Sound as a pound
EQ-ing sound quality issues
For many folks, a trip to the Despacio stage was one of the highlights of the Electric Picnic earlier this month. Three seasoned DJs spinning great tunes for a couple of hours on a bespoke sound system, Despacio has become a wow because of many reasons, but the brilliant quality of that sound is one of the big talking points. As Stephen Dewaele explained in this recent interview, such quality required a lot of investment at the get-go and the cost and logistics behind getting the show from one location to the other is one of the main reasons why we have not seen more Despacio events. Such costs have even scuppered putting on Despacio in Ibiza, which was the initial impetus behind the project.
Sound quality has become one of those themes which pop up again and again on the music writing beat alongside such chestnuts as Irish music on the radio, streaming service shenanigans, festivals encountering problems, whatever Kanye West did the other night and regular trips to the pop courts. You could almost predict the frequency with which some regulars appear. As streaming has become the way in which more and more people hear music, sound quality has become one of those matters which keeps coming up.
We saw Neil Young yanking his albums from streaming services because he didn’t want his music “to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution”. Young’s dedication to sound quality had led him to develop the Pono digital player and streaming service with promises of superior audio quality. The much derided Tidal service is also on the same tack and has pushed a high fidelity sound service as one of its attractions. You could even throw the whole artisan vinyl revival movement into the mix, though its days may be numbered now that a mass market operator like Tesco has decided to get stuck in.
When it comes to this particular debate, there’s often an element of smoke and mirrors. After all, the quality of the actual song itself is far more important than the sound quality. If you have an amazing song, you can always tell it’s amazing regardless of whether you’re playing it on top-of-the-range audio system or a crappy set of speakers. It always struck me as odd that high-end audio fans had such terrible taste in music. Owning a Linn turntable seemed to bring out the Phil Collins fanatic or Yes fan in many.
But hearing is believing and it’s interesting to note discernable improvements in the quality of streaming services of late. I started using a Sonos wi-fi speaker system earlier this year and the uptick in quality from Spotify and iTunes library playback has been remarkable. For comparison purposes, I used a Gramofon wi-fi music player to stream Spotify through my old speakers and the sound quality was also of a very high mark. A switch to Tidal didn’t result in any noticeable improvement in sound quality, while there wasn’t much difference to these ears when I went back to CDs.
It’s worth bearing in mind that sound quality is firmly in the ears of the beholder. What you’re looking for and noticing when you listen to a piece of music will always be significantly different if you’re listening as a sound engineer or musician. For most of us, though, the differences will be within a margin of error.
The sound quality issue is not going to disappear any time soon. There’s money to be made by appealing to audiophiles – Pono raised huge amounts of cash when it went looking for crowd-funded investment last year, though Young now claims “a lack of resources” is hampering and restricing expansion – so expect similar plays in the future. Just remember, though, that great sound quality does not always mean a great song unless, of course, the Despacio trio are at the controls.