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Wednesday, June 04, 2003  
Why don't I download music? Firstly it's not practical. Dawlish isn't broadbanded-up and probably wont be for a while, so I'm stuck with a dial-up connection at home. At work I've obviously got a very quick connection, but no CD burner, so what's the point?

But sod practicalities. The real reason i don't download MP3s is cos they sound shit. Radio 1's compression I can at least forgive because it works very well in the car over engine hum; what's the point in listening to some 'open' jazz or classical (or anything) in the car on Radio 2 or 3 when all the space is filled with engine revs?

Friends say to me me "but you can't tell the difference between Cd and MP3" and they are so, so wrong. Maybe they can't tell the difference, but MP3 quality sound when played on a decent stereo/hifi or through good headphones gives me a headache. I'm far from an audiophile but it's clear to me how much less room the sound is projected into, how much less sharp and clear it is. Now, as Jason Pierce attests, a good song is a good song whether it's played on a £10,000 Naim set-up or a £9 transistor radio with a fucked cone, and I fully agree with this. But equally, a good song is made better and more readily appreciable when it's played on something that can do it justice. MP3s work OK on shitty PC speakers because they're generally so crap that even CDs sound rubbish on them (I'm not talking about big expensive speakers with seperate subwoofers like you can buy - I'm talking shitty bundled beige things the size of coffee cups). And I see no point in forking out for decent PC speakers when I've already spent a grand and a half on seperates and have some delicious Tannoy R1s on lovely stands anyway.

How can people not tell the difference? For a start, MP3s actually give me a headache if I listen to them for any prolonged length of time. I assume this is because I'm so used to listening to a clearer format that I'm stretching my ears at all times to hear things that little bit sharper, and end up 'straining my ears', if that's possible (and as someone who's had glasses since he was 12 and knows all about straining your eyes, straining your ears must be possible). Plus, and this is by far the worst thing about MP3s, because the sound is dulled slightly (and it is only very slightly compared to the amount of compression the Radio 1signal undergoes [CD to MP3 = digital telly to analogue tele, but CD to Radio 1 = DVD to VHS]), it becomes unmemorable, like a lifeless film; diverting and enjoyable enough while you're actually watching it, but once it's over it's... I'm sorry, what was it we watched? Oh yes, that was the one with, um, whatsisface in? What happened again...? And hence Let It Come Down was listened to on a burnt CDR of MP3 quality a half dozen times before it came out and I was nonplussed and could remember nary a thing about it. Once it was opened up on proper CD (vinyl even better but fuck it, convenience has to play a part somewhere and I'm not that fussy) the difference was amazing, shap clear and powerful, and it left it's mark firmly when the dulled MP3 simply could not penetrate. And so what's the point? The new Radiohead and Spiritualized albums have both arrived on my doormat in MP3 format recently, needing to be reviewed, and this has necessitated some serious attention-paying and note-taking, listening to them across different stereos and systems, on headphones, a shitty old mono set-up, th proper hifi in the music room, the walkman, etcetera, etcetera... Both are very good albums (Radiohead in particular is a wonderful record), and yet I know full-well I'm not going to be able to properly enjoy either record in a simple, non-critical capacity until I get hold of the proper CDs.

6/04/2003 09:05:00 am

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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com


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