Volume 16 Number 3
Yes, our hi-fi systems are there to be refined, optimised and listened to with rapt attention paid to every nuance – but are we losing some of the fun of just enjoying the music? Andrew Everard's been wondering...
As a hi-fi reviewer, I get used to the incredulous reaction when I tell people what I do for a living: 'What?' they almost invariably exclaim, 'You get paid to listen to music?' That one's a bit akin to the way some bristle a bit when I says I'm a journalist, then relax considerably when I explain what I write about: 'Oh, not a real journalist, then,' was the best response to that one. But for all that, doing what I do has treated me pretty well over the years; yes, I get to listen to great music played on usually fairly excellent equipment, and there's always something to pique the interest and lead to further explanations.
However, a recent unpaid 'job' rearranged my way of thinking a bit: amidst a particularly intense period of reviewing against deadlines, I was invited to a 50th birthday party and, deciding that it would be good to spend some time with some young 'uns, I gladly accepted. However, it seems that the plan was that I'd have to sing for my supper, in a manner of speaking: 'We've decided that all the music will be from the 70s, and we thought you could do the music.' Pausing only momentarily to wonder whether doctors go to such events on the understanding they'll be called upon to do the odd diagnosis, or whether hairdressers attend with an on-call kit of brushes and a dryer, I accepted the challenge, and started trying to work out what I'd need.
OK, so the music was relatively easy: I was a teenager in the 70s, so have quite an extensive music of the era in the Guilty Pleasures corner of my library server, while a bit of topping-up in the form of a couple of compilations of the music of the time was swiftly ticked off the list. There were some specific requests, given that the birthday girl was born in 1971, but a small tranche of Junior Choice favourites got all that sorted, too, and with a bit of editing to weed out some of the stuff I listened to at the time – I didn't think loads of prog would go down too well with a group ranging in age from teens to those well into their ninth decade – I was just about set with enough music to keep playing for a good few hours without too much repetition.
How to play it all? Well, the method I chose, which was really a matter of keeping things simple, turned out to be one of those unconscious inspirations: looking for an easily transportable system, and one quick and easy to set up, I lighted on a second-generation Naim Mu-so, with the music ripped down to 320kps MP3 and loaded onto a superannuated iPhone, connected to it via Bluetooth. I also plugged a spare USB cable into the Naim's port, mainly as a means of keeping the iPhone charged up if required – one of the reasons I'd upgraded from the phone was to get better battery life.
On arrival, all was set up, and music started playing: I'd put all the tracks in a playlist, so I just to hit the shuffle button and it was off and running. And most impressive was the way the Mu-so managed to fill the house with music without seeming to drown everything out – with my reviewing hat I'd say the sound was big and forceful, while remaining excellent intelligibility, and I was enjoying the way I could crank up the Naim system when required, and then just adjust the level on the fly using the volume buttons on the side of the phone. Relax, kick back, and enjoy the party – and the music. Yes, really enjoy the music, from hearing a roomful of adults singing along to Abba's Dancing Queen to watching a retro-punk teen – pink hair, all in black and bedecked with chains – semi-pogoing to The Stranglers' No More Heroes.
However, I realised I was getting something from this modest system I struggled to achieve with so much review equipment when the party moved outside to eat; the Mu-so, sitting inside the windows into the garden, got wound up a little more – but was still running entirely cool. And then the 'pass the musical parcel' began, with everyone being given the phone to pick the next track to play, and the conversation began to spin around memories of each track and 'oh, you'll like this one'.
Yes, now I can go back to my reference system and enjoy everything it does, but will I ever be having as much fun as that? Maybe not – perhaps we all need to do a bit more kicking back, relaxing, and letting the music take us.
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