7 February 2008

Nice cans

Why beauty is truth

When the downloadable version of Radiohead’s In Rainbows came out, some people were complaining vocally about the mp3 encoding. Tinny and distorted, they said, what a dreadful conversion to mp3, it’s not even worth the zero dollars I paid for it. Actually, it sounds okay to me. Not CD quality, but perfectly fine for the bitrate. ((I stop being able to hear the difference between 44.1Khz 16-bit AIFF and compressed codecs when the encoding hits around 320kbps (for AAC; somewhat higher for mp3).)) What evident distortion I can hear seems evidently to be the result of production/mastering decisions, not a technical fault. This story might be a good illustration of the fact that, the less you pay for something, the less value you are likely to assign to it. Or maybe those people were unconsciously ill at ease owing to Radiohead’s crazy time signatures. ((“Fifteen Step” is in 5/4, naturally.)) Or maybe they were just using really bad headphones.

That’s what occurred to me as I was walking through Paris the other day, listening to my downloaded copy of In Rainbows on my iPod through my new pair of AKG K324P earphones. By a long way, they’re the best portable miniphones I’ve ever heard. ((Well, actually, they tie with AKG’s 416P, which my friend bought, and which are kind of the mini-mes of the K701s.)) The phantom of Glenn Gould breathes and hums right at your shoulder while he plays; Radiohead’s creamy soundscapes and jazzy valve-driven guitar-picking are a riot of colour, even at 160kbps compression. I had been wary of this new-fangled ear-canal style, but no longer. The AKGs cut out considerably more ambient sound than my old Sony noise-cancelling earphones, ((Bought in Tokyo in 1999. Yes, Tokyo.)) which means that, travelling on the métro, you can keep the volume down to a non-ear-destroying level. ((But for pity’s sake, save your hearing and put a treble-reducing EQ setting on whatever portable music player you use. Really. Do it now. It’s the high-frequency stuff, the cymbals and hi-hats and suchlike, that really kills your ears.)) Not least importantly, they are beautiful, in an understated, shiny-but-minimalist way. ((Except for the fact that, since the cord to each ear is the same length, there is no way to tell right from left without squinting at the tiny black-on-chrome R or L on the body of each earphone. Which is really stupid.)) They even come in a cool little soft black bag. And, er, stuff.

All of which is not to say that I’m trying to turn this website into one of those heavily trafficked gadget-review blogs that earn zillions in advertising revenue, because that would obviously be bad, especially the zillions. Still, it’s nice to know that occasionally, if you pay more, you get a better widget. But the real reason I bought the AKGs rather than some similar earphones from another manufacturer is summed up in this picture of what are possibly the most beautiful headphones ever made:

These are the AKG K701s, which I got last year, having previously composed and mixed with AKG’s workhorse K270S. The difference was marked: suddenly Placebo’s drummer was thwacking great big three-dimensional meaty things behind my head on “Follow the Cops Back Home”; well-recorded symphonic music erected a huge bubble of space in some alternative dimension. And if you’re a producer of music, the 701s simply let you hear better what you’re doing. There’s a subtle but to me appreciable difference in the clarity of mix between my music for EVOL and City of Glass, the former made with the 270s and the latter with the 701s. ((I don’t mix entirely on headphones, but the monitor speakers remained the same.))

But I propose also a hypothesis, that there’s something else going on here: a kind of synaesthesia. Could it not be that the sound of the K701s is enhanced because they are such a magnificent object of design? Look: both retro and futuristic (not merely, tediously retro-futuristic), with that harmonious counterpoint between the gleam of precision-engineered metal and the organic warmth of the padded leather headband, and the memory-foam listening pads that surround your ears with a faint whisper of softest corduroy. Also, the reassuringly bold “Made in Austria” declaration. ((The K324P earphones, on the other hand, are made in China, but, says the box, “Designed and Engineered in Austria by AKG”. Taking a leaf out of Apple’s book, I see.)) You could call this sort of rapturous objectophilia just being a sucker for looks. But I suspect that you could put exactly the same circuitry inside the kind of brutalist cheap non-design of your average USB headset and not only wouldn’t you think they sounded as good, they really wouldn’t sound as good. Perhaps the electrons themselves somehow intuit that they are passing through a thing of beauty, a veritable Grecian urn of headphones, and realise they’d better shape up. ((If you retort that electrons can’t inuit anything, I refer you to the philosophical doctrine, almost fashionable again, of panpsychism.))

Well, it’s either that, or AKG’s “revolutionary flat-wire technology”. And, really, how plausible does that sound? I could stamp the wires flat in a cheap pair of Sony headphones and they wouldn’t sound any better. ((Nor, I admit, would they sound any worse.)) So I’ll stick with my own explanation, of which we already know of examples in nature. Beauty leaks across the senses.

  • Having previously owned a much-loved pair of K270Ss, I went for something portable when they gave up the ghost. I now own a pair of K26Ps, which are really beautiful in their own right, and a CMoy headphone amp. (If you don’t know the story of the CMoy amp, please google it). The combination delivers really powerful, smooth and beautiful sound. Even from the crammy amp in my laptop.

  • Yes, I was a bit unfair to call the K270Ss just a “workhorse”… Thanks for the reference to the CMoy amp. High-class home-made amps in mint tins: that’s excellent.

  • Dan

    That’s what occurred to me as I was walking through Paris the other day, listening to my downloaded copy of In Rainbows on my iPod through my new pair of AKG K324P earphones.

    I hate you, Steven. In the nicest possible way, of course. Unspeak (it’s so sad that my book has both met you and been to Paris and I haven’t) has proved its usefulness again in the way of a Public Relations essay on soundbytes, corporate and political catch-phrases. Will let you know how it goes!