Allan Moulton is North American Sales Manager at U.S.-based equipment distributor Musical Surroundings.
Why do people still listen to records?
It’s the question instinctively asked by nearly all those outside our hobby (and many within) upon learning that there has been, for some time now, a thriving resurgence of a playback technology about to turn 70 years old. That this resurgence has also found an audience in young, 25- to 35-year-old listeners is even more perplexing. The vinylists under 40 aren’t still listening to records—they just started listening to records. Against all “reason,” they have chosen the pain and expense of an old technology in the face of more accessible and cheaper digital formats. What connects the interests of these new-to-LP listeners with the jaded old guard, which grew up with the LP as the primary playback format? What in the name of perfect sound forever is going on?
The typical answers to the “Why vinyl?” question would be known to all who would read the pages of magazines like this one. “LPs just sounds better.” “It’s cool—a hipster fad.” “It’s a nostalgia trip.” The merits of each have been litigated in print, in dealer showrooms, and in online forums for many years now. The result? Deep argumentative trenches that devolve into the artificial oppositions of digital versus analog, subjective versus objective, fashion versus substance, or old versus new. These trenches are now so deep across the audio landscape that I’m afraid current means of escape won’t dig us out.
Instead, let’s walk together on some level common ground. For certainly the readers of The Absolute Sound are joined in the belief that what makes a technology good isn’t simply that it makes our lives easier, but rather that it makes our lives better. The compulsion to place “easy” and “good” in close proximity is everywhere in our culture, and yet the decades of TAS readership have served to show that the road to the absolute is anything but easy. Why do we work so hard in, and care so much about, the pursuit of a sound experience we call “absolute” and “involving,” and what do we expect of the audio technologies we use to get there? Why do people, young and old, listen to records?
The Three H’s
Let me propose at the outset a notion that could be headlined the Head, Heart, and Hands. It’s the rather simple observation that human beings experience their world through thinking, feeling (emotionally), and sensing, and that these capabilities are neither elective nor unrelated—they are fundamental aspects of being human that can’t simply be turned off. Indeed, attempting to deprive a person of his senses (or, I’d argue, any one of the “H’s”) has been legally termed torture. (Most people, it has to be said, torture themselves with their sound systems.)
I would further propose that the experiences we most remember, and that we describe with terms like “fulfilling” or “involving” are those that are most inclusive of the Three H’s—that engage us intellectually, emotionally, and sensually. A great meal with the perfect wine pairing shared with friends. The turning of a page in a fantastic book. The hug of a loved one not seen in some time. An early morning ski run through fresh powder on a crisp sunny day. The experiences we seek and remember are the ones that fully involve us. And, just as in the reviews we read in audio magazines, the attributes of experience and the objects heralded as engaging or involving suggest our active participation rather than our passive observation. We are fully (Head, Heart and Hands) in and part of the experience. In sports it’s termed “the zone,” and I’d encourage us as listeners to remember those times when we were in the listener zone—where our system and room and “self” just magically disappeared.
What if we considered a “better life” as being one filled with nourishment for the Head, Heart, and Hands, and what if we held the standards for technology to this most extreme test? Last year, at my son’s Grade 1 graduation celebration, the teachers had a Polaroid camera on hand. I hadn’t seen or used one in many, many years. What a fantastic “back to the future” moment. The kids (and adults) were mesmerized watching the photos develop before their eyes, and everybody passed them around and signed them for one another. Certainly not the photographic technology for every occasion, but perfect in this case—the “better” technology in every way.
I would hazard a guess that we all make certain technological choices that we feel are better, even though they may be more difficult or less sophisticated in the first analysis. Manual transmissions. Fountain pens. Espresso machines. Analog wrist watches. Sail boats. The list is endless. And we make these choices in large part because we believe they more fully involve us than an automatic transmission, a ballpoint pen, instant coffee, a digital watch, or a motorboat. They all stimulate our need to think, feel, and sense our world. Perhaps then we need to rethink what it means for a technology to be good, and, instead of letting technology lead us with its objective shiny newness, judge it through the more inclusive Triple H test.
Back to Records
Look, if more modern formats for music playback were doing their job completely—if they were really Triple H good—there wouldn’t have been a vinyl resurgence at all, either with young listeners or old farts. Listening to LPs is Triple H good. It’s not for everybody, just like a manual transmission or a fountain pen isn’t for everybody. But it’s inherently involving. We find it. We chose it. We hold it. We listen to it (even an entire album). We share it.
The Information Age has resulted in a sense of disconnectedness with the world, and we can easily see a global movement of cultures (including our own) in search of new meanings and connections. The audio hobby too faces these same transformations. But I do see a great deal of enthusiasm and hope in the generations just now experiencing vinyl for the first time. I think that they exhibit this basic instinct to return to those experiences that celebrate our entwinement with our world. At the end of the day, I do feel as though the “actual” will compel over the “virtual” in the social realm and, yes, in audio too.
And finally, why do people still listen to records? Because they use the technologies that engage them. Because they like to think and feel and sense their world. Because these are people actively involved in a life worth living.