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Gear
Bringing Music Back Home
From the Wall Street Journal of Thu, 18 Dec 2014 23:13:54 EST
Illustration by Ralph Karam

IF THE PHRASE “home audio” had been in common parlance a century ago, it would have meant family and friends gathering around a piano in the parlor during the holiday season, to sing carols or hit songs of the era—and a little later, perhaps congregating around the gramophone or wireless. And while in recent decades, the emphasis in sound technology has all been on the personal and the portable, on evermore capacious iPods and headphones designed for music on the move, at last the pendulum is swinging back toward music as an integral part of the home.

“The proliferation of portable music hardware speaks to how much we want to take our music with us, ,moving through life—but it doesn’t say ,that we prefer music in that state to music in our ,homes,” says Dr. Vicky Williamson, psychologist in the University of Sheffield’s music department and author of “You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What it Means to be Human.”

“When we’re listening to our MP3 player on the train we’re not looking for in-depth emotional experiences—we’re looking to have privacy through the music, or to think,” Dr. Williamson explains. “The reasons people listen to music in the home are very different.”

Music can give you the impression that time is flying and you’re having a really good time

Recent research has shown that we actually have a significantly more enjoyable experience when we listen to the sort of audio quality offered by a home audio system.

While the compressed audio and small earphones of the average MP3 player have made huge music collections portable, they don’t necessarily give you the full benefit of what you’re listening to, according to Dr. Williamson. Her team did a recent study with Glasgow-based Linn Records, looking at the impact of very high-quality studio sound recordings on people’s emotional responses to music (as opposed to the exact same music at CD or MP3 level).

“People reliably preferred the higher quality audio and reported feeling more emotions in response to it,” she says. “For people who love music, quality audio in the home will be as rewarding as having a nicely decorated room or a good TV.”

And yet, hi-fi has traditionally been an esoteric field—one in which most people settle for lifting an all-in-one off the shelves of their local electronics shop, while an intrepid few venture into a daunting maze of separates, speakers, gold-plated cables and amplifiers, all of which supposedly have to be positioned to within a millimeter in a house with the neutral acoustic properties of an isolation tank. Fortunately, this “tradition” of hi-fi complexity can be mitigated by calling in the experts.

Old or new, open-plan or urban warren, a little ingenuity can tailor an integrated music system to any house, explains Richard Bates of U.K.-based hi-fi retailer and custom installation specialist MusicMatters. “We’d be saying, ‘You’ve got hard flooring—look at putting a rug down to reduce reflections. If you’ve got a reverberant wall, we can put up acoustic paneling and make it look like an artwork,’” he says.

The current movement in home audio is toward fully integrated wireless systems like Sonos or Meridian—devices that stream music to speakers positioned throughout the house. These systems—which rely on having access to an online music source such as Spotify (spotify.com) or Deezer (deezer.com)—allow music to fill an entire home yet be controlled from every room, with no need to return to a dock or hi-fi to change song, as well as instant access to a vast library of music (sonos.com; meridian-audio.com).

Illustration by Ralph Karam

Richard Hawking, father of three teenagers, and operations director of Sky Media, found the Sonos system—paired with Spotify—was the answer to having different music in various rooms in their house in England’s Leamington Spa.

“Sharing new finds and amusing our children with ’80s favorites of mine, has been great fun,” he says. “However, it delivers best at dinner parties or the kids’ gatherings. They have a nonstop source of current music and we play ‘pass the Sonos controller,’ which creates a nonstop list of everyone’s favorite tracks.”

At this time of year, the value of music in the home becomes all the more obvious. Nervous hosts, take note: A carefully assembled party playlist does more than just give people something to dance to.

“Music provides a kind of auditory privacy,” Dr. Williamson says. “If you’re in a room that’s silent, and trying to start conversations, they’re more stilted—but within this ‘musical cocoon’ there’s freedom to speak and interact. If you’re bored you might notice the clock ticking, whereas music can give you the impression that time is flying and you’re having a really good time.”

The new generation of home audio systems can be built up in a modular fashion. Sonos, for example, starts at around £170 for a single-room stereo unit, or several units and a Subwoofer speaker for £1,300; whereas the Naim audio system, which has Spotify Connect built into the hardware, starts at £1,300 but can rise to many thousands of pounds with all the amplifier add-ons (from musicmatters.co.uk).

According to Mr. Bates, this kind of home technology will become more attuned to audiophiles’ tastes. “There’s a plethora of streaming-based services now, from the ubiquitous Spotify and Napster to new players like Tidal, an uncompressed music service which offers CD-quality streams,” he says. “I think the next phase on will be high-resolution music: We’ll see more 24-bit 192Khz audio being available from record companies to stream. We’re a way off, because we’re limited by broadband capacity, but I think that will be the next big thing.”

It’s reassuring that this means an improvement on services that already exist, rather than a complete change of technology: There will be no need to throw out your Sonos box the way you once disposed of your tape deck. Not that superseded technologies necessarily go gently into that good night. The resurgence of vinyl has been one of the most remarkable aspects of the music industry in recent years—in 2014, sales of LPs hit an 18-year high—and as Mr. Bates says, the old-school album was made for home enjoyment.

“While the enthusiasts are looking to introduce streaming products into their existing systems, vinyl is growing because it’s got warmth and texture, and it’s a format that forces you to sit and listen,” he says.
“Sit down at a turntable with a gatefold to gawp at, put the stylus on the beginning of the record and odds are, you’ll play it all.”

HOW TO GO RETRO // FIVE OLD-SCHOOL MUSIC GADGETS

oBravo HAMT-1 HEADPHONES

The pale wood and hand-stitched leather gives oBravo’s high-end headphones a 1950s feel, but the use of an “air motion transformer” to provide the high notes is a modern twist. £1,499; absolutesounds.com

Soundmaster NR-912 Vintage Gramophone Stereo System

With its solid wooden body and gleaming silver horn, the NR-912 looks every inch the quintessential gramophone, but within its old-fashioned control panel you’ll find a tape deck, CD player and an AM/FM tuner. £299.90; hifi-tower.co.uk

Steepletone ‘ROXY 3 ENCODE’ Record Player

Styled like an original Dansette, this 1960s-style Steepletone turntable has all the dance-round-your-handbags appeal of the original, but also has a built-in radio, CD player, stereo speakers and an MP3 player. £149; robertopiecollection.com

Sound Leisure ‘Rocket 88’ Jukebox

Hailing from the (arguably) classier “silver age” of 1950s jukeboxes, the Rocket 88 eschews bubble tubes and neon in favor of clear glass, etched wood and smart chrome detailing. Original vinyl models are collectors’ items, but modern CD and Bluetooth versions are available—and what a party piece they are. £5,370; jukeboxshowroom.co.uk

Allnic AUDIO D5000

Valve amplification was state-of-the-art not so long ago, but its high power consumption led to it being phased out. A new generation of audiophiles is bringing the technology back to life. The D500 converts and amplifies your digital source into the analog sound that emerges from your speakers. £8,995; allnicaudio.com



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