again.
Somewhere along the line we decided sound didn’t matter. Instead of purchasing ever more expensive components to get closer to the music a stereo became an all-in-one box, and the music was produced to be played upon it, all squashed with a level so high it drowned the sound.
But it didn’t used to be this way. Used to be you saved your nickels and dimes to have those famous names in your house. Started with Fisher and Scott, evolved to KLH and JBL, and before the crash exotic names infiltrated the landscape, from Lux to Mark Levinson. I saved for years for my Nakamichi cassette deck. I lived without FM for a year because I wanted this integrated amplifier that sounded incredible and I wasn’t about to sacrifice to hear radio.
I’d drop the needle and dance around the room, the sound was so exquisite. And when I put on the headphones I felt like I was in the room with the artist.
Today I do again.
They’re billed as the "The World’s Finest Headphones", and I’m not about to argue, I’m hearing stuff I didn’t even know existed.
I’ve got this CD player so exotic and such a pain in the ass I haven’t fired it up in years. You see the CD moves, not the laser. You drop a weight on the disc and the drawer recedes into the unit and then…
In this case, I put the plug right into the unit, I didn’t even want to go through the amp, I didn’t want anything else in the chain. And what emerged blew my mind.
I listened to albums I knew by heart and found out I didn’t.
My favorite album of the nineties, even though it was released in 1989, is Shawn Colvin’s "Steady On". Suddenly I could hear the "Ch" before "China" in "Steady On", and there’s a tambourine that eluded me for two decades, until now. And this is an acoustic record! There’s not that much on it! And it was like I was in the center of the studio during "Diamond In The Rough", with the players surrounding me. I could write a whole column on how great this album sounds, the revelatory experience, I could see John Leventhal play the guitar, and the intro to "Cry Like An Angel" almost brought me to tears.
And I’m poring through the stacks and I come across James Gang’s "Rides Again". I was always enamored of the debut, the follow-up never quite hooked me, but I love the final cut, "Ashes The Rain And I", so I decided to play it. Suddenly I like "Funk #49". It breathes, I can make out the words, instead of being compressed you can see three distinct players, you can make out the bass, and the words are clear as day, they make sense. "Funk #49" used to just be an anthem on the radio, now it’s not a hit, but a barely polished gem. Who knew Dale Peters was this good? He’s showing the brilliance of John Entwistle. And "Ashes The Rain And I" is so majestic you feel like you’re ensconced under a tree on a mountaintop contemplating a vast unpopulated landscape. The track evidences nothing so much as…humanity, an elusive element in today’s recordings.
And I found my remastered version of "Late For The Sky", my favorite album of all time. The headphones eclipsed the original CD, but now… I could hear a word before the second line of "For A Dancer" that I always believed had to be there but could never hear. Yes, there is an "and" before "pay attention to the open sky", it’s subtle, but it’s on the recording.
And the organ on the Black Crowes’ "Thorn In My Pride" is a revelation, you can literally see it. Truly. Music video gives you the illusion you’re closer to the music, but on the HD 800s you don’t even have to close your eyes, you can literally see the instrument, the blond wood, the placement of the fingers.
And I could just about feel the air move in the bass drum on "Back In Black".
But what blew my mind was the static on David Gray’s "White Ladder". It was like I was listening to an overplayed vinyl record. It wasn’t tape hiss, just something deep in this recording made at home that couldn’t be removed from the final version, or that Gray decided to leave in. And I do believe that’s a Jew’s harp in the intro, whatever it is, it’s not the instrument I used to think it was.
Now we lived for decades with substandard television, conventional wisdom was it was good enough, that the public would not pay for higher quality. That turned out to be untrue. Flat screens are ubiquitous and now they’re so cheap no one thinks twice. People just wanted to be closer, they wanted the truth.
They want that in music too.
But it’s incumbent upon the people making it and purveying it to lead the charge, to impress quality upon the mainstream.
The problem with the CD was it wasn’t good enough. It was compromised at the outset, audiophiles wouldn’t buy in.
And DVD-A and SACD were marketing debacles. As is surround. Why do we want surround sound when all these classic albums were mixed to stereo to begin with? That’s like insisting twentysomething icons get plastic surgery to make them look even more beautiful…huh? Didn’t work so well for Heidi Pratt.
And files are the future. Which is why you should be lobbying for a national broadband policy, for speeds approaching the ones in South Korea. The labels think the Internet is their foe, no, it’s their friend, if they’d just embrace it.
And if we make the tracks available and stimulate an ecosystem, people will buy in. Look at the success of Beats headphones. Audiophiles will argue they’re bass heavy and overpriced, but the hoi polloi are happy to shell out hundreds of bucks. Sure, they’re looking for status, but so were we when we bought our component systems way back when. The side benefit is exquisite sound.
And this changes the music. It creates a need for better players and better recordings. When you can see all the warts, you want to do your best to overcome them. Music is no longer an illusion, but truth.
Now the bad part. The HD 800 costs $1800. Although you can buy them for $1499 all over the Net.
Sounds excessive, I know. Then again, remember when people used to spend this much on speakers, when you couldn’t get a good component system for less than two grand and people went for it?
Technology will lead us out of the wasteland, people won’t be listening to lo-res MP3s and AACs forever, hell, not even much longer, that’s like trying to open a Word 1.5 file on your brand new MacBook Air.
You see technology moves at light speed. Don’t decry it, hitch your wagon to it. Embrace the possibilities it uncovers.
Meanwhile, I just got a brand new music collection, and I haven’t even started spinning the vinyl yet!
P.S. I just saw T-Bone Wolk playing the accordion at the end of "Cry Like An Angel", he may have departed this mortal coil a few years back, but right now he’s purely alive in my ears!