January 30, 2012

Dre Beats Headphones and Transcendent Ideals in Sound

Beats by Dr. Dre are popular because they don't reproduce music as much as they transform it. They are the right headphones for the current era, because their design "customizes" the sound for the listener who wants bass. Music is never finished; we can chop and screw, add bass, slow it down 100x, mash it up with something else. And people will buy headphones that finish the music in the way they like.  -- Mark Richardson, from "Permission to Avalanche" on the Resonant Frequency blog at Pitchfork.

I'm posting this because I recently made a snide comment about Dre Beats headphones in a post (if you care, you can go back to a 1/26 post on my tumblr feed, but that's not really necessary).  I used to work at a place which sold them, and since I spend a lot of time listening to music on headphones, I was looking into buying a pair.  The Dre Beats display in the store had the phones in demo mode with hip hop tracks cued up, and of course, they sounded great.  One day I got bored & decided to test them by splicing in my personal mp3 player so I could check how other types of music sound on the Beats.  First I fired up some Death Grips, and then Shabazz Palaces, and they both sounded great (naturally), though I sometimes actually dial the bass back on hip hop to get more texture, and the Beats just overwhelmed everything with bass.  Oh, but what great bass it was!

Next, I went the opposite route and played some of the second movement of Ives's Fourth Symphony.  Predictably, it sounded totally like shit; but no big deal, I generally keep most of my classical music on its own dedicated mp3 player, so I could also keep an old pair of headphones exclusively for that player.  After that, I pulled up some Stooges demos and played them: shit!  The blistering edge was drowned in a river of sludge.  Skipping around to other songs, the Beats turned all my punk rock to mud.  Useless!

So anyway, to the point above: people will "buy headphones to finish the music the way they like"; but in this case, they are making a very binary choice, and they are choosing somebody else's finish on the music.  I understand (as pointed out in the article) that the ideal of "neutral" headphones or audio equipment is based on a snobby-if-not-elitist classical music prejudice, but the neutral equipment is also best suited to sculpt the music the way you want.  I remember back in the 70's and 80's how graphic EQs were the cool hi-fi accessory.  Of course, the audiophile knows that EQs are meant to tailor the output to each individual room to match the room acoustics to some ideal sound, but that's not how I used mine: I usually cranked my mid-highs to give my Stooges records an even more buzzsaw-like quality.  I had special EQ curves for my Zappa and Beefheart albums to emphasize the guitar.  And, just a little tweak in the low-mids really helped those Black Sabbath records sound even more evil!  Essentially, what I was doing was altering the "sacred" object (the original recording).  An audophile would have thought my EQs were an atrocity, but I really loved the sound.  In the same way, neutral headphones allow me to develop (as much as possible) my own sound for my listening using EQ controls on the devices. 

Right there is my ambivalence: Richardson's fundamental assumption is that transformation happens, and his assertion is that individualizing music (and it is individualizing music, not just the "listening experience", as some lifestyle salesmen will fashion it) is fundamentally worthwhile & even creative.  I believe that.  Even if I do posit that there is a phantasmic idea of "ideal sound", and even if this ghost is present when I listen to the reproduction of music, it is not something that I fixate on, or even acknowledge as a goal.  And I do like the idea that "music is never finished".  We have very specific cultural concepts of art as static, unchanging object.  Even experimental ideas of performance art, ephemeral art, disposable art, etc., somehow refer back to the idea of art as object, usually not critiquing the idea so much as using that concept as the point of difference.  The idea that recordings, usually conceived as static artifacts even when considered separate from the performance, can be altered and remade by the choice of playback equipment, is a very modernist (and recently a very pop culture) conceit.

However, as to the core of this particular discussion, Dre Beats headphones "finish" music in a fairly uninteresting and predictable way.  And, it is not your way, it is Dre's way.  It's disconcerting that Beats headphones actually add a kind of "factory preset" to your listening that you can't override.  Further, this "factory preset" once again moves the focus from the immanent back to the transcendent; only this time, the transcendent is not some ideal music out there, but rather some ideal mix as projected by a corporation whose face is Dr. Dre.  It is theoretically possible to use Dre Beats headphones in a way that re-contextualizes their purpose - and I think Richardson, with his avant-bass aesthetics, shows one way that can be done - but, more than any other equipment that I can think of, Beats resist such re-contextualization.  It is not that they are limited to what they can do so much as they are so supremely focused toward one specific purpose, and that purpose is dictated by the creators.

All equipment transforms music to some degree.  The idea of "neutral" reproduction equipment is a transcendent, Apollonian ideal that can never be achieved (and perhaps an ideal that it's not even desirable to attempt).  My beef with Beats headphones is less that they transform music, but rather that they only give you one limited option.  I am, by all means, in favor of alteration and transformation: just let it be yours, and not Dr. Dre's.

*          *          *          *          *

This post is only partially about equipment, but it does beg the question: what kind of headphones do I use that are so much superior to Dre Beats?

Well, here you go:
Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones.  They are $300 headphones, and lord knows I would not have ponied up that kind of money on my own.  I managed to win a pair as part of a work incentive, and I use them so much I am starting to develop callouses behind my ears.  You can, with a little help from the player, get plenty of smooth (not boomy) bass out of these headphones.  If I had to replace them & didn't feel like spending more than $100, I would probably go with these Sennheiser HD205 II headphones.  If I felt a little more flush, I would go with the Sennheiser HD 598, although by that point you are almost back to the price of the Bose.

Klipsch Image S4 earbuds.  Everything in this CNET review of these earbuds hold true, as far as I can tell.  I replaced a set of Bose earbuds, and these are clearly better.  They fit very well, with plenty of comfort, and once you get them seated in your ear (you'll have to adjust them not for comfort, but for best sound and stereo image), they stay there, unlike the Bose I always had to keep adjusting when I worked out.  Also, while not specifically noise cancelling, they actually shut out more outside sound than my Bose noise cancelling headphones.  And, they're under $80.  These should be the first headphones you buy for an mp3 player or iPhone.

As far as mp3 players go, I refuse to buy an iPod, and pretty much all the rest seem to be inferior.  I've got an Ibiza Rhapsody which has great features and a lot of capacity (30 gb), but the sound is mediocre and the thing crashes ALL THE FUCKING TIME.  My three cheap little Samsung mp3 players are good for what they are (i.e., cheap), and the sound is actually comparable to more expensive units.  But, the fact remains, they are fairly limited, inexpensive little devices.  

These days, all music player functionality is being shifted over to phones, and I really haven't spent a lot of time shopping them.  Once again, I refuse to buy an iPhone (for now, anyway), but I finally joined the smartphone generation by buying (actually, getting a $50 upgrade for re-upping my phone contract) a Blackberry Torch 9810.  I've spent a little time with the music player, and it seems pretty decent, but I haven't even bothered to get into the controls to see if there is a decent EQ adjustment.  One day, I'll go out & get a 32 gig micro SD card and spend some quality time with the music player on this.

Well, that's it for the consumer bullshit on this one.

January 16, 2012

Writing Through Zizek

from darkness past to light
as if a fuse had been lit
the explosive now a story told
                        a harvest culled
from a ladder that stretches back

it is not evolution
it’s realization –
something that’s been here
all along
the potentialities
the crushed dream of the future
encoded into history –

we are the materialized ghosts
of past generations
we bear the promise of a future
where our failures
are but seeds of victory
we live as future paradise
split with the pain of suffocation

“the present redeems the past itself
the new emerges
to resolve the unbearable tension of the old”

January 13, 2012

Fat Friday at History Lesson Pt. 2

My brother Matt runs a bass-centric (mostly) music blog called History Lesson Pt. 2.  I contributed this week's Fat Friday feature on a legendary bass player . . . or, in this case, a legendary bass line.  Enjoy!

And follow Matt's blog.  He does a lot of interesting stuff, and he's somewhat less of an asshole than I am at times.

January 5, 2012

Why I Like Occupy Louisville

On the heels of some negative Occupy commentary … 
So, I’m listening to the radio on the way home from work, and Louisville mayor Greg Fischer is being interviewed.  He takes a call from someone who wanted to discuss Occupy Louisville.  Right now, OL’s status is in question: they were originally given a permit (after being moved site to site several times, getting permits at each site) which has now expired.  But the little square of land that OL had been shunted to apparently is operated by the board of public works instead of the parks department, which means that, technically speaking, there are no rules against overnight camping in the location.  The city is now waiting for the courts to decide what is going on before they take any kind of action, so everything is currently in a more or less benevolent holding pattern.
In the meantime, the caller (let’s call him Sir Asshat) wants to know what Fischer thinks of Occupy Louisville.  Asshat identifies himself as a “social justice” type of guy, inquires about the future of the OL site before opining that OL needs to be taken out to the East End (that’s where most of the rich people are), then proceeds to randomly drop a few liberal political signifiers totally unconnected to each other, and finally starts foaming on about his own visit to the current OL site.  He blathered on about how disappointed he was, because it seems that the OL site has more homeless people than activists. 
For shame!
Seems that said homeless people weren’t able to answer his questions about liberal political activism in any coherent manner.  According to Sir Asshat, “I asked them some questions, and they were like, ‘Huh?’”.  Asshat then went on to say that these “homeless mercenaries” where taking advantage of Occupy Louisville to get a warm place to stay, and didn’t really care about the politics of the Occupy movement.
“Homeless mercenaries”.  Is it any wonder that people fucking hate liberals?
It seems that a large portion of the Occupy Louisville encampment is indeed composed of the homeless from the streets of Louisville.  I’m not sure exactly how this evolved, but it is at very least a symbiotic relationship: OL is small in numbers, and the homeless bolster OL’s visibility.  In return, the homeless become much more of a focus for Occupy Louisville … more than, say, student loan forgiveness, or other such bourgeois concerns … and, given the concrete day to day struggles of homelessness, the grand “branding” movement to push OWS into the mainstream political market is short circuited.  The exact aspects of homelessness that push it away from Sir Asshat’s market liberalism are the things that make Occupy Louisville interesting to me. 
At the end of the day, “social justice” liberal Sir Asshat implicitly wanted Mayor Fischer to close down the Occupy Louisville site because he didn’t approve of having homeless people representing the movement, to the point that he begrudges homeless people the warmth and shelter of Occupy Louisville tents.  Sir Asshat apparently has no problem speaking for the homeless, just as long as he doesn’t have to see and hear them himself.  Or take care of them.  Kinda makes you wonder exactly for whom Asshat’s “social justice” applies.
Fischer, who is turning into a pretty astute political fellow, immediately guided the conversation away from Sir Asshat’s despicable implications, and talked about taking care of the homeless - which, for a pro-business Democrat, always turns back to jobs.   Later, when one of the leaders of Occupy Louisville called in to counter Asshat (albeit in the most wet noodle way imaginable), he called Fischer to task over the homeless problem in the city.  Fischer promised that, if (or, more accurately, when) the Occupy Louisville encampment is dismantled, he would make sure that social workers showed up first to facilitate the placement of all the homeless protesters into shelters.  Louisville is actually “good” at taking care of its homeless, much like it is “good” at recycling: the homeless are sheltered, the recycling is carried away.  Not that anyone in Metro government is getting to the core of the homeless problem, which is why a homeless presence at Occupy Louisville is so necessary; but for today, we will give Louisville a pass because it at least goes out of its way to get a roof over as many heads as possible.
Occupy Louisville is not the presentable face of Occupy.  It’s not circus hippie drum circles, it’s not articulate young activists shouting and carrying clever signs.  Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Louisville is driven by the disenfranchised themselves.  More power to Occupy Louisville.