The Sadness of Earbuds

Earbuds?  Nonsense, when I was young, we couldn’t fit our stereo system in a 16-foot truck, much less our ears. Admittedly, we had a sound re-enforcement company that provided sound systems for the likes of Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, Procol Harum, Tracy Nelson, Randy Newman and Bonnie Raitt, among others. This will bias my opinion somewhat, but I fear we’re raising a generation of kids who have no idea what music sounds like played live or through a real sound system.

As an experiment several years ago, I hauled out some antique components and connected them together on our deck. The kids were around for a barbecue and I played Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Mahler’s 4th and Dvorak’s American Quintet at Woodstock volumes. This explains why we’ve always lived in the country.

The kids were impressed. I also played music from MP3 files on a computer and from CD’s. They had not realized the palpable difference in sound quality.

I grew up in the era of Heathkits, homemade Williamson amplifier circuits pieced together from old power supplies and KT-88 tubes. Eico, HH Scott, Fisher – as in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center – were the brands. We made bass reflex cabinets out of plywood leftovers and old 15” speakers we traded. We dreamed of someday owning Klipschorn corner speakers, the Rolls Royce of speakers.

Entering the business allowed us to further indulge our passion and we bought two of a limited number of 16-foot folded horn bass units made by JB Lansing. These 200 lb. units each sported two 15-inch bass drivers in a 2-inch thick box five feet high and 3-feet wide. They projected groin-trembling bass from 28 hertz to about 200 hertz. We needed a crane to get them onto scaffolding. One could lie down comfortably inside the horn opening. More appallingly, they could be plugged directly into a wall socket and would play 60 hertz house current at 144 decibels without burning up, after which anyone in the same room would need hearing aids.

The midrange horns with their aluminum lenses weighed about thirty pounds each and a bar of high-end ring tweeters completed the sound spectrum. This was all driven by racks of hissing and sizzling McIntosh tube amplifiers – none of today’s nonsense with two a little, black boxes perched on spindly tripods.

As a father, I always dragged my children at least once to a live opera where they could hear a full orchestra and unamplified singers perform. Pit orchestras today are much smaller than they were when I was a kid, but the experience is still magical, reminding us of what real music can sound like.

The great disadvantage of personal, portable music devices is that they both commoditize and privatize music. Music was written to be heard and shared communally. A young person walking around alone, listening only to the pulsing middle range of the musical spectrum is to me a sad evolution of music.

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