The guy over at Monster Shark (he’s my boss, and also my Record Club co-conspirator and alternate-universe co-radio-host) got some new headphones the other week, a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-ES55s, which he said probably weren’t “worth fishing out of a bin for a soundophile such as yourself” but which he was enjoying very much. I don’t actually think I am all that much of a soundophile; certainly not an audiophile. I just like sound.
Actually he didn’t say he was enjoying them; if anything he was a little freaked out by them, and tweeted: “Just bought decent headphones. All the music I thought was simple and minimalist turns out to be full of loads of sounds. Don’t like it.”
This is a pretty common reaction, I think. I remember an article in a hi-fi magazine many years ago where decent mini-systems were pitched against hi-fi separates systems with general music fans, as opposed to audiogeeks, giving their opinions, and several of them found the space and detail wrung out of (if I recall correctly) Ladies & Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael (of all things) by the separates systems to be really weird and off-putting. I’ve gotta say, run Fast Love through a good system, and it is pretty damn awesome sonically, whatever you think of old George as a singer / popstar / songwriter.
It’s fair to say that I’ve been a pretty serious headphone geek at times. Currently I own four different pairs, all for different purposes:
• Sennheiser PMX80s for running and cycling
• Koss Portapros for using with the iPhone when I’m walking around
• Alessandro MS1s (basically retuned Grado SR80s) for indoors when I want something raw, rocking, exciting
• AKG K601s for when I want space, detail, and full-on absorbent listening
I also own a Meier Audio Corda dedicated headphone amplifier, which most people think is insane. All this was bought 4-5 years ago, pre-mortgage. The MS1s and K601s were traded-up to from other headphones that I sold. I spent far too much time hanging out on Head-Fi, which is dangerous. Insane, actually. I’ve not been back there in years and doubt I ever will again.
The rest of the hi-fi is pretty serious stuff, too; that’s it at the top of the post, sans speakers (Bowers & Wilkins). Actually that’s only one hi-fi. There’s a NAD / Q Acoustics CD/amp/speaker trio set-up in the backroom too (which I’m listening to Fennesz on now, as I type). There’s a Denon minisystem in the bedroom. And a B&W Zeppelin iPod dock in the livingroom too, for when we just want to jukebox stuff.
Which probably makes me sound like the most anal audiogeek in the world, but all that stuff isn’t so I can focus on the realism of Norah Jones’ hi-hat sound or whatever. It’s about… pursuing the psychedelic? Perhaps. Both that and also the idea of climbing inside a song or a piece of music. Which I guess is a pretty psychedelic impulse. I’ve always been too much of a scaredy-cat to try actual psychedelic or hallucinogenic substances of any kind (an older, wiser friend at university suggested I was already psychedelic enough; I took his word for it happily), but ever since I was about 15 music has been more about finding a gateway into other places than emotional resonance, as a rule; although of course the two very much go together (likewise my enjoyment of Kurt Vonnegut or Phillip Pullman is as much down to the characters and emotions as it is the ideas on display.)
I interviewed Graham Sutton for Stylus many moons ago, and he said the following:
“I agonise over years and years about a piece of music, fiddle and fiddle with it. It’s like getting a shape in my head, it’s not about a tune or about expressing a feeling; I’m not interested in ‘expressing myself’. I’m trying to build something that works and functions by itself and that I can wander around in, that’s solid and changes my mood and draws me through things, changes me, radically or violently or imperceptibly. I want to end up at a different point, a completely different point than you were at a few minutes ago, but not quite sure how you got there, or even noticed the change happening.”
That sense of sonic architecture has appealed to me since I sat down to do some homework (a rare occurrence) aged 15 and put on some headphones to listen to The Stone Roses’ debut album while I did it. As I Am The Resurrection’s pseudo-funk coda unfurled I noticed sounds in there that I’d never heard before, layers of depth and noise and physicality that drew me in and fascinated me (it’s not even a particularly intricate recording). The same thing happened with In Sides by Orbital a couple of years later, just before my seventeenth birthday, my first exposure to full-on techno (Screamadelica and Björk’s Post as teasers and this as the full-on event), and even on a weedy CD boombox the way layers unfurled and sound unraveled completely entranced me and cast a spell I’ve been hooked into ever since.
Songs and emotions matter massively, of course (although the architectural analogy can be applied to songwriting, too – I recall Martin Carr saying he wanted songs to be like “rooms with many doors”, choices wherein stepping through each one offered a new direction to go in), and sound qua sound for the sake of it is pointless to me. The other night I had a little freakout to Kate Bush’s Aerial and then Electrelane’s The Power Out. It wasn’t that I was only involved in the quality of the sound as an abstract entity, it was that the quality of the sound allowed the suspension of disbelief, as it were, enabled me to forgo pretty much everything else (although not quite – I could still tweet from the iPad, clearly) and just listen and get swept away. It helps to absorb me. Enthrall me.
But this isn’t for everyone; it’s not even for me, all the time – I’ve not spent much time listening via either pair of the serious headphones for a long, long time, and sometimes (now, for instance) I just want to have something nice playing in the room with me so I can absorb it via osmosis rather than submersion. But then comes the moment when I here a new layer of melody and texture in Out There Somewhere Part 2, a song I must have heard dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the last 15 years, or I notice a new subtlety in the mix of a Caribou song, or a drum sound hits me harder and purer than before, and the love and fascination I have for a piece of music gets reinvigorated. I want to be able to sit down in front of a massive pair of speakers and be blown away by music, have it consume me. That’s all.