Wednesday, July 01, 2009


"Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers.
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
Its still rock and roll to me."
- Billy Joel

The first time I heard those lines I knew from experience that they were true. Stereo wars in the college dorm rooms only confirmed this awesome truth.

TLD: Stereo wars occurred when someone would toss their door open and start blasting a song; if this gave offense, or if someone just wanted to out-blare the challenger, they, too, would wing open their door and crank it to 11. Turns out that many huge, expensive speakers can win on a sheer decibel level, but rarely on fidelity, and they tended to suck when turned down very low.

I had this pair of speakers that came with my original JC Penny stereo system I'd purchased in early high school. They sounded better at most volumes (save for learjet takeoff levels) than all the other speakers on the dorm floor. I kept those babies until I literally blew them out - the foam that ringed the speaker cone simply shredded one sad day (a couple decades after I got them).

The replacement set, which I purchased in the late 90s, were close in size and specs. to that old pair, and I still think they sound better than most of the stereos I hear at other's houses.

I used to be somewhat of an audiophile. I didn't get into those bizarre turntables that had the platen made of granite floating on a bed of compressed air suspended from the ceiling on a counterweight treated specifically to dampen vibrations, with the strobe light on the side, replete with a complimentary package of plastic sleeves for your vinyl. However, it did need to sound good, so I popped for a Bang ∧ Olufsen turntable, which I have to this day. Still sounds niiiiiiice.

When I use it.

Which these days is about a much as I use my CD player anymore - say 5 times a month, tops.

Which brings me to my point.

My fidelity preferences these days are completely driven by the media itself and not a general desire for the best representation of the media whenever possible. In other words, the song or movie I want to experience drives where I want to hear it or how I watch it.

In this day of portable music, a new unwritten rule has wafted into the cultural air: Don't inflict your music on me, or even your current song choice - even if I like the artist, because you can keep it to yourself, so please do.

Nearly all of my music listening is done through an MP3 player or a computer. Most of that is in headphones of various quality. About the only time I play music out loud is in my own car on the way to and from work (where I don't have the song selection I do on my MP3 players, which annoys me). A third of the time I try to put something on the stereo at home, someone pipes up and says, "Uh, I don't want to listen to that right now."

So, I've stopped buying CDs altogether because I just convert them immediately to MP3s, and music is now largely a private or mobile event for me. No sitting down and absorbing an LP like the old days.

When it comes to movies, I still want to see big event movies with lotsa special effects on the big screen for the obvious reasons (which boil down to an immersive experience), but for comedies and dramas, I prefer to watch them at home. Most comedies these days are released as emasculated PG-13 squankers to bring in the teenage audience, but come out as an "unrated" (essentially a hard "R") version of the same thing, and the latter is always better.

Also, anymore, when you see a comedy in a theatre, some people seem to get offended if you laugh at something they didn't. I've been glared at for laughing during a movie more than once this year. Some people need to chill the fuck out, methinks. Still, it diminishes the experience. I can laugh my ass of on my couch without reprisal.

Today's dramas often have a load of extras on the DVD, so it's kind of a "meta" experience. I often want to back up or watch a scene again if it intrigued the first time, too. Frinsance, when I watched the fantastic Doubt recently, there were a bunch of extras with the author/director about the history of the piece, his inspiration, the fact parts were filmed at the very Catholic school he attended, and so on. Good stuff.

The moral of the story is I find myself mildly surprised that most of my media consumption is purposely mid-fi or even lo-fi. This dawned on me when a couple other music and movie nuts made the observation out loud that they don't go to movies or buy albums anymore. And it wouldn't be that way if there were no such thing as DVD (because I would still see movies in the theatre if we only had mushy old VHS) and MP3.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we have them, because the convenience of use - for me - outstrips the loss of fidelity.

But Billy Joel was more prescient than he realized.

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