Sunday, April 17, 2011

Speakers and My Taste in Music

A discussion of how the quality of your media and speakers affect musical preference

I've gradually come to realize the importance of sound quality, and how it affects your musical taste. Vinnie Paul recently opined that rap music is popular because of modern, over-compressed production, and that if better production was the norm people wouldn't stand for it. I think it suits FM radio well, however, and for people who listen to a lo-fi format, well, maybe a one-dimensional experience is all they really want.

Rockford Fosgate RF White Sticker DecalI've already documented on this site how I listened to a lot of mainstream metal while in high school. What I didn't mention then was that at one time, I got subwoofers in my car. In the late 90's, subwoofers were a big fad, at least where I grew up. It was cool to have Rockford Fosgate subs, and people were so proud of them that they put huge stickers in their back windows to declare that they had Rockfords. (Kind of like a huge sign that says two things: 1. I'm kind of a prick, and 2. Please break into my car to steal my stereo.)

Anyway, even then I had a slightly better ear for music (despite having no musical education to speak of), so I got Kenwood subs, and matching speakers. These things were powerful, and basically (no pun intended) doubled as an electric back massage upgrade for my seats. I soon stopped listening to the famously bass-less . . . And Justice for All (at least in my car) and started listening to more nu-metal. I even, for a brief period, owned a copy of Eminem's breakout album, the only rap album I ever owned, because I was so enthralled with the power of loud bass. The rap quickly lost my interest--at the time I didn't realize it was due to its one-dimensionality--but I still tended to look for music with more bass.

Fast forward about 6 or 7 years, and I was just discovering extreme metal. The speakers I used the most were (a) my built-in laptop speakers, (b) the earbuds that came with my original iPod, and (c) my car stereo. I got slightly better earbuds over time, and even some acceptable headphones, but the music I gravitated towards was very immediate, with a very modern production. I declared several times that technical death metal was my favorite subgenre. Death Magnetic was one of my top albums of 2008, even though it has terrible production. I couldn't tell, with my old headphones.

Led Zeppelin 1Then, I got a good set of headphones. I started to prefer doom and sludge, and the more atmospheric varieties of death metal. (Suffocation still floats to the top, since they have everything.) I even started to understand why people like drone. I've gone back and re-ripped several albums at higher bit rates. Now, I listen to older major-label albums (like Led Zeppelin) and realize that production on some of them was far better than what passes for quality today. But a discussion of production is best saved for another day.

I wonder, if I went all-out and got Bose headphones and listened to everything on vinyl, would I start to listen exclusively to Sunn O)))?


  1. i spent 20 minutes fiddling with my stereo the other day trying to figure out why it sounded like crap only to find out somebody had changed my eq settings. yes, it makes a huge difference.

    and i don't know if new headphones will help, but listen to sunn O))) LOUD.

  2. I was right with you until the Bose comment. Yuck.

  3. @Anonymous: I haven't actually tried Bose. I have tried them on, and it was like heaven--it blocked out all outside sound and it was comfortable. But I didn't actually listen. I used the name by reputation.

    @Andrew Childers: I'll try the loud Sunn O))) the next time I'm at home by myself.

  4. I've listened to Bose ear-buds and wasn't super impressed for the huge price. Wouldn't buy them after listening to them.
    Sound systems can make a Huge impact on what you want to listen to. I still have a fantasy of a nice car stereo system. So the fantasy is over 20 years old, but it's getting closer to reality :)
    I listened to Sepultura on several high quality systems. Surprisingly enough, the one that was closest to being "Bassed out" was one where i could here things that were not evident on the other systems.

  5. Yeah, that's a pretty big issue. To continue my high school era story, Korn's "Dead Bodies Everywhere" has some really deep bass that I had no idea existed until I got subs. I lost that stuff for several years until I got my new headphones, and I can hear it again.

  6. Interesting post. Thinking back, a huge part of my love of jungle in the UK in the mid 90s was from listening to the massive bass on huge club soundsystems or the big bass tube in my mate's car! It's completely emasculated and dull on crap speakers. Like you, listening on decent headphones has pushed me towards the atmospheric side of doom and sludge. Kylesa's Spiral Shadow is just great on good headphones.

    I do think you are wrong about hip-hop though. The good stuff is far from one-dimensional from a sonic perspective, quite the opposite.

  7. I'll take your word for it, as I had no idea there was such a thing as good hip hop, or even hip hop with anything more than computer-produced-and/or-replicated beats. I've never felt compelled to seek it out, nor have I been exposed to it. I'll stay in my bubble, if a bubble it is.

  8. @kelly - fair enough! To each their own and all that. I can understand your position given that you live in the US and the sheer ubiquity of horrible commercial rap over there would be enough to put anyone off. Just as with almost any kind of music though there's an incredibly fertile and interesting underground. That said, these days I don't listen to much any more, preferring the sludgier strains of metal.

  9. Sound quality can indeed be a huge issue in listening to music. My car actually has a decent sound system, but while it was out of commission I had to play most of my music over my crappy computer speakers. The difference was enormous.

  10. I know this is an old post, but:

    Cool article! Love some good headphones.