I’m at an electronics store, in the studio monitors listening room. It’s dark and the temperature feels about 50 degrees. I wish I brought hat and gloves—it’s frigid in here. The salesman turns on the song “Deacon Blues” from Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja, which is probably the most listened to album by people demoing monitors because is was expertly recorded and has such a lush, hi-fi warm analog stereo, this-is-how-real-musicians-play sound. The salesman turns up the volume to an unpleasant level so I can feel the thump of Steely Dan’s super-tight rhythm section (Steve Gadd is on drums: that snare sound—wow!). The music comes out of one set of speakers for about ten seconds, then switches to another set. The salesman is touching a computer screen, making the speaker changes, but not telling me where he’s going next. I look up to locate the new sound location then glance over his way with an Oh it’s over here now? It’s like a real life video game: using my ears, I have to find the correct set of vibrating speakers and then quickly shuffle left or right to position myself at the mid-point between them to listen for a few seconds before the salesman assigns the music to another set. I wish he’d slow down though. The scene is funny, except since we’re the only ones in this cold room no one else is around to laugh about it.
What am I listening for? No one tells you what to listen for (a fact that applies to music generally too). I think I’m listening for speakers that “sound good” but more importantly, that sound true—meaning that reflect what is actually happening in the music without “coloring” it in any substantial way. For instance, a speaker might accentuate the low frequencies in the music, which will give you an exaggerated sense of what the bass in your music is doing. This is not good. Instead, what you want, as much as possible, is a speaker whose “flat” frequency response doesn’t exaggerate any one band of the music’s frequency spectrum. In audiophile and professional recording parlance, flat monitors are crucial for accurately reproducing the music as it actually is. This is important when you’re mixing because you need assurance that the levels you’re adjusting reflect what is actually there. This all gets metaphysical pretty fast because music’s sound and location—music’s is-ness—are never static facts. Where exactly is music’s there? Just as live music sounds different depending on where you are in relation to it—Are you the performer? The listener? Where is the music happening vis-a-vis where you are?—recorded music sounds different depending on the speakers or headphones you’re using to reproduce it. How music sounds also depends on the acoustics of your listening room, but that’s for another discussion.
After a few minutes of Steely Dan, we listen next to Miles’ 1959 album, Kind Of Blue. I immediately hear a faint hiss from the speakers—it’s the room tone of the studio in which Miles and his band recorded—and remark to the salesman how this phenomenon doesn’t exist anymore in contemporary electronic music’s airless digital and auto-tuned realm. The room tone makes it feel like the salesman and I are with Miles, turning this cold listening room into the studio where he recorded. Over the room tone I hear the bass introduce the question mark theme of “So What”, the piano and horns answer it, and panned very hard to the right speaker is the shimmering ride cymbal of Jimmy Cobb. It’s like Cobb is three feet away. “The ride sounds amazing” I say with an emoji smile. The salesman remarks how great a sound they got back in the 1950s at those famous old New York studios. Kind of Blue was recorded (in two days) at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio, also known as “The Church” because the space was originally the Adams-Parkhurst Memorial Presbyterian Church. (Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Pink Floyd’s The Wall were also recorded here.) “It’s incredible that they recorded a sound with that kind of detail without even having good monitors” the salesman says. I never thought about it that way. “But they did have good microphones” I offer.
The salesman then taps his screen again and we listen to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song that until today I had only ever heard coming out of televisions speakers. Nirvana’s music isn’t as crisp in its high frequencies as either the Miles or Steely Dan recordings. In fact, it sounds rather ugly—kinda grungy, actually—like it was recorded hastily and the musicians insisted that their levels to be in the red because it sounds more lumberjack plaid jacket aggressive that way. The music isn’t helped by the salesman turning up the volume ever higher, perhaps under the impression that I’m a rock fan even though I keep backing ever farther away from the wall of speakers as the song punches itself along. Cobain keeps repeating A denial! A denial! A denial! and I realize that I always thought he was saying Turn the lights out! Turn the lights out! Turn the lights out! Oops. As he says at the end of one verse, Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Just make the music stop. After numbing ourselves with Nirvana we talk some more about the build quality of the various speakers. I’m still freezing but focused. “I’m not a fan of Genelec’s metal casings” the salesman says, tapping its shell, “they don’t sound as warm as wood because, you know, wood ages.” We also marvel at how far consumer-priced pro audio equipment has come over the years. “Your average Joe Consumer isn’t going to pay a thousand bucks for a set of speakers anymore. You got podcasters and video editors using these things—it’s a whole new ballgame now.”
Standing in front of the speaker wall, listening to one set at a time and alternating among brands, I’m still finding it difficult to find substantial differences from one set to another. They all sound more than adequate for my needs. Okay, maybe the Mackies sound the most spacious (“They’re my favorites!” the salesman says), until I hear the JBLs (“Great speakers, no doubt”), which makes the Mackies sound a tad muted, until I hear the Focals, which sound punchier than the JBLs, until I hear the Adams (“You can’t go wrong with them”) whose ribbon tweeters make all of the other monitors sound a tad strained. Maybe if Miles were in here with us he would set us straight (The speaker doesn’t make the music he might say, in a whisper).
I clear my voice a bit, “Do you have anything…Classical? Like strings? Or piano?” I can’t believe I just asked that. The salesman probably hears: “Do you have any music that’s more relaxing that Nirvana? Something more…mellow?” But Nirvana at 100 decibels won’t help me discern anything about sound reproduction. After scrolling through the iTunes playlist the salesman finally finds us a stray Mozart symphony and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” We listen to Mozart’s cheerful strings for a bit and then switch to Beethoven’s brooding piano. “That shit was written a few hundred years ago and still sounds great” he says. I agree. “Remember, the audiences back then never heard music on speakers—ever. They had to go to a concert to hear that. That’s why those concert halls were designed so you could hear everything.” We listen in silence for a while as the Beethoven piece unfold itself, one slow and inexorable arpeggio at a time. “The speaker just disappears into the music, doesn’t it?” I say. Or maybe great music overtakes the speaker? The salesman nods. “That’s the idea.”