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Hearing music again

Hearing music again

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

“I don’t really listen to music.”

I couldn’t believe it. It was as if my friend had just informed me that he didn’t chew food with his mouth. He seemed like a different species.

I tried to put myself in his shoes. Tried to imagine a version of me that didn’t really listen to music. I couldn’t do it.

But my friend is a few years older than me. I knew a few people, my older brother, for instance, whose musical taste had ossified after college. Maybe after your taste stops changing, your passion fades? I was only conjecturing. I made a promise to myself: I would never stop loving music.

Now I am an old man. Every day it seems I break a small or large promise I made to myself when I was younger.

I don’t love music nearly as much as I used to.

I have one new theory about my fickle love for music

Sure, I still listen to music. But mostly I use music. Like a tool.

For instance, I’m listening to music right now because I’m writing. A good song helps me focus. I’ll pick one track and put it on loop for an hour or more.

Other times, when I’m very sad, I listen to music. I’ll listen to old songs I wrote, back when I loved music the most. Or songs I heard in high school that will always resonate with me.

My original theory, about an unchanging taste in music leading to a lack of passion for music, still rings true to me.

I still, on occasion, hear something wild and new. Over the past year or so it’s mostly been the recent albums by Angel Olsen and Mitski. Before that, it was Drake’s “One Dance.”

A good year gifts me with one new album, or maybe just one new track to love. It’s becoming more rare to hear something I love and connect with and can really listen to. And the less I listen to new and interesting music, the less capable I am of finding newer music interesting. I think it literally has nothing to do with “kids these days,” and everything to do with falling out of sync with the “fashion” of music. You need the context, and I lack it.

But I have one new theory about my fickle love for music: maybe it has something to do with how I listen to music.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

When I think about it, it’s fairly easy for me to trace my interest in music along the path of technology I used to listen to it.

My dad’s record player. The cassette player by my bed. Napster. Rhapsody. My mom’s car. iPod. My own car. Mog. Rdio. Bookshelf speakers with a nice amp. My roommate’s turntable. Shure in-ear headphones. Grado on-ear headphones. Koss Porta Pros.

Think of a pair of headphones, or a speaker, as the performer. Like, it’s a cover band. The cover band’s repertoire is defined by the music service you get songs from.

Porta Pros emphasize the parts of music I love

There were times in my life where the repertoire was everything. I put up with a shitty bitrate on Rhapsody because I was voracious. Rhapsody was the first streaming service I used (years before Spotify came on the scene) and it allowed me to explore whole decades of music I’d never had knowledge of before.

At other times, the “performer” was most important. One of my first audiophile-esque purchases was a pair of Grado SR60s. They were the perfect blend of low price and “correct” sound. But they hurt my ears to wear, and perhaps sounded a bit too clear.

My next move was to get an amplifier and a pair of passive monitor speakers. This is possibly my greatest gear purchase of all time. Good speakers, amplified well, can express a whole range of vibes that don’t translate well through headphones. I’m not talking about bass that rattles your bones, but maybe it taps you on the chest just a little bit. The warmth rubs at your cheeks, instead of being injected directly into your spine like a high-end pair of in-ear headphones can do.

When my roommate bought a turntable, we suddenly had the greatest music setup known to man. We’d put a record on, turn the lights off, and listen straight through. You know, really listen. Flipping the record is a pain, but just another part of the immersive experience.

But the one piece of gear that’s kept me closest to music in recent years is those Koss Porta Pros.

Porta Pros, if you haven’t listened to them, have a warmth to them that is almost certainly an imprecise reproduction of the “true” music you’re playing through them. They’re a cover band, and they take some liberties with the songs. The thing is, I love the liberties they take. Porta Pros emphasize the parts of music I love.

My BeatsX are convenient — but their music playback is a crime

I can’t take my bookshelf speakers with me everywhere. And the Grados hurt my ears. And most good wireless headphones are big and bulky over-ear airplane companions. And I like to hear what’s going on around me, because I ride a bike. And the warmth of the Porta Pros! So warm.

I guess the ideal music experience is a live concert, or being in the studio with a band when they cut a record. 

But it’s inconvenient to go to live shows all the time. And it’s inconvenient to sneak into recording studios and try to blend in with the foam paneling.

The technology of listening to music is like this. It’s inconvenient to carry a high-end DAC everywhere. It’s inconvenient to have your neighbor come over and complain about how loud your bookshelf speakers are. It’s inconvenient to spend $500 on headphones that you could break or lose. It’s inconvenient when you catch your Porta Pro cable on a doorknob and it snaps. Dongles are inconvenient. Charging your wireless headphones is inconvenient. Pairing wireless headphones is inconvenient.

“Everything’s a tradeoff,” I can now say with the lame assurance of a grown-up.

Earlier this year, I made a grown-up Paul choice. I picked a new pair of headphones not on sound, but on convenience. I got a pair of Apple’s Beats X neckbuds.

Acoustically, they’re a crime against music. But, after all, I mostly just need headphones to listen to audio books and podcasts because I’m a boring person. If someone sends me a song to listen to, the Beats X are competent enough to give me a general sense of what the song is like. Convenience-wise, though, Beats X are my ideal. They’re minimal, lightweight, easy to stuff in a pocket, only need to be charged once a day, and they’re aesthetically almost invisible — at least as far as wireless headphones can be.

But for two days now I’ve been listening to Koss’ new Porta Pro Wireless headphones.

What a fool I’ve been!

I agree with all the negative things Vlad has to say about these headphones in his review. The dangling battery and controls look dumb. They’re bad at Bluetooth. I have no idea why the blue blinking LED is powerful enough to guide ships home in a storm.

But they sound right to me. They perform music the way I want it performed. And they offer enough convenience and comfort to satisfy the grown-up Paul that just wants to listen to EconTalk.

I’ve been listening to one song on repeat while writing this. But guess what? It’s a new song. Well, at least to me. It came out in 2016. Give me some time to catch up.