The One Where I Start Sounding Like An Old Man

Drew Kennedy | September 14th, 2010

Technology is, quite frankly, one of the only reasons why I’m able to survive in this business as my own manager, record label, and agent. I can book shows with the whisk of an email, handle press requests with a simple reply via text message, and solve all sorts of dilemmas on the road thanks to the über-connectivity of my phone. I can sell my songs in an instant, without having to ship albums, find stores willing to deal with an indie (hell, find a store with any rack space at all devoted to music, let alone indies) and set up virtual vending for my schwag. Everything is getting smaller, faster, more user-friendly. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in the last ten years—even the last two years.

One of the major positive aspects in regards to the portability of our technology has become a serious boon for recorded music: size. You can take your entire record collection with you in your pocket and access it anywhere.

A quick aside—I realize the term “record” is a little dated, but seriously, there is no cooler way to refer to music. CD? No way. MP3’s? Forget it. Give me “records” and “albums” any day. If the labels can continue to recoup the cost of manufacturing a CD based on the cost of manufacturing a vinyl record, then I can keep calling my music “records.”

And, if you want to make an addition to your record collection, you can do it right there, on the spot, beamed straight out of space. Boom. Revolver. Beatles. Instantly. Well…eventually instantly, once Apple and Apple work out their differences…

While all of this technology continues to advance, I’ve noticed that there’s one aspect of it that has fallen behind. I am speaking, of course, of the dreaded Ear Bud. You know, those little white in-ear headphones that are included in the packaging for your iPod or iPhone (I have no knowledge of the inclusion of such listening devices with other products, but I’m going to take a leap and assume that similar things are indeed included with other MP3 players). They are, quite simply, dreadful. With each updated music-storing product I purchase, I give them a try. Each time, they fail.

Trust me on this: Ear Buds are no way to listen to your music.

Sure, if you’re not happy with the sound, you can go out and buy a different set of headphones. I understand that. That’s what audiophiles do—and I assume most of you consume your music through some sort of above average system of sonic delivery. The joy of hearing how truly great an album sounds through a set of speakers or studio headphones is one that is difficult to top, as far as aural experiences go. As it should be, I might add. We, on the recording side of things, work incredibly damned hard at making sure everything sounds tip top. I mean, REALLY hard. We split hairs over analog tape, over proper mastering techniques, over what microphone does the best job capturing the vocal tenor of the second harmony part in the chorus. You, on the audiophile side of things know this, and reward our hard work with your hard earned money going towards a killer set of speakers.

But, you and I…we’re few and far between, I’m afraid. Would you believe me if I told you that your average music consumer actually uses those Ear Buds? I know, I know…they’re free, and they emit sound, and they go in your ears. I understand the counterpoint: why on earth would someone buy something that emits sound when you already get something that emits sound for free?

Those infernal Ear Buds. How I loathe them.

Because they sound horrific, that’s why!

As a purist, all I can think about is what the average music consumer is missing out on. Seriously—if they actually heard it, if for only a few minutes, the way we hear it…the way in which we intended for you to hear it—man, maybe they’d become rabid music fans. Maybe the sheer excitement of hearing their first screaming hot chickin’ pickin’ solo in all of it’s velvety, twangy, punchy glory would open their ears to an entirely new world of music. Maybe they become audiophiles just like you and I after hearing their first Ralph Mooney solo, in all of its low-fi warmth and beauty, the way it was intended to be heard.

But no, they hear everything in the same, flat, listless tones—tones just big enough to fit into those things. It makes me sad to even think about it. Then my sadness gives way to anger—the kind of old man anger your grandfather displayed when you told him George Strait was way better than Ferlin Husky.

You’re too close to this issue, I tell myself. It’s not their fault. Don’t think about it. They just don’t know.

I’m a dreamer, and an unconventional purist. I know I speak for an alarmingly low number of people when it comes to this gripe. But seriously, why do we sweat over every tone, every note, every sound, every mix… if you’re just going to listen to what we’ve done on little, tiny, miniscule, terrible sounding Ear Buds?

I also realize that soon I’ll be complaining when the neighbor’s kid’s football comes flying into my yard, when the paperboy doesn’t hit my front porch steps with precise accuracy, when I see someone with a funny looking pair of pants walk by, and when flavored whiskey starts taking a bite out of the regular whiskey market (seriously, what’s wrong with whiskey? What is there to improve? Vanilla? Cherry? What??). It seems to be an inevitable progression that comes naturally with age: as the number representing your years on earth increases, the number of things that inexplicably annoy you will increase in equal measure.

I’m sure someone infinitely more intelligent than I has already expressed the above sentiment as some sort of infallible mathematic formula, so I apologize to that person for my reckless hip-shooting when it comes to these sort of calculable things.

But seriously, if you’re an Ear Bud person, don’t get angry with me. Just do me a favor… do yourself a favor… do all of us in the recorded music business a favor: save a few pennies up and get yourself a real listening system. None of these new fangled Ear Buds. Please?

No?

Please? I promise you’ll thank me later…

Damn you kids, you don’t know nothin’.

  1. SW
    September 14, 2010 at 8:25 am

    I love this article! More angry old dudes please.

  2. Freddy
    September 14, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Anyone that has ever listened on my ultimate ears canal phones (the cheaper universal fit, not custom) — I’ve seen that exact expression on their face. Just pure astonishment. “Whoa — this sounds *really* good”. People don’t realize what they’re missing until they try it out.

    And ordinary people most definitely *can* hear the difference. You don’t need golden ears or anything.

    I went with the canal phones/IEMs because they’re still portable and don’t look much different than the standard-issue apple earbuds, and they inherently block external noise.

    The only problem with getting better speakers or headphones?? Then you *really* start worrying about the loudness wars… eek.

  3. Ken Morton, Jr.
    September 14, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Drew, thanks for a great column. I had a similar moment when my second oldest son came home from kindergarten a few years back and told me how his teacher played music in the classroom on the biggest black CD he’d ever seen.

  4. Fizz
    September 14, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I agree about the earbuds, but in addition to the generally poor sound quality, I don’t like the way they feel. Makes me feel almost claustrophobic in a weird way

  5. Janice
    September 14, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Beautiful writing Drew. And I’m with you on “record.” It IS a record. It is a record of a moment, an experience, a time. “Record” does not have to mean a black piece of vinyl.

  6. Jane2
    September 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

    I love IEMs but I don’t love the inevitable loss of the eartips and the inability to easily find replacements.

  7. Dana M
    September 14, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I’m sorry I have no idea what you’re writing about. I guess I haven’t listened to music in all it’s purity since I’ve been listening to mp3s and CDs since i could listen to music. Maybe I’ll repair my dads record player and give it a try. Also, I need new headphones anyway, does anyone recommend anything?

  8. Matt Bjorke
    September 14, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I Haven’t ever really enjoyed anything but my Shure in ear Monitors. So much so, in fact that when I lost my first pair out of my pocket while walking around a big city, I immediately went to a store, bought another pair (but decided to give another brand a try). Didn’t like ‘em as much as the Shure brand and eventually (about 6 months later) bought the Sure ones.

    I may be crazy for spending over $100 each time but you get what you pay for and I love the Shure in Ear monitors I use to listen to the iPod.

  9. Leeann Ward
    September 14, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I cannot stand earbuds. My ears are, apparently, too small and they fall out. When they stay in, they hurt the inside of my ears. I love my Bose headset. It blocks out all sound when I’m listening to music, which is only a problem when somebody tries to get my attention or the phone rings.

    As for speakers, my Klipsch stand up speakers are very beloved to me. Each time I listen to them, I’m once again struck by how terrific they are. They’re worth every hard saved penny.

  10. Matt Bjorke
    September 14, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Leeann,

    I hate traditional earbuds too but the in-ear monitors I bought (very much similar to what artists use on stage) work breat for me more than studio ‘cans’ do.

    Klipsch are indeed a great band of stereo speakers.

  11. Rick
    September 14, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    There are decent sounding ear buds out there but how many displays have you ever seen where you get to test a whole bunch of different models to compare their performance? (Or test any models at all for that matter!) I’ve read comparison reviews and after buying recommended ear buds found them to be sorely lacking. Since I do most of my ear bud listening to conservative talk radio shows while walking I don’t need expensive in ear monitors. Now if I had a Walkman style HD radio they could come in handy.

    I have a much bigger beef with the diminished sound quality of MP3′s (256 kps and below) compared to CDs, and CDs compared to LP records. Even more annoying are the commonly heard digital recording or encoding distortion artifacts that make the “s” sounds and other sibilants of human vocals sound like a hissing hash of noise! Carefully produced and mastered albums do not have these artifacts, but a large percentage of low budget indie releases do and even some of the Nashville big label albums.

    I relish the sound quality of really well produced, truly high fidelity albums but don’t encounter them very often, and especially not from Nashville labels. I find that Keith Stegall (well prior to Alan Jackson’s “Freight Train” anyway) and Tony Brown put out consistently fine sounding albums. Mark Wright has produced some gems too, but I cringe when I see names like Blake Chancey or Brett Beavers.

    Sunny Sweeney’s indie “Heartbreakers Hall of Fame” has a wonderfully clean sound presentation, while her new Republic Nashville album is more a “Wall of Noise” cluttered approach. What works on Top 40 country radio usually isn’t good for music fans who appreciate high quality sound as “background music” often isn’t worthy of critical listening.

  12. Ben Foster
    September 14, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    I enjoyed your rant! It was actually a bit humorous. I dislike earbuds as well, for the same simple reason as Leeann – they fall out of my ears. If I try to go for a jog while wearing earbuds, I know I won’t make it halfway down the street. And you’re right – they do sound crappy.

    By the way, I sometimes refer to albums/singles as “records” as well, even though I’m still a young guy. So keep on using the term – you won’t bother me.

  13. Razor X
    September 14, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    I bought a pair of Bose earbuds, expecting them to sound really great. They were a huge disappointment. Not only did they not sound a whole lot better than the ones I got with my iPod, the little plastic ear tips kept falling off. Eventually I lost one and gave up on them altogether.

  14. Leeann Ward
    September 14, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    I’ve never tried the Bose earbuds, because of how I feel about earbuds.

  15. Steve Harvey
    September 14, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    The earbuds that come free with iPods are pretty lousy, but I’ve got a set of Senheiser earbuds that are fantastic. They were pretty pricey, but they have great bottom end and isolate background enough that I can keep the volume reasonably low and not hurt my ears. Also, they work great as earplugs at too loud concerts.

  16. sam (sam)
    September 14, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    I own a “real listening system” which I spent a small fortune on around ten years ago. But I hardly ever listen to music on that: I mostly listen on my crappy car stereo and on my ipod with the earbuds when I’m exercising.

    Yes the earbuds sound inferior. But while I once valued music enough to want to hear it on decent speakers, I no longer really care anymore. The way I use music in my life has changed dramatically. For me, it is now basically noise to make the treadmill less boring or the car trip more tolerable. Spending time closely listening to music was something I once enjoyed but is no longer a priority for me. It just doesnt seem like the best use of my time anymore. The earbuds do the job just fine for my current uses of my ipod.

    I also find myself listening more and more to podcasts or iTunes U selections than to country music. Yes the earbuds suck for that too, but they do the job. In fact, I dare say I find reading this site to be more interesting than listening to actual country music itself at this point in time. The earbuds are just fine for my my current musical needs.

  17. Leeann Ward
    September 14, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Wow! I hope the day never comes when listening to music isn’t a priority for me.

  18. Jon
    September 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Well, listening to music’s a priority for me, but I don’t really care much whether it’s in my noisy car, on my computer, with noise-cancelling headphones, with earbuds or on a stereo. I guess having spent countless hours listening to records made back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – before the advent of hi-fi – and show recordings made under less than ideal conditions has something to do with that. But as a recording musician and occasional producer myself, I think that complaining about the fact that people choose to listen to music in different ways is just a waste of time; mix and master for how you wish people would listen if you want, or mix and master for how you think most people actually will – and remember that millions of people became rabid music fans listening to records played on tiny blue transistor radios. And on victrolas, for that matter. If people hear your music and don’t like it, odds are that the reproduction system is not what’s at fault.

  19. Janet Goodman
    September 16, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I grew up listening to WMCA and WABC Top 40 stations in New York. All I had was my little transistor radio in it’s nifty black leatherette case and what we called an ear plug back then. I agree with Jon in that it doesn’t really matter much how we listen to music; what matters is that we do listen.

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