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How You Listen to Music Matters

These days, two tin cans with a string between them might actually be better


by Chris Loeffler



I was recently approached to provide initial feedback for a website/service startup that was based on a very interesting user model I’m not permitted to share (NDAs ruin everything). However, one of the things that most stood out to me as a business-model risk was an underlying assumption that most listeners are actively engaged in the music listening experience. This ran counter to my observations, so I decided to dive a little deeper to see what’s happening with music listening.


According to Nielsen ratings, the average American listened to 25 hours of music a week. While 75% of those polled claimed to actively listen to music, more probing questions reveal a different story. 25% of music listening time happens in the car, 15% at work, and 15% while doing chores. This means that, on the average, more than half of our time we spend listening to music is done as a background activity to something we need to do.


As technology continues to pull us forward, with experiences unimaginable even two decades ago (think of how underpowered your desktop in 1997 was compared to an iPhone that can slide into your pocket today), dedicated consumption of media is becoming rarer and rarer. Families watch television together on the same couch while each person has their own supplementary experience with their personal mobile or tablet device. As such, the thought of sitting down in your living room and “putting on an album” sounds quaint.


Decades of audiophiles assembling insane hi-fidelity sound systems to tease every nuance out of a recording has slowly given way to convenience and quantity. While televisions and video media have been pushing to become progressively more high-fidelity with increased resolution, imaging, and sharpness, the general population seems content to watch audio quality slide into lower resolution than the source material - while subjecting the music to more compression for the sake of fitting more music on their devices.


Just as we started hitting a point where storage was getting cheap enough for people to start upping the quality of their music, streaming started taking more and more of our listening time. As of March2017, major streaming services such as iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify use compressed file formats (256 kbps AAC files on iTunes, 320 kbps on Spotify). Compare these to a standard CD (not exactly held up as the epitome of high-fidelity) at 1411 kbps and it’s clear we’re sacrificing 4-6x the information of a CD. To compare this to current hi-res audio, a 24-bit/192 kHz file transfers at a rate of 9216 kbps (yep, more than 6x the quality of a standard CD).


Why all this nerding out over numbers? Unlike video, which consumers have continually insisted improve even if it required jumping technology platforms, music audio quality just doesn’t seem to have the same priority, and a big part of that seems to be tied to the way we listen to music.


Sure, a good song is a good song… many people remember blasting Kashimr on a third-generation cassette tape through a crappy stereo system and thinking it was amazing. That said, artists and recording engineers strive to create an audio experience that can hold its own, without distraction. The proliferation of overly-compressed recordings, cheap headphones, and the general mobility of music makes it easy to dismiss music listening as a stand-alone experience, but there’s an undeniably soul-satisfying experience to be had in putting an album on in your living room, gathering a few friends, and simply experiencing the piece from beginning to end. Take time this week to respect the music you love, and give it your full attention.






Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 



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Tonic2000  |  April 24, 2017 at 7:24 pm
The truth is most people use music to simply change or enhance their mood. If they can hear the melody and beat, that’s enough. Only a minority are born with the sensitivity to be emotionally moved by sonic details, just as most people (including me) weren’t born with the palate to appreciate every nuance of, say, the finest chocolate. And that’s the same as it ever was. In the 90s I worked for Kenwood, a manufacturer of consumer audio gear. Every year, it seemed, some company was hyping a high-resolution audio format that would absolutely, positively, get folks to sit mesmerized in front of their awesome home audio system. It never happened. There was High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD), Digital/Analog/Digital (DAD), Super Audio CD (SACD), and DVD-Audio, not to mention the surround-sound formats that could put you “in the middle of a concert.” They all stiffed. So those of us who do actively listen to music cannot, and should not, expect the general public to ever come around to our particular passion. And that’s okay. That passion is what makes us different. And thankfully, there are enough of us, and the passion is strong enough, that we still get to enjoy an embarrassment of riches, from home recording systems with astonishingly high resolution right down to geeky stomp boxes built with NOS germanium transistors that deliver the exact tone that will send our neurons into ecstasy. As long as that’s the case, I ain’t gonna complain too much about how other people listen, or what they’re willing to listen to.
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