Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stereo Types

I put together my first decent stereo last night, an incredible thrill for a music nerd and long overdue. It’s fairly low-end stuff - a Sony single-feed CD player, early 00's Yamaha receiver and two 8" PSB speakers - but it's a huge improvement on my old set up (iPod and computer-speakers) and I've had a hard time turning it off.

It seems sort of weird now that I waited so long. When people would occasionally ask why my old system was so cheap, I’d say “I get what I need” (this apparently from a Stereophile interview with Keith Jarrett, though I’ve never been able to track it down) and for the most part, I did.

Lately, though, as I study and listen to more. . .complex? music (i.e. - classical, jazz, experimental, etc. - I wish there were a single term) I find myself craving more detail. Symphonic music is really frustrating on tiny speakers, as is most other music with wide dynamic range, subtle textures, or complex interplay between forces. The classical that sounded best on the old set-up: Bach preludes for solo piano.

Although I got worked up about the dramatic power of dynamic shifts the other day, I know how impossible they can be on a cheap set-up, and understand why high volume and heavy compression is the norm for music intended for a large audience of varying means.

I bring all this up to make the simple (and, in retrospect, probably obvious) point that one’s means of playing music must have an extraordinary effect on comprehension and enjoyment. It's easy to see how the migration of music from stereo to computer has been a boon to existing fans of complex music, with money and incentive to purchase appropriate speakers (and tickets) to hear it. For those who don't know it or listening on inadequate equipment, however, I wonder if the changes in technology are perhaps making things more difficult.


jake said...

Geeky to post first in my own comments section, I know, but I feel obliged to say, against my post, that one certainly DOES NOT need expensive equipment to listen to classical or any other complex, arty music.

In the three years I rocked my iPod/computer speaker set-up, I've had any number of revelatory experiences listening to exactly the sort of stuff I say is so "frustrating" in my post (i.e. Xenakis, Perotin, Mingus, etc.). Headphones are good in a pinch, too.

Granted, this new system goes a long way to increasing enjoyment, but to say complex music requires rarefied tools or knowledge is exactly the sort of message I don't want to send. It ain't so.

Ben said...


Interesting and intriguing post, especially to a guy who is addicted to looking at electronic gadgets online but who never buys them.

I'm looking forward to the day when you add a record player to your stack and you can tell us whether the commonly-heard snobbery that the old analog ways of recording and playing music are in fact better, or clearer, or more satisfying, than the newer digitally-based ones.

I often equate the claims of those analog-o-philes with the way my grandpa used to say that he liked things better in the "good old days" (travel, books, candy, whatever). I usually concluded that he was remembering the good (candy cost only $.05!) and forgetting the bad ($.05 was about 10% of his daily wage!) But I would appreciate an opinion from someone who, like you, recognizes and appreciates subtlety in music while recognizing the great advancement that digital technology promises, and brings, to contemporary music.

MCW said...

The speakers from our office still work like a charm. I hear the full complexity of the Smashing Pumpkins, Guns N'Roses, and Feist. Proof, that an expensive system isn't necessary.

Did you hear about Dr. Pepper offering to give a soda to everyone in the U.S. if Axl Rose produces "Chinese Democracy?"