The Evolution of the Listening Experience


 

Michael Foster, editor
Ambient Visions

 

 

There was a time a few decades ago that I considered myself to be in front of the audio equipment curve when it came to audio gear and how I would listen to music in my home. I didn't consider myself an audiophile as I never achieved the financial means to plop down enormous amounts of money to have the "perfect" set up to listen to my music. Having worked the retail end of music and audio sales I always mentally kept up with what was available even if I couldn't really afford to own it. But there were some advantages as I could always catch the floor models on sale as they made way for new equipment so in some ways I did have better gear than others who were in a similar situation. With names like Yamaha, Sennheiser and Cerwin Vega on my rack and floor I enjoyed my music and spent many years trying to squeeze a little bit more out of my wallet to upgrade my equipment when major innovations happened.  

That was then. This is now. Perhaps it is simply because I had never crossed over the line and became a true card carrying audiophile that I find myself where I am now in regards to my listening habits. Oh I still have a nice Yamaha amp albeit one that has not been upgraded in quite a few years and I do have a pair of Yamaha floor speakers that are part of my set up along with a couple of nice desk speakers that sit on either side of my monitors and a fairly decent pair of Sennheiser headphones for more critical listening but the source of my music is now my computer and not a separate deck like a CD player or a blu ray player that handles all disc formats. There was a time not that long ago (less than 10 years give or take)  when I was still getting CD's in the mail and putting them in the CD player and doing my main absorption of the music from a physical format such as a CD or DVD if the music also had visual content. The one exception I still might make to that would be something like Robert Rich's sleep concert Somnium (2004) that came out in DVD format and packed a whopping 7 hours of music onto a single disc. For that I would make an exception and listen to the original hard copy as opposed to music files.  

These days I consume most of my music in one of two ways. Digital music files constitute the lion's share of what I listen to on any given day. MP3's at 320 or .wav files or .flacs depending on what was sent to me or what I have downloaded. The larger files are preferable but eventually do present a storage problem even though external  hard drives are dirt cheap compared to what they were a decade ago. I have terrabytes of ripped music from my CD collection which means I have to have terrabytes of back up space because I really don't want to see all my music die in a single moment as a drive that was not backed up dies as they eventually always do. The other way I listen to music is streaming it from Spotify or from YouTube if I can't find it elsewhere. There is always Bandcamp, Soundcloud, or Pandora to choose from as well if Googleplay or Spotify don't have a particular song or artist that I am looking for. I rarely put a disc in my player anymore other than to rip it to my hard drive and then listen to it from there. And yes I know that there are many of you out there who shudder just thinking about listening to music any other way than a physical CD in a CD player hooked up to a great stereo system.  

Perhaps it is because having run Ambient Visions for over a decade I have seen just how much music there is out there and how important it is to be able to access it quickly and while I am sitting at my computer working on the website. I do have a portable MP3 player for lugging around some of my music but most of my listening is done at home through my computer and a decent amp, speakers or headphones. Even though I don't own a smartphone I can see lots of folks carrying their music with them or streaming it from the net through their phones. Portability and ease of use has seemingly triumphed over the old audiophile or near audiophile home listening set ups that used to dominate the landscape of home audio of the past.  

I don't argue for any particular method of consuming music myself. I know that everyone will have their own opinion of how a particular piece of music or music in general should be heard. Some will even go so far as to say they have to have the whole physical package to properly listen to the music put out by a musician. I have come to enjoy listening to music at the click of a mouse whether it is MP3 or streaming from the web. For reviewing purposes I do prefer to have a 320 MP3 or a lossless digital file to be able to get a good feel for the music but the days of saying that I have to have a CD are behind me now. I may have started off as an audiophile wannabe but I have embraced digital music files and I have no regrets about what others think that I am missing because I am not listening to the music on my home system off of a CD or even vinyl. Art is in the eye of the beholder and music is in the ear of the listener. I couldn't have loved the music more that I used to listen to off my 10-transistor radio back in the 60's even though the sound quality was about as low as you could go. The music that came through that radio was some of the best that I ever heard.  

I think that artists should be happy that people want to hear their music regardless of how it is going to be consumed whether HD or low fi because if the consumer loves it then the art that they created has accomplished the goal/task that was set before it when it was released. The only thing that I am looking for now is a way to turn my computer into an audiophile digital player with a really good sound card. Beyond that I am one happy camper as I wander about the digital landscape listening to brand new music that I have never heard before or listening to music that defined me as a teen and young adult all without having to stand up from my desk.