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Steve F

Classical music and today's listening habits

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In “days past,” well-recorded classical music was the ultimate test of a high-fidelity home playback system. Obviously, for a number of reasons, it seems that classical music no longer holds the same position for the evaluation of home music playback quality that it once did.

Most of us on this Forum—with all due apologies to Charger, Joe N, Mark and a few others—are in the 40-ish to 60-ish year old category. We have a remembrance from 20 or 30 years ago to listening closely, critically, to music at home for hours on end, uninterrupted. Perhaps some of us still have the time to do so.

However, things in the wider marketplace have changed dramatically. I’ll make an observation that may elicit howls of protest or cheers of agreement, but here it is: Most people today, especially younger than us (again, apologies in advance to the younger people on the Forum if this generalization doesn’t apply to them), use music as a kind of “aural wallpaper,” something that occupies a background position, but does not command their primary attention. As such, their requirements for super-fidelity equipment and recordings are much different—much less—than ours were. The primary requirements for them are convenience, clarity, ease of use, reliability, and affordability.

I can remember—vividly!—arguing with my friend (a Large Advent owner) that my 2ax’s did a better job of reproducing the unique sound of Mel Lewis’ 20” Zildjian pang cymbal (a very unique-sounding gong-like cymbal) than did his Advents. We would play the track “Tow Away Zone” from the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band album “Cenral Park North” over and over and over again, hanging on every note, listening intently as Lewis switched from his regular ride cymbal to the pang ride as the chorus switched from Joe Farrell’s sax solo to Eddie Daniels’ sax solo.

People don’t listen that way anymore. Not as a matter of course. But I did. You did too. It was just what we did.

So…are today’s manufacturer’s simply responding to the new realities of the marketplace’s requirements when they make today’s equipment?

I said the following in a post last April and it’s still relevant to this discussion:

1. Convenience, not ultimate quality, is king. Now that playback quality has reached a pretty high default minimum level, it’s convenience that rules. The iPod is an excellent example. Not really as good as a CD, even to so-called untrained ears, but pretty darned good on an absolute basis nonetheless. Do people sample at the highest rate for best quality, even though that means fewer songs will fit? No, they sample at the lowest rate, to fit the maximum number of songs. Know why? Because to the average user, the lowest sampling rate still sounds acceptably good. Far better than their $29 GE clock radio. Good enough so that quality is not the issue. Quality has passed the threshold to where convenience now is paramount. But in 1969, we argued over every subtle difference between the Advent and the 2ax. Not anymore for today’s 25-40 year-old. Convenience is king because quality is more or less automatic and expected.

2. There is so much competition for today’s discretionary hobby/leisure time dollar that audio/sit-at-home music listening is yesterday’s pastime. Now there are computers, DVD, soccer moms, golf, you name it, all manner of activities and distractions that we, as 50-somethings, either didn’t have at all or didn’t have to anywhere near the same degree in the 60’s and 70’s. When was the last time you just sat down on a Saturday afternoon and spent 3 hours listening to music on your system? More importantly, have your adult children EVER done that? No, they haven’t. (At least mine haven’t, and if you’re honest, yours haven’t either.)

I’d love to get the Forum’s feedback on this.

Steve F.

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Steve, I'm 58 years old and I agree with everything you said in your post. My 4 grown children, ages 22 through 31 are perfect examples........they don't really listen to music, even though it was always on when they were growing up, and they saw me intently listening to the "stereo." My eldest son loves classical, but he uses it as background, or "aural wallpaper." The others have an appreciation for music in general, all having played instruments in school, but the sound quality is not that important to them.

Well, at least they're not Yankee fans, so I must have done something right. :D

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The capriciousness of the popular culture may keep the trite in fashion for years, weeks, or days but great music like all great art transcends time and lasts for centuries, who knows even millenia. Some people may feel that Pink Floyd will always be remembered. A few generations ago that's how people felt about the Beatles. A few generations before the Beatles that's how they felt about Rudy Valley. But before long they are gone like so much dust in the wind. Art of real power and value fascinates people of all times and in all cultures. China's suddenly affluent middle class is just beginning to discover western classical music and develop a passion for it. Here's an opinion which might give some insight into what I'm saying;

"men die and governments change but the arias of La Boheme will live forever."

Thomas Alva Edison

Among those who know this music in its true form, not the trite pop culture caricatures of it which appear now and then, I think few would argue Edison's point. It's every bit as thrilling as it was over a hundred years ago when it was first performed and the critics panned it. It's in a lot of good company.

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Some good points, Steve, and I wonder whether it's possible that the ubiquity of music, and its easy availability has brought about your observed change in listening habits.

That is, music wasn't *everywhere* 40 or 50 years ago - one actually had to be proactive (sorry - I hate that effin' word) in seeking it out. Sure, the radio was available, but that was largely by choice, and people weren't so often held hostage to another person's musical taste at work, the 7/11, the bank, the doctor's office, etc., etc. No kidding - just try to get through a normal day without being subjected to somebody else's music - it ain't possible.

Anyway, in this context, it's probably difficult for most young people to not take for granted something so commonplace, and obtainable. The very fact that most of we older guys needed to discover, physically seek out, and then purchase our music probably contributed to our perception of it as being something special, and worthy of attention.

I'm certain that this notion still exists at some level, but people are products of their environment, and just as the 20th Century's growing availability of *recorded* music caused a paradigm shift from what had been normal listening experiences in previous eras, so has the modern situation had an effect, and brought us to this current state.

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A couple of uneducated observations here if I may.

1. Today's stereo consumer is not paying much compared to the coin that Steve and his buddy laid out for their 2ax's and large Advents. As a result, I really don't think they are expecting that much. We really are gobbling up low-cost offshore stuff as fast as it can be produced.

2. I think even in the 1960's, the majority of consumers were probably happy with the convienience of their consoles, transistor radios etc. Many of them probably used music as background much in the same way as today's consumers do. My sense of it is that the 70's brought a wider interest in Hi Fidelity. Even then I suspect that many non-enthusiast consumers were engaged in the market for various reasons; keeping up with the Jones', scoring with girls etc etc.

I guess that we can all agree that there are fewer Hi Fi enthusiasts now relative to previous decades.

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Most public schools and possibly many private schools have dropped music appreciation classes due to lack of funding or a shift in priorities. As a result, many children grow up never even having heard recordings of classical music let alone the real thing. Still we get a surprising number of children who want to study string instruments and piano here despite the fact that the only advertising is through word of mouth and as a referral from a local music store. For a rural area, it's surprising. I don't know what the worldwide interest is but I'd say that as a percentage of populaton in most places it's probably very low. But even a few percent is still a large number of people. I think at least most major cities in most major countries at least in the developed world have at least one professional symphony orchestra.

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Hi there;

During my high school days, maybe once a year, we would be bussed to a larger school auditorium for a session with our local symphony orchestra.

I did not appreciate what I was being exposed to at that time.

It would not be until after I graduated that I got the hifi bug.

CCR and such came first, and after a short while I grew tired, actually my hearing grew worse, I started listening to classical.

Today I enjoy the relaxing classical, moreso.

I only wish I had been encourged to listen more when I was in school.

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Guest Bret

Steve,

I couldn’t help but notice that you proposed classical music as the ultimate test of hi-fi in “our day,” then said how much fun you had arguing about the nuances of a Zildjian pang on a jazz record. Based on similar experiences I cannot agree with the notion that any genre of music is the most critical test of home audio.

Maybe, Steve, what we’re really remembering is that those of us who cared what our systems sounded like considered classical music the ultimate test of our ability to fully appreciate nuances.

It is exactly as you say with regard to “minimum acceptable quality,” except that finally storage is cheap enough that boy kids do record their CDs to WMA files at higher sample rates (and brag about it). But my son’s 30GB Zen with Shure ear-buds does really sound better than my records used to through my receiver and costly headphones in the early 70s.

>So…are today’s manufacturer’s simply responding to the new realities of the marketplace’s requirements when they make today’s equipment?<

My answer to this question is a resounding “No!” Only convenience sells because only convenience is sold. I have a decent system, not great, but pretty good. I also carry a tiny MP3 player with me on trips. See?

A better illustration: I have a 56" DLP 1080p HDTV. I also have a 2.5" Casio portable TV. I use both, but not for the same reason. I can watch the local news on either one and don't care about the "quality of the experience," but I'd never choose the Casio to watch "The Fifth Element." (or "Rear Window")

iPods are selling and good stereo gear isn’t because i-stuff is being promoted and sold and good stereo equipment is not. The two things are different experiences, but there is no attempt to market the superior experience. Most youngsters don't even know what they are missing.

I suspect the iPod is vastly more profitable to manufacture.

As for pass-times “Captain Blaster Blowing Guts from Aliens IV” for PS2 is not a superior experience to “The Goldberg Variations” but alien guts have been made to sound like more fun by advertising. . .

Okay, okay, I was stretching it a little: An afternoon as Captain Blaster knee deep in alien guts is probably superior to an afternoon in the Goldberg Variations, but aren't there enough afternoons for great big gobs of greasy grimy alien guts and maybe, Purcell?

We’ve had three local teenage suicides in the last six weeks. One of them was at my son’s school, the eldest son of one of my classmates. We need to learn to slow down and care; Care about everything including what our music sounds like; whether that cymbal sounds like a Zildjian or more like a Paiste on our systems should matter at least some, but that we take time to notice is the important thing.

We need to take the time to notice the quality of things and have a single quality experience once in a while rather than a lot of really questionable experiences. I don’t want to go back to Swine flu, or JFKs splendid little war, or big wallowy four-ton sedans, or disco. This isn’t about nostalgia. It’s about what we should have brought forward and didn't.

I can't imagine Sony trying to sell us the idea that their tiny little portable TV is to be used to watch "24" instead of their HD home theater system, so I don't understand iPods supplanting home stereos.

My attitude toward genre is this: If my system can play the cello in “Eleanor Rigby,” it can play the cello in “The Four Seasons.” If it can play the violins in ELO’s “Shine a Little Love,” it can play the violin in Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major.” If it can play the organ in Bach’s “Fantasia & Fugue in G minor,” it’s not going to have any trouble with the organ in Yes’s “Parallels.”

Advertising absolutely does work.

Bret

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Guest mdavis

At 60-plus, my hearing acuity is no longer "flat" as I liked to think it was back in my early listening days. A stint in the Army with time on the firing range, a few years of quail hunting, a couple of concerts that were WAY over-amped to compensate for the mediocre musicians, sessions with the lawn mower and weed eater, and the ravages of time have all combined to give me a slight dip in the center of the frequency response curve.

I bought my AR-3a's while in the Army and had them shipped to my fiancee in the states. No discount, just the best I could possibly afford. I used the original AR turntable for years, then went to a PE-2040 changer which has since given up the ghost, and now a Technics SLP-1200 MkIII to hold my Shure V-15 type III Improved cartridge. I still listen to vinyl, although my favorite war horses are also dubbed to CDs in the interests of preserving my diamond stylus (now apparently irreplacable) and the recording.

I still work full time, so listening time is rare. My wife and I usually spend time in the evenings at the TV, and my current project is to clean the pots on the AR-3a's for the front side speakers, and the AR-4x's for the rears, with a JBL N-center on top of the entertainment center, pushed by a Sony 500W amp. We do watch a few movies (DVD rentals mostly), and the speakers are used mostly for that purpose unless the wife is away, when I can put on my classical or jazz and just LISTEN. My jazz choices are almost all classical jazz (Brubeck, Davis, MJQ, Evans, Marsalis, Peterson, etc.)

Many years ago in college, I had a choice between Intro to Art and Intro to Music. I chose the latter because it fit my academic schedule better. I learned the joys of classical music which pushed my interest in the ARs, and I devoured the stereo magazines and read every review I could find. I bought the AR-3a's based on their "table flat" response curves and their repeated success in blind recorded vs. live comparisons. I also had an FCC license to "baby sit" the college radio station transmitter, and spent many hours in the basement studio listening to their vast collection of jazz and classical both on and off-air while studying. That love has never left me. My greatest fear of old age is losing my hearing. So far, so good. My ARs should outlive me with a bit of care.

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