The broadcast student was sitting across from me. She’d come to me with a problem.
“I can’t tell the difference between something that sounds good and something that doesn’t.” She looked up, genuinely confused. “My professors point out things in my projects they say don’t sound right, but I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I…I…can’t seem to hear what they hear.”
It had nothing to do with her ears or auditory cortex. The problem was on the table in front of her.
“When you listen to music on your own time, how do you listen?” I asked.
She paused for a second. “My laptop. Why?”
“No earbuds or headphones? No speakers? Do you plug your computer into anything to hear the music.”
She looked very confused. “No, why? I can hear things fine out of the computer speakers. That’s good enough.”
And therein lies the problem. Since the rise of MP3s and iPods, the world has welcomed a generation of people for home “good enough” audio is, well, good enough. They’ve known little more than compressed audio coming through crappy earbuds or through laptop speakers. For them, a $100 Bluetooth speaker is the height of high-fidelity. CDs? A waste of time and money. Vinyl? Hipster nonsense.
I had a similar conversation with a 17 year-old. When I asked where she got her music, she replied, “I just make rips from YouTube. That’s good enough. I really don’t need anything better.”
This is the kind of stuff that makes people who enjoy full-frequency, high-fidelity audio cringe. Those of a certain age will remember when people in their teens and twenties spend unholy sums on amplifiers, speakers and other electronics. Back in the 70s and 80s, before the Internet, we spent a lot–and I a LOT–on audio gear in a vain attempt to hear music in perfect, flawless fidelity. (Go here for a wistful look back at that era.)
Happily, all is not lost. In recent years, we’ve seen tentative steps towards making high fidelity A Thing once again. The resurrection of vinyl is an example of how we’ve gone back to technologies of the past in order to hear music in all its glory. And there’s daylight on the digital side, too.
You’ve probably heard Neil Young’s rants against bad audio, a campaign that resulted in the introduction of his Pono player. Sony has a line of High-Resolution Audio players. Sites like HD Tracks offer downloads of music files that contain far, far more information than anything anyone will ever find on iTunes.
All this does my heart much good. And I love it that more companies are entering this space.
The latest is Technics which earlier this week launched a High-Res download store in Canada. Technics Tracks offers Canada’s largest collection of 24 and 16 bit FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio song downloads. And damn, this stuff sounds good.
I downloaded a selection of tracks into my Windows computer and played them back through the Windows 10 Groove Music app. (Don’t try playing FLAC files through iTunes; it won’t. You’ll need to download a FLAC player . And don’t worry, there are plenty of free ones for both PC and Mac.) My computer’s audio card is connected to 100 amplifier which drives a 5.1 Mission speaker system in my office. While I lack an external DAC (digital-to-audio-converter), I figured that this would be a good raw test of the material sold through Technics Tracks.
First up was a High-Res recording of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a song recorded on analogue tape in a 16-track studio back in 1971–and a song I’ve heard thousands of times. Immediately, though, I heard details within the music that were brand new to me.
John Entwhistle’s bass had a presence was bolder and more defined. When Pete Townshend hits a power chord as the song slides into the quiet keyboard bridge, the sustain is clean and clear and fades into a perfect silence. And when Roger Daltrey lets loose with his famous “YYYYYYEEEEEAAHHHHHH” before the song’s denouement, you can actually hear the capsule in the microphone buckle under the strain.
Time for another test. I selected “Rehab” from Amy Winehouse’s 2006 Back to Black album, a record made under old school with Amy’s backup band (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) set up in a single room playing together. The snare, bass drum and the saxophone were noticeably…something. Whatever that something was, it was better, brighter, bigger, bolder, more defined.
I went through a few more tracks. Experimental electronic stuff from Jean-Michel Jarre. Back to The Who for “Pinball Wizard” from Tommy. A couple of songs from Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier. The sloppiness of “Shattered” from the Stones’ Some Girls album. Check, check and check.
I’d always felt that Led Zeppelin IV was originally given a muddy mix by Jimmy Page; a lot of that mud that spackled songs like “Rock and Roll” disappears under the High-Res treatment.
Everything–and I do mean everything–I auditioned revealed new layers of songs I thought I knew intimately. I made a note to download some jazz and classical pieces to see if they might offer up some chills and thrills with their high-fidelity range.
Not all the music on Technics Tracks is certified High-Res, but all of it is in at least 16-bit FLAC. Some albums need to be purchased whole while others allow for individual song downloads. Prices start from 79 cents a song and $10.99 an album.
When I started poking around other areas of the site I was led to a dangerous place: a selection of glorious audio gear optimized for High-Res audio.
The entry level system runs for $6,000. But if you’ve got the dosh, there’s a system worth $70,000. I’ve been promised a chance to listen to that gear in the coming weeks. More gear will be introduced throughout 2016. Meanwhile, Panasonic (parent company of Technics) has some equipment that will handle High-Res just find and it starts at $350.
If you treasure music in its high-fidelity glory, give Technics Tracks a look and listen. After years of depriving your pleasure centres with MP3s, it will be a very pleasant shock to the system.