Hello friends! This installment is a little late because I spent the past few days at my beloved Laity Lodge, leading a church retreat. Though I had to work, being there in the Frio River canyon was restorative for me. It always is.
I would very much like to be an audiophile, but I’m not. The reason: far too much exposure to very loud music in my youth has damaged my hearing. (Kids, don’t do what I did.) And of course our ability to hear, especially high tones, declines as we age anyway. So many of the nuances of super-high-fidelity recording are lost to me.
That said, I remain very sensitive to certain elements of recorded music, and the quality of their rendering has a dramatic effect on my ability to enjoy listening to records. I love recordings that preserve a vivid dynamic range, that give me a really vivid soundstage, and that have a certain spaciousness in the mix of voices and instruments. I like music that breathes.
Maybe you can get a sense of the kinds of sounds I most love if you know the three songs I always use (on CD or in CD-quality digital versions) to test an audio setup:
The odd thing about having “House of Cards” on that list is that, like almost all Radiohead songs, it’s overly compressed — but I like the sound of that particular song anyway.
In general, though, recordings that are highly-compressed and mastered at top loudness are painful for me to listen to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, or do know but would like to read more, the excellent podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz has recently had two highly informative episodes about mastering, that is, the process of taking recordings made in the studio and adjusting their overall sound for best — or “best” — effect. The second of those two episodes, “The Loudness Wars,” is a terrific introduction to the plague of hyper-compressed mastering, which exhausts my ears. (At least within the realm of the kind of music I like to listen to, Arcade Fire is among the worst offenders: I can make it through about 30 seconds of one of their songs before desperately hitting the “stop” button or ripping the headphones from my ears.)
If you want a deeper dive into the aural world we all live in, then you should listen to one of the best podcasts I’ve ever come across, a limited series by Damon Krukowski called “Ways of Hearing” — which has been turned into an excellent book. The book doesn’t capture everything the podcast series achieves, needless to say, and if you’re only going to experience one of them choose the podcast — but the book is beautifully designed and fun to read.
In case anyone is interested, you can get an excellent (if somewhat less than audiophile quality) sound system for under a thousand dollars. I have an NAD CD player, an NAD integrated amplifier, and Polk Audio bookshelf speakers, and the sound they collectively produce is surprisingly strong, rich, and nuanced. For streaming music, I subscribe to the hi-def version of Tidal and integrate that with Roon, which is expensive and meant for serious audiophiles (which, again, I am not) but which allows me to bring together all my music and offers extensive metadata about every recording.