Joy and music go hand in hand. I remember my middle school punk band getting access to a serious PA — two 18-inch subs and two mains with a 1 kilowatt amp — and I remember most the intense feeling of physically vibrating to our music while standing in the midst of all that power.
I also remember standing in a river with a fishing pole, sporting a set of headphones and listening to Nils Frahm’s All Melody as the water rushed by. A magic experience made more magical by the presence of Frahm’s spooky ambient compositions.
It’s hard to forget that last one, since it happened this week. Today, I want to bring up one of the most important subjects for me, and basically the reason I write what I write and care about what I care about.
At the end of last week’s column, I hinted at this, and so far I haven’t really talked about it, but it’s a concept around which the whole fine-audio hobby revolves.
And that would be happiness. Specifically, your happiness, and more specifically, how all of the business of researching, buying and auditioning audio equipment is in service of the goal of it.
All of the rabbit holes I try to go down in these columns aside, and excluding my lengthy blathering about the art and nuances of recording, music is made to make you feel things.
So I’ll say this: No matter how well a cello was recorded or how exquisite the performance hall, a dynamic-rich and detailed recording like that will never sound truly excellent in your car. That’s why most of the music available in a car comes highly compressed.
In a moving car, the noise floor is very high. There’s tire noise, A/C noise and engine noise, as well as the noise from other cars on the road around you.
In the car, an uncompressed jazz band will have you reaching for the volume control in quiet moments and back again in loud ones, to turn it down. The car is a great example of exactly why modern music production engineers usually squash the sound. They’re thinking about the car’s noise floor, or picturing you listening on a Bluetooth speaker buried in your backpack.
Remember what I said about the latest Ed Sheeran album? You can turn most of the songs down almost to nothing on the volume dial and still clearly make out 100 percent of his words. That’s the idea in popular production these days — they want you to be happy, even in poor conditions.
Music enjoyment happens in many places and in many ways. But the subtle details and nuance in audiophile recordings can only be unlocked when the focus is high and the background noise is low.
Usually, that means a quiet room with a pair of good speakers or a set of headphones. We’ll explore both in the coming weeks, but the point here is that there is nothing wrong with a compressed recording in the right context. This column, however, is devoted to the special experience possible when you play great music on a great system. Stay tuned.