About a year ago, the second year into the covid-19 pandemic, I decided (and frankly needed) to get back into actively listening to music. What I mean by that is not only using music as a background for other activities but actually spend the whole focus of my attention for sometime everyday to the act of listening to music. Something that I used to do regularly while growing up, especially in the pre-internet era, and that I’ve been missing a lot.
I divide my interest for music in two different (but related) activities:
- Research and Discovery of new (and old but “new to me”) music
- Pure listening enjoyment
Research & Discovery resources
The main source of new music to me is, without any doubt, Bandcamp. I use their website extensively, from their curated articles/lists to their podcasts and their suggestions algorithm - it’s a continue flow of interesting music of all genres.
There are also some other music website that I tend to browse regularly:
I’m always on the look for good music writings and this list tends to vary with time.
I also receive (way too) many newsletters, mostly from labels and record stores. Although they clutter my mailbox quite a bit I definitely find some interesting albums in there and they help me keeping up with some reissues that I might otherwise miss.
I like to listen to some radio stations from time to time. Mostly BBC6 but also Worldwide FM. In general (and if you know, you might have noticed a pattern here) I tend to follow anything that the man, Giles Peterson, suggests or produces, recently.
And now for the actual listening experience
Since I’ve got myself a Schiit stack and a pair of Beyerdynamic headphones (and realised I can definitely hear the difference between lossless and lossy audio files) I switched all my digital music consumption to FLAC files (lossless format).
Lossless vs lossy
My opinion on whether or not lossless or lossy file formats make an actual difference to the listening experience is varied:
- I believe that most of it is purely personal, it depends on your physical hearing abilities and actual listening training/experience.
- It also depends a lot from the sources - the way the music is mixed and mastered which varies a lot, especially from genre to genre. With something like crust punk or some metal subgenres I don’t think it really matters because the production in these cases is often inherently low-fi. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself (it’s a matter of aesthetics of some music genres) but don’t expect to hear a difference in sound quality if you try to listen to Burzum in a high definition 24bit FLAC format. But for music that is (meant to be) well recorded and produced the difference is much more noticeable in my experience. For example I find a huge gap in quality when I listen to lossless (or even better analogue, well mastered) formats for jazz, soul and classical music.
- The equipment used is very important as well: If you listen to anything via Bluetooth connection for example, lossless or lossy it doesn’t make any difference at all, since the BT connection will compress the sound anyway. The quality of the headphones or speakers makes a whole lot of difference as well, although there’s a lot of personal preference involved. In the end, I believe there’s a sweet spot for the quality and cost of the audio equipment: too much cheap quality hardware won’t let you appreciate any difference in sound, but after a certain threshold, too expensive equipment becomes overkill, the value for money in terms of sound quality just drops.
- And last but not least, I won’t deny that there must definitely be some placebo effect at play in here - but hey, isn’t the experience of reality inherently subjective? So if that’s the case, who cares?
I moved from Spotify (which has been teasing an HiFi service for over a year now without actually shipping it) after almost a decade, to Deezer, which offers FLAC quality at a decent price and has a large catalogue similar to the competition.
I use the streaming services to be able to access whatever album I find (old or new) in a high quality digital format, mostly for listening on the go on my iPhone (strictly with a pair of good wired earphones). I don’t consider anymore the streaming services as a source of music discovery as I don’t like very much their music discovery algorithms - I tend to find them repetitive, dull and quite a cold experience overall. I very much prefer curated (by humans) playlists, if I have to chose.
Anyway if I really like an album, I buy it. Streaming music to me is mostly a try-before-you-buy affair right now.
On a separate note: I also am a nostalgic user of Last.fm, scrobbling strong since 2006. I like Last.fm mostly for the ability to track my listening habits, the fluctuations in my taste and sometimes it’s just useful to find something I listened to in the past that I can’t recall on the spot. It used to be a great music community, it’s now, sadly, mostly a dead web space for internet trolls.
Local music library
I have a local music library on my hard drive that consists of FLAC files only, most of them bought on Bandcamp, some ripped from actual CDs I own, some others coming from download codes of LPs I’ve bought.
Physical music collection
When I really enjoy an album or I want to support an artist that I like, I usually buy the LP (what they call “vinyl” nowadays) and when, for whatever reason, the LP is not available I get the album on CD (rarely). I’ve been doing most of my shopping online recently, but I enjoy going to the actual record stores in person whenever possible.
My favourites stores in London are:
- Phonica (Soho)
- RoughTrade (Shoreditch)
- Casbah Records (Greenwich)
- Sleeve Notes Records (Richmond)
- Sister Ray (Soho)
Sometimes for online-buying-only I use Bleep (mostly for electronic music, of course).
I can also buy directly from the labels or (most of the time) through Bandcamp.
When it’s convenient (mostly to avoid shipping fees, which well, I already pay monthly to be honest with the Prime subscription) I use Amazon, but I really try not to as I’d rather support actual record stores.
A few times I’ve bought LPs from random sellers/stores on Discogs as well, although I tend not to because if anything goes wrong with the vinyl not all vendors offer a nice customer service for returns, it’s a bit of a hit and miss experience and there are not guarantees, as far as I know. I’d rather avoid.
Playing and listening equipment
The afore mentioned Schiit stack is comprised of the following components:
- Mani - turntable phono pre-amplifier
- Modi - DAC (digital to analogue converter) connected to my desktop PC
- Magni - headphones amplifier that also goes out (preamp) to my external speakers
- A generic (but sturdy) 3-way audio switch I bought on amazon, for switching between my turntable and my PC with the turn of a knob
To spin my records I’m using an Audio-Technica LP120X turntable with an upgraded “shibata” stylus, the AT-VMN95SH, that makes a whole lot of difference, honestly. In the rare occasions that I’m able to listen to my music without headphones I have a pair of Edifier R1700BT connected to my system. Not the most audiophile of the setups but for my actual needs is perfectly fine and probably even more than enough - It sounds pretty good to me!
If you made it to the end and are interested in the matter, wanna share some good music or have any related questions feel free to hit me up on Twitter/Mastodon or to send me an email.
Until then, happy listening!
My actual setup.