Stephen Fry explores the high-end of digital music technology
Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 11th October 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk Listen to this” – The Guardian headline.
Mankind’s hunger for what Emerson called “a better mousetrap” is unquenchable. I can think of few technological solutions perfect enough to force inventors and innovators to proclaim, “Right, that’s it. Problem solved. Let’s move on.” The Screwpull came along in the 80s and was declared the last word in corkscrews, yet innovations continue to stream from the world’s drawing-boards. Coffee makers: I could hymn on coffee makers until you begged for mercy. Pencil sharpeners, umbrellas, cigarette lighters: mankind will never cease from reaching ever upwards towards the paradigmatically perfect implement. Actually, you might argue that in the last category Zippo reached the sunlit uplands decades ago: wind-proof, reliable, a design classic that works every time and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Pity no one smokes any more.
Katie Melua listening to her iPod. Photograph: Linda Nylind
There is surely no climb to perfection more impossible of completion than that of the ascent towards the ultimate high-end sound system. How can we hope to recapture the first fine careless rapture with which music originally smote us amidships and enslaved us for ever? The rainbow we chase is to make music sound new again. Hi-fi is like wine: dangerously expensive as taste refines and jolly enthusiasm turns to pernickety connoisseurship. Audio shops still exist where twins of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy sell valve amplifiers, record decks and styli as if the digital revolution never happened. They’re probably right: nothing matches vinyl and analogue for audio range and richness. I want, however, to consider users who are hunting high-quality portable, digital music.
When you rip from a CD or buy music online, it is usually saved as AAC, M4P or MP3: these are called “lossy” formats, a trade-off between memory compression and sound fidelity. There are alternative “lossless” formats: ALAC comes built into iTunes, while FLAC is gaining ascendancy elsewhere. But be warned: FLAC cannot run on iPods, and all lossless files take up more room than MP3 or AAC. Convert an album (from vinyl or CD, not from MP3!) to one of the lossless formats, and see if you notice the difference.
If you can’t be bothered, splash out on good earwear. A few years ago noise-isolating headphones were all the rage, with Bose and Sennheiser leading the way. I never saw, or heard, the value in them: big, clunky things that needed batteries and were inconvenient. More recently, high-end plug-in buds have become fashionable: for £360, Shure’s SE530PTH Triple TruAcoustic Micro-Speakers deliver amazing sound. For a very competitive £79, Apple has introduced a pair with built-in tweeter and woofer drivers that dramatically improve the standard music player experience. But there is an even more impressive option.
I recently tried out made-to-measure T2 In-Ear monitors from Advance Communication Systems. A month ago, its MD, Andy Shiach, came to squirt silicone in my ear and two weeks later he fitted a pair of cochlea-shaped creations in my lugholes. Ex-musician Andy, whose own hearing was harmed by overexposure to loud music, specialises in acoustic research, and I can vouch for the astounding quality of the music that fills the head when wearing his phones (hearingprotection.co.uk).
They come in a distressing medical pink suggestive of NHS hearing aids, which is fair, because once they are pushed in, you are deaf to the world. But not to the music. When that comes, wow! The dynamic range, the richness, the power: this is the best performance digital music has ever given me. Like most custom-made items, they are expensive and, once tried, impossible to give up, but what a Christmas present. The company keeps the moulds, so new gels can be cheaply made for attaching to other makes. Listening to a lossless version of Siegfried’s Death March reduced me to the happiest puddle of butterscotch Angel Delight in Britain.
Initials of the week
AAC Advanced Audio Coding – ‘lossy’ successor to MP3
ALAC Apple Lossless Audio Codec
FLAC Free Lossless Audio Codec
NHS Norwich High School (amongst other things)