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.
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 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.
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.