You won't believe your ears: The new sound revolution

Fed up with tinny headphones and speakers, Rhodri Marsden enrolled on a 'sound-tasting' course – and discovered hidden depths to his MP3 collection

Wednesday 30 July 2008 00:00 BST

In a swish recording studio deep within the bowels of the Abbey Road complex in north-west London, the play button is solemnly depressed on a shiny, tiny, all-in-one £70 stereo system. This, I've been informed, is to demonstrate the miserable level of audio quality that we're used to hearing these days. But, as Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" blares out of the half-pint speakers, none of its evocative power seems to be missing. Quincy Jones's sublime production conjures up memories of coach trips, teenage discos, holidays, Cornettos – but I'm snapped out of my reverie by Andy Napthine from loudspeaker manufacturers Bowers & Wilkins, who presses the stop button, perhaps concerned that I'm enjoying it too much. "Now," he says, "this is what it's meant to sound like." The same tune is now pushed through a huge £13,000 pair of their own 800D speakers, and it sounds incredible – crystal clear vocals, powerful bass and, if you listen closely enough, you can probably hear Quincy Jones discreetly breaking wind in the control room. But my emotional response feels identical. Coach trips. Cornettos. Does that mean that I don't care about sound?

Many people within the music industry are claiming that we're losing our ability to appreciate sound properly. All kinds of factors are responsible, they say: cheap listening devices; listening on the move via mobile phones, or the ubiquitous iPod; and compressed audio file formats such as WMA, AAC and MP3 that allow huge amounts of music to fit on to portable devices. A 128Kbps MP3 file (which, according to Apple's iTunes software, is regarded as "good" quality) is less than 1/11th of the size of the uncompressed original so, in theory, has 10/11ths of the audio information missing.

Tim Lawrence, a lecturer in music culture at the University of East London, contends that, faced with our increasingly uncritical listening techniques, producers and engineers are creating music that has very little variation in dynamic range. He might be right. When I'm out and about, I listen to MP3 files on a mobile phone with an old pair of headphones. At home, I play MP3 files from an old laptop with its lid shut. Perhaps I'm not showing enough respect to Beefheart, Beach Boys, Bogshed or the rest of the motley crew I listen to day in, day out. Maybe I need to rediscover the art of listening.

There's probably no better place to do that than Abbey Road Studios; a tour reveals the podium where Sir Edward Elgar stood to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra, the piano on which Paul McCartney bashed out "Lady Madonna" and the toilets where The Independent's Alex James took a louche drag on a cigarette between sessions. Sat in Studio 3, Dr John Dibb from Bowers & Wilkins presents what he describes as a "sound-tasting" session. Just as wine connoisseurs can educate our palates, Dibb believes that we can be taught how to listen properly. "You need to think about your positioning in relation to the speakers," he says. "Sit in a comfortable seat, without any distractions – but, most importantly, close your eyes. Your brain becomes much more attuned to what you're hearing if you just focus on the one sense."

Over the next hour, Dibb plays me a range of music while pointing out the details that I should be looking out for. The transparency and clarity of an orchestral piece; the precise rhythms of 1970s Jamaican reggae; the ambience of an operatic aria; and the ferocious attack of nu-metal. "You should be able to pick out these details in good recordings," says Dibb, "and when you can, it becomes more interesting, more entertaining. Now, if you go back to your own music collection, you'll be able to hear it in new and different ways."

I pop outside for a breather, taking my MP3 player. Listening to a few tracks, they don't sound that bad to me. The high frequencies – the ones that are supposed to suffer most after MP3 compression – might not be reproduced faithfully, but I don't know if I can tell, and I'm still not sure if I care. I sheepishly admit this to Dibb. "It's not that they sound bad," he says, "it's just that you might not be hearing all the things that were originally put into it." Abbey Road's Andrew Dudman concurs. "MP3 does degrade the sound," he says, "but probably not enough for most people to notice." If MP3 isn't the enemy, what is? Dibb is emphatic that it's a lifestyle thing. "Today, it's all about convenience, rather than quality. It's about having 1,000 albums in your pocket. People have forgotten the benefits of making the act of listening into an event."

So if I'm going to markedly improve my listening experience, how much do I need to spend? "Well, if I had £250," says Dudman, "I'd go for a bottom-of-the-range model by a high-end speaker company rather than the other way round – purely because the quality always filters down through the range. And I swear by Sennheiser's HD600 headphones, either at home or in the studio."

I pop into a branch of Richer Sounds and get the opinions of Mike, a ponytailed Iron Maiden fan with a passion for audio. "The key is to match up all the parts of your system," he says. "If you buy a £600 amplifier, there's no point in hooking up £20 speakers to it." And would I feel the benefits if I splashed out big time? "Anyone who forks out £6,000 for a CD player is doing it purely for status," he says. "Especially so if they're over 21, as they'll have already lost 20 per cent of their hearing. They're not going to appreciate it."

I'm still not convinced of the merits of upgrading, but Dr Eric Clarke, an expert on psychoacoustics at Oxford University, has some sympathy. "Audiophiles have developed incredibly acute – some might say irrelevant – but certainly very impressive auditory skills. They can hear all kinds of details that the rest of us can't. It's as if they've taught themselves to become irritated by poor audio quality."

So I shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying MP3s through minuscule speakers? "Of course not. Research has shown that a fairly poor auditory signal can trigger the same emotional response. And the more familiar you are with the music, the lower quality you actually need for your brain to be able to recapture a sense of the original."

Clarke has effectively warned me against listening to music on high-quality loudspeakers or headphones, because I'll inevitably end up wanting to spend money on them. But it might be too late; after my Abbey Road experience I find myself repositioning speakers in my living room, casually browsing online hi-fi catalogues, and pondering whether cables with gold-plated connectors would actually make any difference. The seeds of doubt have been sown.

So, what's the lesson? If you have no spare cash, learn to love your cheap stereo and your MP3s for what they are – a lo-fi approximation of what your musical heroes intended you to hear. But if you want more from your music, treat it with a bit of dignity. Pamper it with quality loudspeakers, sit back, close your eyes, and listen. Surely you can tell the difference?

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