Back in the music lair, I turned on the system and let the music do my talking. I called up Chris Cornell’s live cover of Nothing Compares 2 U from Tidal. The guitar sweetly set the foundation for Cornell’s amazingly plaintive reading of the song. The cello soared in goose-bump inducing glory. Every nuance of Cornell’s voice came through as if we were lucky enough to still have him here. There’s not much to the recording – acoustic guitar, a cello and Cornell with just enough natural reverb on his voice to make him larger than life. Beautiful simplicity.
All the words I could have conjured couldn’t compete with what we were hearing.
That’s more than okay, he said as the track finished. His expression bordering on dazed.
For the rest of the evening we searched Tidal and Spotify – plus some of the treasures I have on my local server – and we just listened. I grabbed some Coors Light from the fridge. The music became the experience. The height, width and depth in plain-old two-channel stereo became an epiphany as the music soared beyond commodity. The music itself became the reason we were there. The differences between us no longer existed.
It’s a simple fact – you can’t tell the difference if you don’t know the difference, and all the talking in the world won’t change that. If you’ve not heard a system that has been designed to do music justice, it’s just not possible to conceive what you’re missing. Music is far beyond the ‘good enough’ we’ve been led to believe in during the tech explosion of the past twenty years.
Throughout history, technology first disrupts the way humans live their lives before maturing and making life better and easier for everyone. From transportation, to the food supply, to healthcare, to travel and leisure, new technology is always a benefit for the very few before it becomes accessible to all. Once it becomes universally accessible it then becomes a necessity. In 1920, only 1% of all US households had electricity and indoor plumbing. Now we pretty much don’t go camping without either. And seriously, how would we survive without our Smartphone, a device only a little over a decade old? Audio technology is no different – what was once considered “audiophile quality” is now available to everyone, not just gearheads and uber-enthusiasts.
Unlike cultural trends, technology does one thing: it levels the playing field. Technology is egalitarian: As each new technology matures its availability expands. When cell service first became available in the early 1980s you had to be extremely rich to afford the phone and the service. A cell phone in 1984 cost $3995 ($9924.63 in 2020 dollars) without service. In 2013, the UN estimated 6 billion people had access to cell phones. There are 7 billion people on the planet. The same study also stated that only 4.5 billion people have access to toilets, so there’s that.
At the end of the 20th Century we had CD players in our cars and turntables in our parents’ basements no one knew how to hook up. Twenty years later we have streaming services that bring us high-fidelity music from any corner of the planet for roughly the monthly price of what one single album cost 25 years ago.
Unfortunately, some of the preciousness of high-fidelity has been lost in this mad tech explosion and we now miss a lot of the beauty of music. The good news is, human beings will always seek out the best sensual experiences they can find – whether it be a gourmet meal instead of a chunk of wooly mammoth, or a hi-def movie instead of a grainy picture on a 13” black and white TV. We are programmed to enjoy life and seek out the things that help us to do so. Sure, a convenient Bluetooth speaker is good, but there comes a point when we realize we are missing something.
Just like when we were encouraged to replace of our perfectly good vinyl with CDs, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Tech companies want us to think convenience is more important than quality (read: on a talking Bluetooth speaker tucked away in your living room somewhere). But the truth is, although music can enrich your life no matter how you listen, music can only soar (and take you with it) when it fills up the space you occupy.
You simply can’t get a real – and satisfying – musical experience from a single speaker or a pair of tiny “stereo” speakers in a single box a couple of inches apart from each other. Sound takes time – and space – to develop properly so that when it reaches your ears there’s a sense of space and distance separating the instruments.
Sure, your little Bluetooth speaker gives decent (perceived) bass for its size and you can understand the words and all, but seriously, it’s just not good. We’ve become satisfied with non-directional, highly compressed sound coming from a tiny little space. That’s not what real music sounds like! Real music reaches your two separate ears from separate places in time and space allowing your brain to carry you away to another dimension. Try that with a little Bluetooth speaker on a shelf in your room. It may be unobtrusive but it ain’t gonna change your life.
As we embrace all the technology the smart people in the world are giving us, we can’t forget that music is human emotion turned into sound energy – and that’s every bit as important to a happy life as everything technology has given us.
Today, you don’t have to be an audiophile to enjoy what would have been an audiophile’s dream just twenty-five years ago. You may not realize it, but we are in a new Golden Age of Hi-Fi. Technology has made incredible sounding music attainable for pretty much anyone at a tiny fraction of the cost us dinosaurs back in the day had to fork over – if we could even find it. It’s all there for even the most casual technologist or music fan, you just have to know where to look.
The new Golden Age of Hi-Fi is upon us. At our fingertips is the power to miss nothing.