Listening

I was chatting with one of our staff surgeons a few months ago. He saw me looking up some headphone recommendations for a friend while I was on a break. He wondered if I even had a stereo at home. I told him I did, although he seemed surprised that my main source of music was a turntable. He reminisced about his early residency, sharing that it used to be a rite of passage to buy your “first real stereo” out of med school, once you started making a little bit of spending money. Now, he lamented, he’d be surprised if even one of the residents in their program owned an actual stereo.

87 Speaker by macattckI use the term stereo knowing full well that many of you do not really understand this concept. A few years ago, I didn’t either. On a real stereo, music is played from two speakers (left and right). When these speakers are placed in appropriate position relative to the listener’s ears, a three-dimensional “image” forms roughly between the speakers. With appropriate stereo recording and engineering, it’s not that the drums come from the left speaker and the guitar from the right. You can actually picture a stage in front of you. The drums come from 1 foot left of center, the guitar from 1 foot right of center, and the lead vocalist sounds like he is singing directly between the speakers. Better yet: the bass drum kicks dead center, the hi-hat two feet to the left of that and the snare hits between them. In other words, an entire concert takes place between the speakers. Or even beyond the sides of the speakers. Have you ever heard music in true stereo? Imagine standing in the front row at a concert. That’s what your music should sound like at home!

So why do we settle for anything less? I think a major reason is ignorance, especially among younger listeners. If you’ve never heard music you love on a proper stereo, you’re not only missing out, but you don’t even understand what you’re missing. Once you hear it, in my opinion, there’s no turning back. Convenience is also a factor. Today, there are so many devices for listening to your music: TV sound-bars, Bluetooth speakers, iPod/iPhone docks, headphones, car speakers, and even laptop speakers (shudder). Almost none of them actually sound good or give true stereo imaging, but the companies that make them have powerful marketing departments. They’re all sold as “ready to listen” devices. Plug in and press play. But if you only understood what you’re missing! And listening to music that sound this good doesn’t even have to be expensive!

Listening habits have changed, too, but it’s a more fundamental change than saying music is more portable. There are plenty of ways to listen and maintain portability. But stereos are from a different era. Forty or fifty years ago, both adults and kids sat down to listen to an album, although probably still not together and not the same artists. Think about that. When was the last time you sat down and just listened? No phone, computer, or tablet, and not cleaning the house, chatting with friends, exercising, or driving. Music has become, in most instances, background noise.

You notice things when you sit down and listen, especially to good, well-recorded and well-produced music. You notice inflections in people’s voices. You notice the sound of instruments. You realize there are different drums in a drum set. You notice the lyrics and consider what they mean. Music is an emotional art, and that emotion is ripe when you sit quietly and listen to it. Take it in and let it run through you. That’s music.

Turntable by David LenkerA few weeks ago, an old friend was in town. She is one of the few others I know who owns and uses a turntable. This was the first time she had been to our apartment since I have owned a decent stereo. We visited a local record shop, Bullseye Records, where she bought Illinois by Sufjan Stevens. We were both in for a treat the next morning when I put the record on. I, because I had never heard this album before. It’s fantastic. I bought it a few weeks later. She, because she had never heard it on vinyl in stereo. She mentioned afterwards that she should get some real stereo speakers for her ‘table instead of the built-in speakers. (n.b. This post actually has nothing to do with vinyl. Similar results can be obtained with CDs or music downloads. Don’t be discouraged!)

This got me excited because I love to spend other people’s money, but I also love to help them get a good deal and great value for their money. I’ve been reading a lot about home audio lately. I have a subscription to Stereophile magazine, and I read Steve Guttenburg’s blog The Audiophiliac over at CNET. Although Stereophile tends to focus on very high-end equipment, out of the price- and interest-range of 99% of the population, I do keep my radar up for components with particularly high price/performance ratios. Stephen Mejias’ column, The Entry Level, frequently reviews these high-value components. I mentioned to my friend that I had recently read Mejias’ review of a set of decent sounding bookshelf speakers selling for $50/pair, and she seemed interested. A few days ago I read another article from The Audiophiliac recommending pairing these speakers with an inexpensive but high-quality amp. All things considered, with these components you can own a very nice sounding stereo for $70-100.

This made me wonder whether others might be interested in such a set-up. An advantage of building this stereo from components is that you can modify what you buy based on what features you want. Here is the basic stereo I would recommend, including prices.

  • Dayton Audio B652 bookshelf speakers – $40-55 [PE] [Amazon]
  • Lepai LP-2020A+ amplifier (without power cable) – $20 [PE] [Amazon]
  • Recommended upgrade: Power cable (12VDC 5A, only if buying amp without cable) – $15 [PE]
  • Recommended upgrade: Speaker wire (16 AWG OFC) – $9-11 [PE] [Amazon] [Monoprice]
  • Total: $85 + $15 shipping
  • Optional upgrades: Bluetooth input ($20), improved DAC ($40)

People frequently spend this amount of money or much more on a TV sound-bar or Bluetooth speaker or iPod/iPhone speaker dock or even headphones. They’ll spend 4-5 times this much on a “Home Theater in a Box.”  So what about you? Would you ever consider spending $100 to make your music sound infinitely better?

8 thoughts on “Listening

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