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Amazon has launched a new ‘HD’ streaming service. Does sound quality matter in music, though? Two NME writers duke it out

Amazon has recently rejoined the streaming services arms race with the Neil Young-endorsed Amazon Music HD, which purports to offer ‘CD-like’ quality. Who cares? Should we covet good sound quality in 2019? There’s only one way to find out – fiiiiiiiiight!

The case for: “Good sound could make you fall back in love with really listening to music” – Dan Stubbs, Deputy Editor

There’s always been a bit of a divide between people who love music and people who love audio.

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People who love music love the way it makes them feel, or move, or remember good and bad times, or dance, laugh, cry.

People who love audio are, generally, interested in the mechanics, in insatiable pursuit of high fidelity, fetishising the quality of the medium over the quality of the art.

In the ’80s and ’90s heyday of physical media, whether vinyl or CD, the former could be found browsing record shops on a Saturday afternoon and tucking into NME. The latter, meanwhile, could be found salivating over gold-plated audio cables and scouring What Hi-Fi.

The audiophiles looked down on the music lovers, playing their collections on a bog-standard all-in-one midi hifi they bought from Currys. The music lovers mocked the audiophiles for placing their armchair in the sweet spot of their overpowered studio monitors and testing out their overpriced set-up with a Dire Straits CD.

The audiophiles are Patrick Bateman blasting out Huey Lewis & The News. They are your dad, smugly listening to Tubular Bells while a repeat of Top Gear (Clarkson era) plays on mute on the telly. The music lovers are romantic and sexy, deriving pleasure from words and melodies and beats. The audiophiles are your dad.

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The other day, I was lucky enough to attend a playback of the new remix of The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ in the London studio it was named for, in a room equipped with Dolby Atmos, a utterly ludicrous audio system that involves a bazillion high quality speakers placed around the room in precise locations, creating a ludicrously immersive listening experience. And guess what? It was glorious. ‘Because’ was like being serenaded by monks. ‘The End’ was practically orgasmic.

In recent years, the audio don’t-cares won the war against the audio squares. With the advent of streaming and the switch to the mobile phone as the primary listening device, the balance shifted in the favour of cheap headphones and tinny, portable speakers. But we’ve sacrificed more than we think in terms of audio quality. Streaming files are compressed and range is squished, not so much as we’d really notice, but to the point where, if you were to do a like-for-like comparison, you’d soon get the feeling you were being cheated.

And that shift to the lowest common denominator audio has left some of us – particularly those who grew up with a home stereo – yearning for a middle ground. We’re better than those Apple earbuds. We deserve a richer listening experience than you get from that crappy Bluetooth speaker.

So I’m going to say something deeply unfashionable: every music lover should have a home hi-fi, if their living arrangements and finances allow. With an amp (check your local charity shop!), a pair of decent speakers and a £30 Chromecast Audio device, you can enjoy home audio that genuinely offers a mind-blowingly better experience. You can play a familiar album and enjoy it anew. We’ve become so used to bog standard audio that we’ve forgotten the value of good sound. You might just fall in love with the act of sitting and listening – really listening – to music again.

So Amazon’s commitment to streaming higher quality audio files, while not sexy, is a step in the right direction. It’s a commitment to convenience and quality, not one or the other. It’s a step back to listening to music being entertainment for its own sake rather than something in the background when you’re multi-screening. It’s a nerdy, shameful thing to say, but I’m saying it: audio quality matters!

Hope they have Dire Straits on there.

The case against: “David Bowie could blow your mind through a tin can in a snowstorm” – Jordan Bassett, Senior Staff Writer

Far be it from me to compare sound quality bores to notorious fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman, but you hit the nail (preferably a high-quality masonry nail from the local branch of B&Q) on the head with the Top Gear thing. Caring about the nuances of audio compression is pure Partridge.

You can see him, can’t you, nestled in his static caravan, blasting Gary Numan’s ‘Music For Chameleons’ to a bemused Lynn. “’The Devialet Classic Phantom Premier Bluetooth Wi-Fi Speaker features 60 kilos of thrust force behind the lateral woofers and 174dB of internal acoustic pressure’,” he crows. “Not my words, Lynn – the words of What Hi-Fi magazine.”

As you’ve pointed out, worrying about sound quality is deeply unromantic and misses the point of what makes music such a unifying art form in the first place. By focusing on file compression and sound density, Amazon’s streaming service boils music down to what it essentially is: seven notes and a set of vibrations. As Jez asks Mark in Peep Show: “Do you have to live quite so relentlessly in the real world?”

Incidentally, I don’t think Amazon actually cares at all about sound quality; it’s just that the HD thing offers them a handy USP for their pointless addition to the crowded streaming service market.

Either way, the audio bores wang on about high-fidelity vinyl pressings while the rest of us are just digging the sounds, man. David Bowie singing “Time takes a cigarette / Puts it in your mouth” will never sound better or worse depending on quality of your speakers. If you’re really listening, at the right time in your life, it could blow your mind played through a tin can in a snowstorm.

My university years were post-Napster and, mostly, pre-Spotify. I’m not proud of the fact that I ripped a mega fucktonne of illegally downloaded music from a friend’s hard-drive, but the fact is that thing changed my life. Suddenly I was opened up to a world of musical influences that once seemed completely inaccessible. The Cure! The Slits! Sonic Youth! Public Enemy! I could never have afforded to buy all those records. The sound quality was no doubt crummier than a packet of Hobnobs, but what touched my soul were the lyrics and influences.

Now, I soon saw the error of my ways and, luckily, Spotify was not close behind. It’s awesome that younglings are now accustomed to hearing any track ever recorded at the touch of a button. Imagine if they didn’t do so because they were worried about infra-bass and ultra-low frequencies. August Darnell – aka Kid Creole of Kid Creole & The Coconuts – was on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music show this morning, talking about how he’s always telling his kids, who are also musicians, that they’re lucky to live in a world where music is so accessible and genres therefore “cross-pollinated”, even if the payday’s less lucrative. I thought: “Yes mate!”

There’s a reason many audio-geek tech enterprises fail. Neil Young’s endorsed Amazon Music HD (“Earth will be changed forever when Amazon introduces high quality streaming to the masses”, he perhaps over-promised). Who’s got a Pono, his discontinued high-quality MP3 player? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Tidal, too, built itself on the promise of ear-tingling sound, but that’s been circling the drain for years. The reason: people listen to music, not sound.

You know: beautiful lyrics, genre stylings from around the world, music that reminds you of the most significant moments of your life.

I don’t think audio bores are necessarily serial killers, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if, in the fullness of time, consumers don’t take a proverbial axe to the figurative skull of Amazon Music HD.

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