When I was younger, I used to buy albums on tape. It meant you had to listen to it all because FF was really fiddly, so I developed a love of the album track and how songs fitted together to make an album. Now AKG have lent me a pair of AKG K545 headphones and I’m revisiting some all time classic albums in high fidelity. In order to get the most out of the recordings, all albums are listened to in either lossless format (FLAC) or CD via a Fiio E17 DAC (digital to analogue converter) on my PC.
Looking at the top selling albums in the UK of all time, it’s interesting to see that the top two places are taken by greatest hits albums from ABBA and Queen respectively. The UK has always had an obsession with the singles chart and this has partly been fueled by long running shows like Top of the Pops and The Chart Show. In pretty much any history of contemporary music there is always the narrative that punk came along and blew the ridiculous excesses that rock had degenerated into out of the water. However large the cultural impact may have been, the chart impact was fairly minimal. I think Blondie’s Parallel Lines is the only album even vaguely punk related to make it into the top 10 best selling albums of the year in the UK. I would however like to point out that rock did have it’s excesses, and those definitely include the likes of Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which was performed live on ice. The problem was and still is a big disconnect between album and single sales. If you’re a prog rock band putting 9 minute songs on an album you’re not likely to get to the top of the singles charts.
I started listening to music like most kids do, via their parents. A lot of my peers parents were into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Who but my parents are a couple of years older and into completely different stuff. My dad was interested in a lot of the new folk revival music like Simon & Garfunkel, the Seekers and Peter, Paul & Mary, mixed with Nana Mouskouri and the Carpenters. My mum was a huge Cliff Richards devotee, and didn’t really go past that other than to listen to Radio 2 a lot. For a long time she thought Pink Floyd and Dire Straits were interchangeable, which was a source of embarrassment for me when I started to get interested in music.
It took me a LONG time to find the sort of music I liked, and needless to say Cliff wasn’t in there. I do like a bit of folk though. It was a journey that started out with cassette tapes and a Sanyo version of the Walkman. The earphones I had with it were terrible and the hiss from tape is something that you have to hear to believe. I was born in 1975, which means that for my formative years, music was strictly LPs, tapes and radio. When my dad bought himself a new fangled hi-fi system with a CD player, I inherited his old Wharfdale separates system that had a tuner, top loading cassette deck and a record deck. It also had a wonderful wood effect vinyl finish on it, which was lovely. The first albums I bought were Hey Hey Hey its the Monkees Greatest Hits, Velveteen by Transvision Vamp and the Raw and the Cooked by The Fine Young Cannibals, I was in my early teens by that point but they were all on cassette. I subsequently did buy a few albums on CD before I had a CD player, and ended up sitting behind the sitting room sofa plugged in to my dad’s hi-fi.
As the years passed I got better equipment and ended up re-buying a lot of the early albums I bought. Not just the cassettes either but a lot of the early CDs. Early CDs were often transferred to this new digital medium really badly. A poor analogue copy was transferred which meant the sound was really iffy. The mid to late 90’s saw a lot of the classic albums undergo what was called a remastering process to clean the sound up and make them sound better. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin went to great lengths to make sure all the bands catalogue sounded brilliant, and the same happened to Pink Floyd’s albums and most of the popular groups from yesteryear.
I have four copies of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon- cassette, CD, digital remastered CD and a 25th Anniversary CD/SACD hybrid. I still don’t know anyone with a SACD player mind you.
As the quality of the recordings improved, so did the amount of detail I heard in the music. The limiting factor then became the equipment I was playing it on, and ultimately the earphones or headphones I was listening on. There was a blip when MP3 players were introduced since I’ve always been a bit of an early adopter and the storage limitations meant the quality of early MP3s were terrible but after that I’ve been on a steady quest to find the best pair of headphones for listening to my favourite music.
I started off with Shure EC2s, which were great but uncomfortable, moved on to Shure SE115s when they died but they weren’t much good. Since then it’s been a veritable mix of brands and phones, like Koss PortaPros, MEElectronic HT-21s, RHA MA-350s and a pair of Scuderia Ferrari R200s. The Ferrari branded Logic3 headphones are the best on ear phones I own but the Shure EC2s were, despite their shortcomings the best sounding I owned. That all changed when I was invited to a Harman Kardon Dads event around Fathers Day and I got to try out a pair of AKG K550s. The sounded incredible- a really wide sound that was very clear, had plenty of bass without being dominated by it; all in all a very natural sound.
I lusted after them for quite a while and although there were cheaper than the Ferrari headphones, I had won those in a competition and couldn’t justify spending slightly over £200 on a pair of headphones, no matter how good they were.
After 5 a side football on a Wednesday, I’ve been listening to the excellent Peoples Songs on Radio 2. It’s lost in the scheduling at 10pm on a school night in many ways but it has made me nostalgic for the music of my youth. I dug out some of the albums I used to listen to (and in some cases still do) and set about trying to listen to them in the best circumstances I could. I have whats called a DAC- a digital to analogue converter, that plugs into my PC to deal with the process of converting the digital CD file into sound. In some instances, I’ve actually re-purchased albums like In the Court of the Crimson King, because I still owned a terrible hissy version on CD. The problem was, even on the Scuderia Ferrari R200s, the sound wasn’t as good as I remembered lossy MP3s sounding on the AKG headphones that evening at Harman Kardon. I dropped the chaps at Harman Kardon an email and asked if I could borrow a pair of their headphones for my retrospective album nostalgia trip. In return, I said I would blog about my musical exploration with the AKG headphones.
AKG sent me a pair of K545s, their new reference level over the ear headphones. Reference basically means in this context, a clear and unbiased sound, one for example that isn’t ridiculously bass heavy. I like to listen to music like the musicians intended it to be listened to, so the idea of a reference set of headphones really appeals to me. I’m not going to pretend I know a lot about the technical stuff- impedance, the size of the driver or the frequency response mean little to me. All I know is they sound utterly fantastic when matched with good quality source material. Over the course of the next week, I’ll show you some of my favourite albums from the 80’s and the 90’s, and hopefully prod you towards something new…