What the hell is ‘sound quality’ anyway?

“People aren’t going to support an artist just because they have an audio file. They have to feel a real connection.”
– Chuck D, Public Enemy

I think going for a drive with loud music coming from the car stereo is one of the best feelings in the world.

Music is different in the car and I’m not just talking about the way it sounds. Music in the car FEELS different. Maybe it’s something to do with gravity. Or friction.

The way music sounds is down to much more than just audio data. The acoustics of the space, the speed of travel and the temperature of the air are all as much a part of the music experience as the actual sound waves being projected.

There are some songs that I prefer listening to through headphones, and never play through speakers.

There are some bands I don’t listen to unless I get a chance to see them live.

There’s some music I only listen to in the morning and some I only bother with at night.

Music isn’t a synonym for audio. Music is the relationship between audio and mood

 

“All you need is ears”
– George Martin, ‘The Fifth Beatle’

I know some people who take audio very seriously, and are happy to shell out for the best sound system they can afford. I can understand why – I always think it sounds amazing when I have the opportunity to hear music through great speakers.

But what I value even more are experiences when music is shared and given a new meaning. Like going for a picnic and bringing a portable speaker. Few things beat getting cosy with great company, great food and great music.

These experiences give life its colour. If we only ever heard music in a ‘studio’ format, in a quiet setting through professional grade equipment, we’d be missing out on a huge amount.

The best audio engineers understand this, and when they’re mixing and mastering in the studio, they make sure to spend some time monitoring through cheap speakers and headphones. This helps them hear little discrepancies that might have sounded fine through studio monitors, but would sound horrible to most of us because we’re not likely to be listening through high-end equipment at home.

It’s one type of feeling to hear a song ‘pure’ – it’s another feeling to hear it dirty.

To be honest, we’re lucky to be living in a time when this is possible. We’re especially fortunate that audio technology has advanced to the point where a tiny bluetooth device is capable of accurately reproducing our favourite songs. Even with a cheap speaker, we can hear details of the music that our grandparents would only have heard if they’d gone to a live show.

There are a million different ways to experience music. Each new context adds another layer of meaning, and the more time you spend with a single piece of music, the more details you pick up. Sometimes I close my eyes and focus entirely on the drums. Sometimes I like to stand on the kitchen table and scream the words to a song, imagining a hundred possible interpretations of the lyrics.

There is no shortage of articles online comparing headphones and speakers in search of the ‘best sound quality.’ What a lot of these articles fail to mention is that sound is deeply personal, and getting as close as possible to the ‘studio sound’ isn’t necessarily what makes music sound good.

Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum.

There are companies out there making headphones and speakers with a built-in bass boost. While few audio engineers would be caught dead listening to music with something that actively compresses the range of frequencies you can hear, this kind of sound signature is a big favourite amongst professional athletes.

“Mixing is way more art and soul than science. We don’t really know what we’re doing. We’ve all been faking it for 40 years. We do it because we love music. It’s what gets me going every day. It’s the love of music first.”
– Eddie Kramer, Audio Engineer for Jimi Hendrix & Led Zeppelin

Bass is an extremely physical way to experience music

The rest of your body is doing just as much listening as your ears. So maybe tactile people tend to love music via that physical feeling, the same way they feel out their environment, seeking the tactical advantage they need to win.

There’s a small tragedy in the audio industry that some of these companies making ultra-bassy headphones are charging their fans extortionate prices for the pleasure. The big deceit comes from the implication that a lot of research and engineering has gone into achieving that compressed, bass-heavy sound. In reality, the bass boost is coming from software, not hardware.

All you really need is a decent pair of over-ear headphones and you can get that same sound – or your own personalised sound – from the EQ on your phone or computer.

So if you’re a music lover, what do you do? The simple answer is listen to music in as many ways as possible, and return to your favourites. For me, live music – loud and in a small venue will always be best. In a car going fast takes second place, and quietly through earbuds before bed is a close third.

Find a setup you can take with you everywhere. A pair of headphones or a portable speaker that can become a part of your identity. Above all, remember that every sound signature is different – the way you hear music is unique.

The only person who gets to decide what sounds good and what sounds bad to your ears is you.