Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part L: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPod

"You're the last person in the world I'd expect to want one of those," a friend of mine said, when I told him I was thinking about getting an iPod.

Many people assume that I'm sort of Luddite because I prefer vinyl and vintage tube amplification. They have this image of me as someone who fears change, who cringes at the prospect of new technologies, and, from the looks of the some of the emails I received after commenting on the demise of SACD, someone who probably makes his own shoes and churns his own butter. In the real world, however, I'm as much of a gadget-freak as any modern American. I have a cell phone with GPS, a laptop with wireless Internet access, and until recently I even drove an SUV. I embrace any new technology as long as it makes sense.

Satellite radio is a case in point. When I first read about it, I immediately thought, "This is a good idea." I drive a lot for my job, and one of the downsides is commercial radio. Sure, I tried listening to music on the CD player, but my massive Chevy Express work van isn't the smooth, quiet ride I was hoping for, and to tell you the truth, I was getting tired of some of my favorite discs of all time because I was listening to them over and over again, out of boredom. So I'd go back to the radio, listening to the crap that passes for classic rock programming (they started mixing in Kiss and Judas Priest with the Beatles and the Stones!), or worse, what passes for alternative rock these days (Metallica? Cypress Hill? Really?). After a while, I wasn't even really paying attention; there were times when I would listen to twenty minutes of static while driving between metro areas just because I knew there wasn't going to be anything worth the trouble. I grew up listening to FM radio, and frankly it was a tough habit to break.

So the idea of having stations categorized into subsets as specific as "deep album rock" or "punk/hardcore/ska" or "hard alternative" or "underground dance" or "unsigned artists" or even "uncensored comedy" sounded promising (I'm not nuts about the newly added "Voice of Music at Starbucks," however). And the possibility of listening to one single station while driving from coast to coast exceeded my wildest dreams.

Satellite radio was a new idea that I happily patronized, and I didn't think twice about plunking down a couple of hundred dollars for the hardware, plus ten dollars a months for the service. Sure, the sound quality isn't there yet and yes I've always rejected new formats that ignored sound quality over convenience but the quality of programming transcends my reservations. It's a matter of quality over quantity, or, in comparison to the present state of commercial radio, quality and quantity over pure, unadulterated shit.

So where does the iPod come in, especially since I've gone on the record as being (generally) opposed to MP3 and music downloading? Well, for the first time in a while, a new musical delivery system has provided increased convenience, versatility, and portability without sacrificing sound quality. This is very important.

The first time I heard MP3, I was utterly disgusted with the sound quality, and disgusted with the direction that music reproduction was taking. Then I was told that the sound quality of MP3 would be better if you bought this particular piece of software, and coupled it with that particular piece of computer hardware, and then transferred the files using another particular interface, and I was already shouting "Stop, stop, stop!" This is getting way too confusing. This is what's sinking the new digital fomats such as DVD-A and SACD and multi-channel surround and home theatre as we speak. They made it too complicated, and it turned everyone off.

The iPod, however, is simple. It's small. It does everything. You can listen to it in your car, in your home, anywhere. If you like staying home and playing on the computer, you can download new music from there. If you like going shopping at the mall, you can buy your music there. You can download entire albums. You can create your own playlists. It's fucking fabulous. And I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know about the thing.

So the real question is, how can we, the vinyl anachronists of the world, care about such a product? I think the answer is that for the first time ever, no one is trying to replace your record collection with something better. For the first time, a new technology exists that actually complements listening to vinyl.

First of all, the iPod was designed with active people in mind. The last time I checked, listening to vinyl is a fairly passive activity. Sure, there's the beloved ritual of cleaning records, placing them lovingly on the platter, and gently (very very gently, if you own a Koetsu cartridge) lowering the stylus onto that smooth black surface. But you're not exactly burning a lot of calories listening to LPs (digiphiles: insert nasty, sarcastic comment about having to get up every few minutes to flip sides here).

You can't, however, tote your Rega Planar 3 along for a jog through the park, and you can't plop your Music Hall MMF-5 on the dashboard of your Ford Expedition. You see, CDs were designed from the start to be a replacement for LPs and cassettes, to be the Next Thing. So was surround, and DVD-A, and SACD. Sure, when the dust settled, the market for LPs was one-fiftieth (an optimistic figure) the size it used to be. But it didn't go away. That's because true enthusiasts never really stopped listening to LPs. The casual listeners, however, did. And those are the same people who are going to chuck their little silver discs for tiny, microscopic files.

We're really talking about two types of music listeners here, or, if you're me, two sides of the same listener. I think that once you put aside the DJs and turntablists who are, as much as I hate to admit it, helping to keep the vinyl industry vibrant, your typical analog freak is someone who listens to a wide variety of music that may not lend itself well to the iPod format. I'm talking about classical music, and maybe jazz and some other types of music as well. Sure, listening to classical music on your iPod on a plane flight might be the most perfect way to beat jet lag. It doesn't really matter that Apple is marketing the iPod to rock and pop lovers, but let's face it, classical music is dying a slow, protracted death in this country, perhaps the world.

Modern recordings are few and far between, especially if you have to hire an orchestra, pay them union wages, and rent a hall big enough to record them, only to sell a few hundred CDs, which is exactly what's happening these days. In other words, the majority of classical music is available only on, you guessed it, LPs. It's entirely conceivable that classical music may disappear with the Baby Boomers. I really hope that doesn't happen.

The iPod is definitely the wave of the future, but LPs will keep us connected to the past better than any other format. I've heard some of the iPod backlash, however. One thing that keeps popping up is that music downloading is killing the album as a general concept. It's all about the singles, the songs, the quick buck.

Well, ignore for a minute that many people choose to download entire albums into their iPod, and I still don't know if this is such a bad thing. At first I agreed, thinking of The White Album or Doolittle or Double Nickels On the Dime or Trout Mask Replica, and how such great, idiosyncratic works of art could never have been created in the Age of Downloads.

Then I started thinking about my record collection, about how many albums were truly irreplaceable as a whole. Was it ten percent? Five percent? Less? I mean, every White Album has its "Revolution #9" and every Synchronicity has its "Mother" (for the record, I dig "#9"). When it comes down to it, most of the albums I own are about certain songs, rather than the whole. I like these four songs on this album, and these three songs on that one.

I have at least a hundred albums that I bought because of one song, and wound up liking only that one song. Conversely, I can think of only one album, the Pixies' Doolittle, where I bought it because of one song (as thousands did), and wound up liking the rest of the album so much more. It's always been more about the songs, not the albums. But as I said, it's all moot, because you can download all nine Beethoven symphonies in one file if you're so inclined.

Another complaint I've heard, and it's a calculated, desperate, unsympathetic one, is that the iPod is going to ruin the ruin the music industry. I'm sure, however, that most music lovers agree that if any chunk of earth deserves to be scorched, it's this one. I'm not going to bore you with countless tales of music industry greed and corruption, but in the last couple of years I've had a few people in my personal life get utterly screwed by you-know-who, so I'm all for burning the motherfucker down.

Think about it. Now bands can start a website, let you download the music directly to your iPod or MP3 player, and all the money can go to a worthy cause, like paying the bass player's rent. So what if Tommy Mottola has to sell one of two of his Maybachs? Most people have to agree that this is a truly beautiful thing, and may ultimately lead to a great, prolific period of music-making in our society.

I'm seeing nothing but upside lately. For instance, the headphone market seems to be reviving. For a while, this marketing segment was experiencing the same catastrophic downsizing as the analog industry. It was all about cheap, plastic $12 earbuds from the likes of Memorex, and not much else. Now, people are rediscovering the importance of a great-sounding set of cans, from such legendary companies as Sennheiser, Stax, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Grado and Sony (yes, that Sony they actually do make one thing pretty well).

There's even been some innovative expansion within the "in-the-ear" phone industry, which features small transducers that actually fit inside the ear canal and offer incredible sound (just keep the volume low, as this type of headphone will damage your hearing rather quickly). Many of these companies, such as Etymotic Research, were actually in the hearing-aid biz first, so they know a little bit about the right design and fit. Other companies, such as old and venerable Shure, have found a new lease on life by introducing a line of affordable earphones with outstanding performance (although they recently discontinued their legendary V-15MxR phono cartridge, a fact I hope is unrelated).

And finally, let's talk about that sound quality. Is it really that good? Well, David Wilson, who designs and manufactures the excellent and extremely pricey Wilson loudspeakers their cheapest model is in the five-figure range played a trick on an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show last year by demonstrating his Sophia speakers with what he said was a $25,000 CD player. After the folks ooh-ed and aah-ed sufficiently, he revealed that it was, indeed an iPod.

In fact, there is a flurry of development right now in the high-end industry to provide appropriate interfaces (i.e. docking platforms) so that people can insert their iPods into the finest of home systems. I even saw a recent article in the magazine Details which featured such a system, with a Bel Canto integrated amplifier (nice!), Martin-Logan electrostatic speakers (very nice!), and an iPod docking platform from Bose (D'oh!).

This is all good news for vinyl lovers. After playing around with an iPod or two, I feel more confident than ever that the LP will survive longer than any of us could have dreamed. I wish I could say the same thing about SACD, a promising digital format that truly seems to be on its last legs, or the CD, which experiences declining sales year after year. Truly, the iPod has fulfilled the promise of digital without affecting those who truly are in it for the sound and soul of the music. Imagine what would have happened if Sony had invented it!

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