Photo via Adamantios at Wikimedia Commons
Back in the Mad Men heyday of high-end home stereo, audiophiles could buy records full of sound-but-not-exactly-music, specifically engineered to test the limits of — or simply show off — their personal systems. Less technically obsessive but still proud hi-fi owners could drop the needle on one of the albums known almost as well for the richness of its sound as the artistry of its music, such as Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours or Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um. The website, What Hi-Fi?, includes both of those 1950s landmarks on their list of twelve of the best vinyl test records, which goes on to mention Neil Young’s Tonight‘s the Night, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Radiohead’s In Rainbows, all worth a listen no matter your setup.
But what if you listen, as so many of us in the 21st century do, not on vinyl through speakers but on digital data internet-streamed through headphones? Spotify (whose free software you can download here) has assembled a 150-song playlist designed to give you a sense of how well those headphones are serving you, bringing together the work of such audio-conscious artists as the aforementioned Neil Young (a vocal critic of today’s music formats), David Bowie, Suzanne Vega (known as “the Mother of the MP3”), Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and those consummate studio geniuses Steely Dan (albeit not “Deacon Blues,” long their audiophile-preferred stereo-testing song). Mixed in with the bigger names, you’ll also hear from musicians less widely known but no less dedicated to crafting rich and varied soundscapes.
You don’t have to be Neil Young, though, to object to the very premise of the playlist, arguing that internet-streamed music, which first undergoes digitization and compression, can offer nothing but a badly substandard listening experience — let alone when through a pair of headphones, and often cheap earbuds at that. But as all the best recording and mixing engineers know today, you shouldn’t release an album unless you’ve first listened to it closely through something humbler than your ultra-high-end studio monitors or fancy professional headphones, making sure it sounds acceptable on everything all the way down to laptop and cellphone speakers. Bear in mind, a music fan who’s never given a thought to audio quality might well, when they’ve tested their cheap earbuds with this nevertheless sonically scintillating playlist, find themselves wanting to hear not just more, but better.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.