Headphones at Dawn


‘Look here, friend,’ said I, If you have anything important to tell us, out with it;

But if you are only trying to bamboozle us, you are mistaken in your game.’

Herman Melville: Moby Dick, or the Whale

I always wanted to lead something I wrote with a quote.

And the above tracks pretty well with most of my output: Sometimes, even I can’t tell when I’m bamboozling, and when I’m not.

Anyway, I got some pricey new headphones for my birthday.

New headphones require that you listen to everything you’ve heard before with new ears. Because, essentially, you have new ears. I also like to make sure my ears are wax-free when I try out new cans for the first time.

Thus, Q-Tips.

(Denominationally, where do you stand on the question of Q-Tip use? I know, I know. Danger lurks. I’m afraid that one day, I’ll be performing delicate ear hole hygiene when an earthquake strikes. Now not only am I now fighting my insurance company, I’m doing it with a cotton swab painfully sticking out of my head. I don’t want to be dealing with an Allstate employee who’s surely not as sympathetic as Bob Parr in that condition.)

I’m no audiophile.

There, I said it.

I’m no oenophile, either. But I enjoy wine, sometimes because of the taste, sometimes in spite of it.

In much the same vein, I enjoy music.

I don’t know, however, that I catch all the nuance and subtle detail that performers and producers insert into the mix when I listen to a song for the first hundred times or so on a substandard car stereo or a portable speaker that’s more portable than speaker.

However, it’s those first hundred times or so, and the fact that through those first hundred times or so I’m still not sick of that song down to my protoplasmic essence, that makes me want to listen to it again with my new ears.

Is there something else there? A tiny detail that might heighten my enjoyment even further, or explain why this one song, rather than the one over there, kicks off the dopamine rush?

I slap the phones on (heavy but comfy) and choose something easy:

Remastered Sgt. Pepper’s.

And yes, the ‘Super Deluxe Edition,’ which includes the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ 2015 remix, ‘Penny Lane’s ‘Capitol Records Mono US Promo Mix, and ‘Getting Better (Take 12).

No mention of takes 1 though 11.

I play the final chord from ‘A Day in the Life.’ The wavering harmonium (?) fades first and reluctantly in my new sound environment; … ah, there’s the famed squeak at 4:50, clear as day.

‘Lucy…’ becomes way heavier at the bottom, balancing Lennon’s reedy vocals.

Needless yet entertaining granularity: Why is George’s little guitar run at the end of the mono version of the title track way more foregrounded than in the 2017 stereo mix? I dash off an email to Giles Martin to ask, forgetting that I don’t know him or his email address.

“My most challenging production issue? The constant spam.”

I try something more prosaic: Maria Muldaur’s ‘Midnight at the Oasis.’

Can I say prosaic? It is just a slight piece of pop art and a tune I’ve listened to over and over without registering anything other than it being catchy and vaguely obscene. Was there something I’d missed?

For the most part, no. I’d always enjoyed the insistent, unhurried shuffle of the thing, Muldaur’s seductive croon, the way the whole song wears its hot weather – hot times ideology on its sleeve without falling into the steel drums and reggae-ish beat trap, the sturdy backdrop of acoustic guitar and piano.

Everything’s cleaner and brighter and sharper now, but it’s still just ‘Midnight at the Oasis.’ 

Then there’s Amos Garrett’s guitar.

Not the obvious parts, though. We all know what I’m talking about.

Garrett plays the role of lead superbly if by the book on the majority of ‘MatO,’ highlighted by his lengthy and legendary picked rundown across the bridge.

Beginning in the second verse, he adds a pedal steel-cum-tropical, even ukulele-like counterpoint, tastefully reinforcing the song’s laid-back, buzzed, and unabashedly sensual atmosphere. He’s doing here exactly what a veteran session guitarist should be doing: adding without grandstanding and, when spotlighted, delivering something instantly memorable.

What he does otherwise is something else entirely.

Several times during the song, he quietly but emphatically embroiders these sort of scratching and plinking parts into the corners and crevices of the sound palette, filigrees of perfect ornamentation, laying on an extra aural dimension that’s both easily overlooked and essential to the overall vibe of the song.

I’ve kinda heard these licks before, but at a sub-conscious level. They’ve been there as part of the overall scheme; I’ve just never paid attention.

Now I have. And every time I listen to ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ going forward, no matter where or when, Garrett’s subtle touches are all I’ll be listening for.

New ears, baby!

Excellent! And to celebrate: we got you a little something.”

I blame my scattershot way of listening without listening for not noticing a lovely detail like this for decades, and my new cans for the obsession I immediately developed for searching out others.

You more musically sound listeners out there may have already unearthed scads of instances like these.

I’m going to have fun doing the same.

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Famed Member
June 29, 2023 8:01 am

You’re making me want to go out and get a pair of high end headphones, stob! I haven’t actually used any kind of headphones more than just a few times since high school. I just crank my stereo really loud mostly so I can hear the nuances of the bass guitar, and both my wife and daughter think I’m losing my hearing. Perhaps there is a better way, and I do remember that phones made a big difference, duh. There are a lot of cool things in songs that can be easily missed, with or without headphones. I’ve frequently discovered new things I never heard before in songs I’ve heard for years. Thanks to you, I’ll likely be listening with new ears, and perhaps new gear.

Famed Member
June 29, 2023 8:03 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

Oh, and I love the Amos Garrett reference. A former roommate of mine years ago knew he was the session guitarist on that song and it always impressed me that he knew that. This was before the internet when you couldn’t just look stuff up like that.

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
June 29, 2023 7:16 pm
Reply to  stobgopper

…Former? Barely knower!

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
June 29, 2023 8:08 am

Some of my most important music lessons came from old scuffed 7 inches played on a crappy system, so I don’t know if I’ll ever be anything close to an audiophile.

But certainly some well-recorded albums hit me differently when I’ve heard them on a decent system. Hearing the CD release of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless vs the songs I heard dubbed onto tape from old vinyl was like night and day. And it sounds even better on the slightly-fancy sound box I have now. Pet Sounds deserves a nice system, as does The Smile Sessions.

I found Radiohead’s In Rainbows somewhat underwhelming when I first played it on my laptop…but eventually realized that I had been missing out on the low end, and that added so much to the music.

A different topic, but similar phenomenon of listening with new ears is comparing different mixes/remasters of the same album. Probably the most dramatic example of official mixes is Raw Power by The Stooges. I may be the only person on earth who prefers Iggy’s mixed-into-the-red version from the 90s. More proof that I am not an audiophile!

Any Talking Heads fan who hasn’t heard the 5.1 down mixes of their albums should really check them out. The Fear of Music down mix is so incredibly different, and so much better! In that version, it may be my #1 favorite of their albums. Otherwise, it’s ranked at #4.

Last edited 5 months ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
June 30, 2023 1:51 am

Sessions at West 54th Street made me a bigger fan of “I Zimbra”. He was fire. And his pants depicted fire. Sometimes you need to hear a song live to gain a better appreciation of it. “Miss America” live is a big upgrade from the studio version.

Oh, wait.

What is your favorite solo David Byrne song?

This isn’t true. But I like to think that nobody knows.

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
June 30, 2023 6:21 am
Reply to  cappiethedog
Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
June 29, 2023 9:58 am

The audiophile headphones treatment works well for good music. But I think of some early Metallica albums — which I love dearly — have a lot of fingers scraping the strings during long chord transitions… rookie mistakes from a band that was still pretty new and finding its feet. Do I want to hear those mistakes in 4 dimensional technicolor?

Also, I’m hard of hearing so I have hearing aids. One of the hidden pros of hearing aids these days: they often have Bluetooth capability. So I can send my music directly into my ears from my phone. It’s like airpods but more subtle, less dorky, and they actually help me hear the world around me (at least when the music isn’t cracked up to 11).

However… hearing aids aren’t headphones. They aren’t optimized for amazing sound quality. So the high quality headphones experience is a little more challenging for me to pursue. I could buy some, but I’d have to remove my hearing aids to use them. And presumably I’d have to crank the volume a bit louder to get the effect.

I really wish you could still buy killer stereo systems like we had in the 90’s… chest-high speakers with CD, cassette, turntable and amp all stacked up to your eyeballs.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
June 29, 2023 12:02 pm

I’m definitely not an audiophile but I do have some reassuringly expensive headphones. I don’t exactly have an extravagant lifestyle but feeling flush with a bonus from work and nothing else to spend it on I invested in my first high end pair. I still agonised about spending that much. Like you say, they do make a difference and there’s plenty of details I’ve picked up that I hadn’t noticed before.

At the other end of the scale a lot of the music I listened to as a teenager came via cassettes shared amongst friends. Hopefully recorded directly from an original copy but I’m pretty sure that there were occasions I was listening to a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. Worst example was Nevermind which my friend taped for me. It must have been filtered through so many poor quality cassettes, it was like listening through a wall of sludge but with the added bonus that my friend was all about the bass so he’d turned that all the way up when recording it for me.

Despite all that it didn’t stop me listening to that tape. It was years before I heard the album in all its pristine glory. Which I guess did have the benefit of it feeling like a completely new record.

Famed Member
Online Now
June 29, 2023 5:27 pm

I mean, have you even lived until you’ve listened to “Dark Side Of The Moon” with great headphones?

I’m still trying to hear the squeaky drum petal on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, so give that a whirl for me, please.

Famed Member
Online Now
June 30, 2023 9:09 am

I’ve been asked that question (“Link, aren’t you an audiophile?”) many times, but I really am not. I am much more interested in hearing/having music than I am in insisting that it is pristine in quality.

That being said, it really can be enlightening to listen to old favorites on headphones and discover nuances I never knew existed.

I have numerous 1950s Elvis singles that I grew up with that look just like that “Love Me Tender” 45, mt58!

And stob, you just keep on writing. I could read your stuff all day long.

Famed Member
July 13, 2023 3:21 pm

Late to this, but your story, stob, reminded me of all the times I’d test out new headphones over the years since I was 14 –

By playing George Michael’s “Hard Day” off the Faith album.

New Walkman? Test on Hard Day.

New Stereo headphones? Test on Hard Day.

New CD Walkman? Wow, listen to that bass line on Hard Day now!!

New car? Let’s play Hard Day.

You get the gist.

Anyway, last time I did a whole “Hey, how’s Hard Day sound on this?’ was when Faith was remastered and released (I think it was the 25th anniversary of the album release?). I played it in the car because it actually had a fantastic speaker set up with terrific bass. I literally was ready to pull off the road and forget about commuting to work that first day I did that, it was like listening to the album for the first time again. It was just so vibrant and fresh and immersive, and Hard Day had never sounded any better. Funny, over 10 years later and the feeling from that listen is just as vibrant.

Thanks for that fun memory jaunt, stob!

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