Is the highest fi always the best fi?
Sound quality is a big deal to me, and I've devoted a huge chunk of my life to the pursuit of great audio. My hi-fi costs as much as a nice car, but I'm no gear snob, and I love writing about great sounding budget gear. I've discovered a lot of new music over my Sirius Satellite Radio, music that would sound like crap over my hi-fi. That's why I play the tuner through my Tivoli PAL table radio. That little radio smoothes over the rough edges of Sirius' lousy, low bit rate sound. So even for a hard-core audiophile, lo-fi is sometimes the right fi. The best playback device isn't always the most accurate playback device, not by a long shot. What follows is a meditation on good sound, and why it's such a rare commodity.
I listen to a lot of music with my $89 Velodyne vPulse in-ear headphones when I'm on the NYC subway. The headphones' overly generous bass sounds reasonably well-balanced when I'm bombarded by the low frequency rumble generated by 82,500 pound subway cars rolling over 100 year old transit system tracks. Accuracy, schmaccuracy, sound quality goals, even for a veteran audiophile like myself are a moving target. A "perfect" headphone, one that aced every measurement test Tyll can dream of won't always sound best when confronted with the reality of highly imperfect recordings, the unpredictable variability of personal taste, and noisy listening environments.
In quieter settings the vPulse sounds hopelessly colored, and I'm likely to don my Grado RS-1, Hifiman HE-6 or Audeze LCD-3 headphones for serious listening sessions. Great sound and music soothes my soul, and there's nothing better than getting into the zone and enjoying my music collection.
For fleeting moments, like at a recent Chesky recording session the LCD-3s sounded so real I thought the guitar player was standing behind me, tuning up. At that moment the LCD 3's sound was indistinguishable from reality. Hi-fi never gets better than that, but I'm far from convinced about the merit of pursuing ultimate neutrality when most current rock, pop, hip-hop, world music, and jazz recordings have been heavily EQ-ed, processed, compressed, overdubbed, auto-tuned and subjected to a billion other studio tricks. Not that all of those things necessarily sound bad, I'm not saying that, just that the producer's first goal isn't accuracy, no, they want to make recordings people want to listen to. Today's record producers live in fear of a mix that's too quiet, and those fears are real. When a song is even just a wee bit quieter than the preceding tune in shuffle mode most listeners will skip over it. That's not just my opinion, the Loudness Wars that kicked into maximum dynamic range compression mode in the early 2000s were based on that reality.
Listening to processed music over hyper accurate headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800 will surely let you hear all of that processing more clearly. Probably more clearly than the producer ever heard it, or intended anyone to ever hear it. They know that the vast majority of listeners will hear the music over $10 computer speakers, free ear buds, Beats by Dre, in a car, or over a club PA system. That's what most mainstream music is designed for, and I'm sorry to say the HD 800 can't tame the giant 4-kHz EQ boost the mixer added to the drum sound to make it "cut" better. No, the HD 800 just reveals all the more accurately what the recording sounds like. Depending on the type of music you listen to, maybe a more forgiving, softer sounding headphone like a Denon AH D5000 might make that music more enjoyable. Which is, after all, the reason we listen to music in the first place. Sure, if you listen to music with less overt processing, like classical or acoustic jazz, a Sennheiser HD 800 would probably sound a lot better than the Denon.
I think about sound all the time, but most people couldn't care less. I recently witnessed a friend happily listening to a wretchedly distorted Bluetooth speaker. An Elvis Costello playlist provided an ambient soundtrack as he assembled his kid's new bike, and it wasn't just the distortion that irked me, the speaker's thick, one-note bass was giving me a headache. The reason non-audiophiles, even ones who really love music can happily listen to crappy sounding gear is really pretty simple: they're not thinking about sound. Something would have to be really out of whack for them to notice or care what their music sounds like. As long as the speaker or headphone plays loud enough, and has enough bass, they're happy. I don't care if the music lover is a janitor or head surgeon at a major hospital, the bar for acceptable sound is painfully low.
At the auto show in NYC a few months ago I auditioned high-end audio systems in a lot of cars, including Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and an awesome Porsche Panamera Turbo, and the sounds were truly appalling. I got the feeling that the clientele for ultra high-end cars prefers systems that sound like rolling boom boxes. Apparently, even the 1 percenters lucky enough to buy these rides don't care about sound quality.
What does good sound sound like?
Who knows more about what music is supposed to sound like than musicians, so why do most musicians have the lamest hi-fis? I've asked lots of them why and the answer is always the same: they don't need great gear. They know what real music sounds like, and they automatically fill-in the missing aspects of the sound. For me, when the sound and music really are great I get into the zone, and connect with music in a deeper way. It's no longer frozen music, it feels live, like it's happening right now, and that gets my juices flowing.
Now sure, obsessing about sound can go too far and lead to what I call the "audiophile disease," so the music starts to play second fiddle to the sound, and that's a truly pathetic situation. The audiophile is so distracted by sound quality, or neurotic concerns about the lack of sound quality, that he, audiophiles are almost always men, can't just listen to music for pleasure. The gear is there to serve the music, not the other way around.
Good sound is in the ear of the beholder, and that's impossible to quantify, possibly because our tastes evolve, music never stands still, and how and where we listen changes from year to year.