• When Sound Quality Just Doesn't Matter

    As a long time audiophile I've certainly gone through phases when sound quality trumped content. Many of us have taken this detour once or twice during our enjoyment of high end audio. Albums like Californication from Red Hot Chili Peppers sound terrible after listening to a high resolution version of Chinese toothpick flicking. Californication is one of my favorite albums even though the dynamic range compression is overbearing at times. Whenever I catch myself unwilling to listen to my favorite albums because of the inferior sonic quality I know something is wrong and I've gone off course. Nearly 100% of the time I would rather listening to my favorite content through an AM radio than listen to a Scottish nose whistle recorded at 24/192 and impeccably produced. What follows is my story about a recent experience with some friends, three laptops, an Airport Express, an old Denon receiver, and some boom-box speakers. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed such low quality sound so much. This is an example of what happens when one takes a break from the all too serious nature of our wonderful hobby.



    The Event

    Last week my wife and I got together with three other couples for the evening. The get-together was not at our home so I brought my secret weapon, a $99 Apple Airport Express. The AE along with my MacBook Pro, small external hard drive, and analog cables & adapter were a hit! Soon after the first notes were played wirelessly from my laptop two of my friends busted out their laptops and asked if "This wireless thing" would work with their computers. "Of course it will work," I said. This was the beginning of many hours of laughs, dancing, and pure enjoyment of three disparate music collections.


    The Components

    The house where this party took place had an audio system that was less than a home theater in-a-box. An old Denon receiver connected to some old boom-box speakers and the cable box. Yes, the speakers were literally detached from an old school ghetto blaster. I brought over an Apple Airport Express with some inexpensive analog RCA cables and a $1.26 3.5mm Stereo (Male) to Dual RCA (Female) Adapter. Sure I could have brought a mini TosLink optical cable but the chances were greater that the audio system would have some type of analog input.

    Upon arrival at the party I reset the Airport Express to its default settings. This enabled any wireless device to connect to the wide open network without a password. The AE was not connected to any physical or other wireless network. This would have required unneeded configuration. All I wanted to do was play music by connecting my MacBook Pro to the AE via wireless. I put the 3.5mm to RCA adapter into the AE then connected the RCA cables from the adapter to the receiver's analog CD input. The physical connections were complete.

    I started my MacBook Pro, opened iTunes and checked the box to "Look for remote speakers connected with AirTunes." After clicking OK the name "Apple Network 01e8df" appeared as one option to send the audio output of my laptop. In a matter of seconds I was playing music for the group of people while sitting next to them at the table. Most CA readers realize this type of playback does not take a rocket scientist to setup or understand. However, my friends are involved in many other ventures that consume much of their time. They love music as much as I, but didn't even know such an apparatus like the Airport Express exists. In no time at all two friends brought their laptops over to the table where I was sitting. One older MacBook Pro and one older Dell laptop. Both guys use iTunes and download heavily from the iTunes Store. I selected the "Apple Network 01e8df" as the audio output on both laptops and it was all systems go.


    A Great Time Was Had By All

    Once the minor system setup was completed the fun began. Nobody at the party was very familiar with each of our music libraries. This lead to hours of, "Hey do you have this song?" Or, "What about some old school from that artists?" After the requests died down the three of us "DJs" took turns playing songs. Each of us played three songs in a row while the rest of the partygoers made their love or hate of each song well known. We all know after a few drinks people tend to let their opinions flow freely. It was all in good spirit and we laughed as one or two songs received the verbal gong reminiscent of the late 1970s TV show The Gong Show. It was clear a song was a hit with the group when cheers and dancing ensued. On a technical note, when switching from one computer to another for playback there was about five to ten seconds of dead air. The Airport Express locks on to a specific computer during playback. It does not release this lock immediately after each track. In an effort to speed up this relinquishing of the AE the next person with his tracks queued up would try to play through the AE. This produced an error message about the AE being locked by another user. After three messages the system was ready to play through next computer. This did not even phase us as we were having so much fun and the other two guys with computers were still in awe that wireless playback existed.

    The music in my library was all Apple Lossless stored on a little 500GB Seagate FreeAgent Go USB drive. The others' music was stored locally in 128 & 256 kbps from iTunes. Some with DRM and some without such crippleware. Not a single person at the party mentioned anything about sound quality. There was no talk about bit rate, lossy CODECs, or the analog versus digital feed from the Airport Express. The evening was what this hobby is all about. Enjoying music to the fullest. At times the fullest involves low bit rate lossy playback. During some of the tracks I cringed because I had a lossless version of the currently playing track one click away on my hard drive. I'm sure I would have been a hit at the party if I stopped playback several times only to insert this lossless version. Yeah right. A party is the last place to introduce the concept of good sound. I'm also pretty sure the playback system masked any benefit of my lossless file playback.


    Closing Time

    By the end of the evening after hundreds of songs had been played the three of us were almost out of material. Not because we didn't have other songs to play, but because some songs just aren't hits at all parties. I would have loved to hear a little Chet Baker followed by the 19:00 minute live version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida but that wasn't going to happen. I left the party with a long list of CDs I needed to purchase. I vowed to myself to never be without some of the material requested by partygoers. Part of this vow was to avoid the disappointment of not being able to play a fun song, and part of this involved my pride in having a large music collection that contained the mythical "everything." Nonetheless adding more music to my collection as a result of a fun party is a great outcome from a great evening.




    • Apple Airport Express $99 Link

    • 3.5mm to RCA adapter $1.26 Link

    • RCA cables of choice


    • Apple Airport Express $99 Link

    • 3.5-mm Male to RCA Y Cable $11.14 Link

    Comments 39 Comments
    1. Paul R's Avatar
      Paul R -
      All Right Chris! <br />
      <br />
      This was a good story, and one I appreciate to the fullest! And I am glad you guys had such a good party too. <br />
      <br />
      -Paul<br />
    1. BobH's Avatar
      BobH -
      Amen to that! Well, I'm not so sure the 'Bring your own Laptop - AE provided' party is going to catch on, but the 'Let's have some fun with music' sentiment jolly well ought to! Don't get me wrong, I love my system as much as the next person but it's definitely not always about quality. <br />
      <br />
      Got some cleaning to do? iPod/Headphones/Led Zeppelin - 'You Shook Me' - job done!<br />
      <br />
      Gotta sit and wait for a trim in that dreadful unisex salon full of under-dressed teenage girls? iPod/Headphones/ACDC - 'The Jack' - try not to grin!<br />
      <br />
      Got the house to yourself? iPod/Headphones/Pink Floyd - 'Comfortably Numb' - air guitar hero!<br />
      <br />
      If it's fun your after then I'm all for it - make mine a double jitter and distortion!
    1. wgb113's Avatar
      wgb113 -
      This should be required reading for all of us...MONTHLY! Too often even forums like this one get bogged down in the microdynamic details and we forget what brought us here in the first place...MUSIC.<br />
      <br />
      My rule of thumb is to keep my media collection at a minimum 2:1 ratio with my equipment. <br />
      <br />
    1. barrows's Avatar
      barrows -
      Great story. It is never too late for all audiophiles to be reminded, that ultimately, it is about the music.<br />
      As a lover of many types of music, I often listen to music which is not exactly the best quality recording, and I demand that my system can accommodate lesser recordings without highlighting the faults in those recordings too much-a slightly warm tonal balance usually helps here.<br />
      This morning I listened to a complete Smashing Pumpkins concert download, almost three hours long, great music to me, but the recording is pretty flat (compressed, loud), I was loving it for the music!
    1. Mark Wieman's Avatar
      Mark Wieman -
      Great post, Chris. I've had a few nights like this, although not recently enough. The best party music I own is on a pair of Meters records from the late '60s. Their self-titled and Look-Ka Py Py albums are terrific for parties. Highly recommended!
    1. IamKirk's Avatar
      IamKirk -
      Iggy Pop - The Passenger!<br />
      <br />
      aside: I won't even listen to people that stutter.
    1. got tinnitus's Avatar
      got tinnitus -
      Nothing wrong with slumming it on the audio front. Have Mac Book, have party.<br />
      <br />
      Over Xmas we went "camping" in a converted Toyota bus, Winnebago style. <br />
      I took along my Mac Book and hard drive so I had every CD I own available.<br />
      Hooked up to a early 1990's Sony Ghetto Blaster via 3.5/RCA, it kicked asre. Not once did I miss my Rig.<br />
      <br />
    1. John's Avatar
      John -
      Great post Chris. I saw two teenage girls on a train recently, listening to some chart music on a mobile phone through the built in loudspeaker. Can't get lower-fi than that. Anyway, they started passing the phone to each other and putting the speaker end into their mouths each one competing to add the best phasey/flangey back beat. Thay were not just diging the music, they were interacting with it. They were also pissing themselves laughing and seeming to have a beter time than I ever had with my "hi-fi". Makes you think.<br />
      <br />
      Btw, californication is not so bad on vinyl. You might want to rip a copy. <br />
      <br />
    1. MusicTrax's Avatar
      MusicTrax -
      I agree completely with Chris. Sometimes, it's all about the content, and quality is secondary. <br />
      <br />
      J. Gordon Holt of <i>Stereophile</i> often used to comment that there was a weird inverse rule that applied to "audiophile" releases: the better the sound quality, the worse the performance. And sometimes, just pulling out an old vinyl record gave you the most emotionally-satisfying playback, cracks, pops & all.<br />
      <br />
      I'll say this, though: I can still hear bad compression artifacts on cheap systems, even boomboxes. Once you know what to listen for, it's grating on everything. At 256K and above, I can't hear it enough to bother me most of the time. But if I know it's lossless, I can psychologically relax more -- whether because of the lack of artifacts or not.
    1. timztunz's Avatar
      timztunz -
      Excellent story! Very enjoyable read and a gentle reminder to what all of this is really about, The Music. Thanks Chris.
    1. MoreBourbon's Avatar
      MoreBourbon -
      Thanks for that Chris. In the same vein, a Rhapsody "all-you-can-eat" subscription together with a Sonos system is terrific for parties. Your partygoers can pass the Sonos remote around (or an iPhone or iPod Touch with the Sonos app) and queue up almost any conceivable song on the planet.
    1. firedog's Avatar
      firedog -
      Chris-<br />
      <br />
      I don't forget what music is really about, but some modern releases are so volume compressed that the resulting sound literally gives me a headache after a few minutes.<br />
      <br />
      I can't listen to such recordings on audiophile equipment - because it does its job and reproduces the awful sound of the original. I can only listen to these recordings on a low fi device like a boom box.
    1. KDinsmore's Avatar
      KDinsmore -
      Talk about lo-fi: My wife's 1997 Camry w/an Alpine plain stereo. But listening to Jazz or something new on WXRT on the way home from work at night sometimes is just exhilarating. All the sounds are great and I'm into the music. Every time this happens all I can think about is the dichotomy of this and my high-end system. It all comes down to the music!<br />
      <br />
    1. labjr's Avatar
      labjr -
      I've heard most of the classic rock and pop first on radio. So I don't mind listening to the radio. Now digital compression is another story. Even friends of mine who aren't audiophiles complain about how Sirius satellite radio has no depth and the songs sound like different songs because the detail is missing. <br />
      <br />
      Luckily, we aren't forced to make a choice between avant-garde Jazz on Hi Rez and our favorite music on Satellite Radio.
    1. Waroroses's Avatar
      Waroroses -
      OK I agree that it's the music!<br />
      <br />
      But I often lament to my wife: among our circle of friends we are the only household with a decent ( Pathos Classic Mark III tube hybrid, Totem Hawks) sound system. The rest of our circle of friends sadly rely on their iPod through a couple of speakers so tiny and close together that the music is kind of a replica of music. I hear some cell phone ringtones that are more engaging. Back in my day (early 70's) our self contained vinyl record players in the suitcase-like containers with the swing out speakers were quite the party machine.
    1. jerico's Avatar
      jerico -
      Amen... if one forgets to groove out, what's the point?
    1. Dan Gravell's Avatar
      Dan Gravell -
      Reminds me of a story a friend was telling me the other day.<br />
      <br />
      He was a porter at a university and was talking to a new friend in the bar. This friend invited him to listen to his new kick-ass sound setup. He went 'round to check it out and it was awesome: a ton of audiophile equipment, analogue valves, £10k-20ks worth! He put on The Bends by Radiohead and it was incredible, like Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in the same room!<br />
      <br />
      Then my friend said "what else do you have to play?".<br />
      <br />
      The reply? "That's the only album I own".
    1. lowprofile's Avatar
      lowprofile -
      I had a similar low fidelity audio experience that I posted about on another forum<br />
      <br />
      Our story is how a night of celebrating ended up with a little Tivoli PAL radio with a tiny mono speaker that was loosing battery fast, connected to a few ipods. <br />
      <br />
      We lost power in a weekend rental house where we had been doing the alternating ipod DJ thing with standard powered speaker set-up dancing away during a 40th birthday celebration. Power was out for a couple of hours and it was late but still wanted to dance so the small bunch of us kept moving closer to the tiny AM radio sounding-soon-to-die adhoc sound system.<br />
      <br />
      Candles and batteries and music love!
    1. lowprofile's Avatar
      lowprofile -
      Circa 1985, I remember reading some audio magazine (small...the size of a readers digest) that the music collection cost to equipment ratio should be 3:1. Image that! sadly, I am only at 1:1 currently, but working on it.<br />
      <br />
      Very good point Bill!<br />
      <br />
      >>>Required Reading<br />
      <br />
      This should be required reading for all of us...MONTHLY! Too often even forums like this one get bogged down in the microdynamic details and we forget what brought us here in the first place...MUSIC.<br />
      <br />
      My rule of thumb is to keep my media collection at a minimum 2:1 ratio with my equipment.<br />
      <br />
    1. carelessethiopian's Avatar
      carelessethiopian -
      Excellent and illustrative story. I think we all got into audio because we love music. We've all had the experience of a new piece of gear making familiar recordings sound better, but personally my world is going to be rocked harder by a great new record (file,cd,whatever) than a great new DAC. I think there is an analytical part of me that appreciates and marvels at improvements in sound quality but a lot of music that stirs my soul and makes me want to get up and shout wasn't recorded that well in the first place. If somebody found some unknown Son House records that were recorded with one mic in a hotel room in 1944 I'd be first in line.