about beats headphones What does the future of audio mean for your ears
Apple confirmed its $3 billion purchase of Beats Music and Electronics last week, its biggest acquisition ever and a crucial one as the evolution of post Napster music continues to twist and turn. Beats, the company founded by music industry impresario Jimmy Iovine and hip hop heavyweight Dr. Dre, has taken over much of the high end headphone market with suavely marketed (and sonically criticized) cans, and found marginal success with a streaming subscription service lined up to compete against paid apps such as Spotify and Rdio as the 800 pound gorilla of YouTube swings over the marketplace. Apple’s purchase gives it a pivot: money wise, it’ll no doubt break even on headphone sales quickly, but the real investment was the app, whose subscriptions could be balance out iTunes’ declining download sales as music ownership becomes a thing of the past or a hobby for fringe collectors.
Neil Young, on the other hand, wants consumers to double down: his Kickstarter funded Pono player, essentially a gourmet iPod, has billed itself and the audiophile downloads that will be sold for it as a hi fi alternative to the lower quality, compressed formats that have thus far defined mainstream digital music. It wants to be music’s take on farm to table but is it?
Whether Young’s project will live up to its promises is a big question, and as streaming becomes a dominant force even as old school vinyl sales build, it means the music we’re hearing is increasingly warped: by file size, by bandwidth, by cheap record player needles, by digital to analog converters, by 24 bit vs. 16, by earbuds and $300 headphones. It’s a tangled web that shows no signs of loosening up.
Recorded music has always been driven by technology, from Thomas Edison’s phonograph to the vinyl LP to the vast and confusing world of digital downloads. Format’s just one element: between a studio recording and a song reaching your ears, a million things can go right or wrong. That authentic analog vinyl record you just bought at the show? It may well have been mastered on an iMac and ripped from a CD R.
In the coming week, I’ll be talking to engineers, labels, artists and other experts for a feature trying to demystify the state of audio, answering questions about analog and digital today and discussing what home listeners can do to make their music sound best. What would you like to know?
For my part, at work, I stream Rdio and play a high quality iTunes MP3 library through Sony MDR V6 headphones; I stream from Rdio and Bandcamp on my iPhone during my commute with Etymotic ER 6i earbuds; and at home, I’ll play vinyl on an Audio Technica record player through a Denon receiver and a pair of vintage speakers my wife picked up from a DJ friend. What’s your personal music set up like? What formats sound best to you?