I make no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of computer audio. Partly, I am sure it is because I am something of a technical Luddite or perhaps it’s a generational thing. More importantly it seems to me to change the whole nature of the hobby. It appears to be a yet another great dumbing down exercise, reducing everything to the level of disposable elevator music or muzak as we used to call it. In the world of computerised music there seems to be little intellectual curiosity about the music, composers or artistes nor is there any desire to understand the context in which a piece was written or performed. In short it’s completely sterile. In my tactless moments I refer to hard drives used for storing music as “musical dustbins”. There is something incongruous about seeing a magnificent hi fi system with a laptop computer at its heart. On the one hand you have equipment which has been meticulously and lovingly crafted, every minuscule detail of which has been honed to perfection to reproduce faithfully the tiniest nuance of sound in a recorded performance. On the other hand a non-descript box, the component parts of which were bought by the pound where sound quality was not even considered. Many times at hi fi shows I have asked an exhibitor, playing an interesting piece from a computer source what he is playing, only to be met by a “lights are on but nobody’s in” look which basically means he doesn’t have a clue and couldn’t care less anyway. The music is incidental and unimportant – but just look at my boxes!
Now a vinyl record, there is a horse of a completely different colour. It’s a lovely thing to handle and own as well as providing first class sound. It also comes with all the information you could want as part of the standard package. There is something significant and memorable about getting a record from the cabinet, removing it from its sleeve, placing it on the platter, placing the stylus in the groove and waiting expectantly for the music to begin. I still play records that I bought nearly 50 years ago, and in many cases I can remember where and when I bought them or who gave them to me. They form a part of the musical fabric of my life. I remember having a visit from an old friend and I played him some piano music. At the end of the record I asked him if there was anything significant about it that he could think of, to which he replied no there was nothing that came to mind. I then told him he and his wife had given me the record as a 21st birthday present. On another occasion, I played a record and remembered that I bought it in Guildford in 1986 following a successful interview for an important new job which changed the direction of my career. Other records I can associate with a particular concert I attended. I remember the unalloyed pleasure I felt when finding a nice copy of a record I had spent years searching for. If a curious guest asks about the music he is listening to I just pass the record sleeve.
I cannot imagine an audio enthusiast of the future ever saying many years on “I was surfing the net one day and found this wonderful download on Spotify back in 2015” Alternatively announcing to his wife that he was just off to the local charity shop to buy a few old downloads. Even if this could happen, the technology to play them would have moved on rendering them useless. As I said earlier, it completely changes the nature of the hobby. Music becomes a completely disposable commodity and you don’t even own it, as Bruce Willis found. Looking on the bright side, changing technologies mean that record companies can now sell you the same recordings many times over with consequent benefit to their revenues and profit.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually love digital audio and I listen to red book cd all the time. There are many top class digital recordings around. You only need to look at the Reference Recording catalogue to see this. I simply dislike the computer playback aspect. Computers are prone to failure whether it be software glitches, crashes, viruses or hard drive failures. The operating software is almost impenetrable to the lay person and they also sound poor. Everyone to his own, but it doesn’t even come close to floating my boat. By contrast I can always rely on my record or cd to play first time, and its mine.
A couple of years ago when contributing to a hi-fi forum I came across a very nice chap who was expounding the merits of computer audio. I posted a response along the lines that I had never heard computer audio sounding good. He came back to me saying that I had obviously never heard a well set up computer audio system. We agreed to meet at my house and put it to the test. He brought his computer and DA converter and connected it to my system. He was very knowledgeable about computers but it still took him nearly an hour to get it working. When he had sorted it he recorded a cd from my collection (Frank Sinatra: Nice ‘n Easy: Capitol: 1960) and we did the comparison.
The red book cd through my system was marginally better. There was more detail, better spacial presentation. It was not a “night and day” difference but it was there, and he accepted it. When we went on to compare with the original first label Capitol album on vinyl the gap widened considerably, and when we moved on to the Mobile Fidelity Soundlab audiophile reissue the difference in quality was out of sight. Digital audio with high class playback equipment is superb but laptop computers simply don’t cut it for me.
These views are obviously very personal and I know that there will be many hi fi enthusiasts who will disagree. I must also confess that there is a least a little hypocrisy on my part because I own an iPod, and in its place I love it to bits, though not as a primary music source. The record has been with us now for over 100 years and so far news of its death has been greatly exaggerated and long may it continue.
At this point I shall now retreat to my man cave and close the hatch to dodge the flak arising from this piece. In the meantime happy listening – to your vinyl of course!