Undercurrents No. 1: In My Feelings

I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome back Stephen Mejias – Director of Communications for AudioQuest – to AudioStream. Moving forward Stephen will be contributing on a monthly basis with Undercurrents. I hope you’re as excited as I am to have him here to share his unique take on listening, high fidelity and music. – Rafe Arnott

“Sometimes I think audiophiles are crazy.” – George Reisch, Stereophile, March 2000

In August 2000, when I started working at Stereophile as an editorial assistant, I was almost 23 years old, identified mostly as a guitarist and poet, listened to more music than anyone in the world (other than the girls I tried hopelessly to date), and knew absolutely nothing about hi-fi. I did not know that high-end audio existed. I had never even heard the word audiophile. 

I felt lost – at Stereophile and pretty much everywhere else. 

One of my first tasks at the magazine was to proofread all of its contents. Its contents made no sense. This was before Art Dudley arrived, before I was ready to appreciate Sam Tellig’s grumpy humor, before Wes Phillips reviewed a little thing called the iPod

But then there was Undercurrents. The column, written by a philosopher/historian named George Reisch, wasn’t so much about gear, sound, or music as it was about people – what made them who they were, why they did the things they did. It made sense. It was a way in.

That was a million years ago. iTunes had not been launched. Clever college kids beat Kim Kardashian to breaking the internet, not with provocative pictures of uncommonly large body parts but with the user-friendly file-sharing site Napster. We’d heard of Pandora. It was for our older aunts and uncles who listened to adult contemporary while they sipped merlot or folded laundry. They were lazy and knew exactly what they liked. Lossy, low-bit-rate MP3s ran wild and free. 

Still, though, for the most part, if we wanted to explore new music, we had to put at least a little effort into it. Even at Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore, there was only so much music we could sample without actually making a purchase. If we were unsure about an artist or release and wanted to know more, we had to read a review, steal a promo from the dirty bins at the college radio station, or (ugh) ask somebody. 

When Apple’s iTunes finally showed up in early 2001, life changed. Suddenly, music was cheap enough to actually buy and, with the arrival later that year of the companion iPod, digital files could be easily stored and transported anywhere. It was like getting our Walkman back, but with fewer parts and greater flexibility. Why buy an entire album if we wanted just one song? 

Ah, but again that was a gazillion years ago. iTunes, once considered by many as the ruthless murderer of the album format, has itself been more or less dead for a while now. It went out neither kicking nor screaming, but rather quietly and with little fuss. No one really cared.  Why should we care? iTunes’ death, reported NPR and everyone else, had everything to do with how we listen to music today.

How We Listen to Music Today

How do we listen to music today? [Author spends far too many moments considering what to write next, shrugs, gives up.] We will use this space every month to explore that very question. How do you listen to music? Do you stream? If so, which streaming service(s) do you use? Do you combine your streaming service with a specialized music playback application such as Amarra, Audirvana, or Roon? Share your experiences in the comments section below. 

Now I will tell you how I listen to music. I stream it. For the most part, I use my iPhone to stream music from Bandcamp, TIDAL, Qobuz, or Spotify (pretty much in that order), straight into my headphones – B&W P3 on-ears, AKG Y20U in-ears, or AudioQuest NightHawk or NightOwl over-ears. (1.) When I want to share music with others at home, I stream it from my iPhone via Bluetooth to a small red JBL Flip 4 speaker that I won at a team-building event in California. It isn’t bad at all. Really. 

What about my amazing record collection, you ask. It’s still here and growing – not as fast as it once grew, but growing nonetheless. Streaming is to dating as playing vinyl is to marriage. When I find an album that I really, really like, I add it to my rotating collection of downloaded titles for offline listening (which comes in very handy for long, uncomfortable flights across the country) and then I buy it on vinyl.  Sadly, I rarely play vinyl anymore, but it’s there when I need it. Or it’s simply there to make me feel better about myself. Or fill empty space along the walls. Or inside my soul. Or something. I don’t really know why I feel compelled to own anything. 

With streaming services, ownership, for the most part, is removed from the equation. As with life, we don’t own; we rent. Yet, during a compelling seminar at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the speaker, Qobuz’s David Solomon, reminded the audience that, unlike some streaming services, his also sells high-res downloads. Downloads? But why? An argument can be made for supporting the artists, but, when I want to support artists, I choose instead to tell all my friends about them, attend their live performances, or purchase their merchandise, including vinyl. Then at least I have something that I can hold or occasionally look at as it collects dust and takes up space in my home. 

In North America, most audiophiles tend to focus their attention on just two streaming services – Qobuz and TIDAL – because these are the two that offer CD-quality streaming or better. But we should not overlook Spotify, whose 320kbps streams are neither great nor all that bad, and we should certainly pay attention to Bandcamp, whose unique business model is truly designed to support the artists.(2)

So, how do we choose between these streaming services? I choose not to choose. For me, streaming music services are sort of like virtual record stores. My thirst for music is unquenchable and I always want more record stores. Of course, unless you count tolls or train fare, we don’t usually have to pay money to gain access to a real record store. We simply walk right in. Streaming services, however, require some financial investment, and, especially when we’re opting for access to a premium tier – and I assume most people reading this column are – then choices must be made. At least, that’s what my colleagues at one streaming service tell me. Their research shows that most listeners today – and, again, especially those who are opting for a premium tier – rather than sample the wares of many, pick one streaming service and stick with it. That is, we love it so much we marry it.   

For some, the choice comes down to something akin to culture – or, perhaps more politely stated, curation. We see Spotify as the mainstream choice, for those who care more about the latest trends than the most enduring quality. We see TIDAL as the choice for fans of modern pop, hip-hop, and R&B. We see Qobuz as the choice for independent rock, classical, and jazz. I supposed this is fair. When I open my TIDAL app, I’m served features on Drake, Latinx Heritage Month, Gucci Mane, Charlie XCX, TIDAL Unplugged: Laurie Love, and Ariana Grande. When I open my Qobuz app, I’m served features on Ahmad Jamal, The Pixies, The Highwomen, Tool, Miles Davis, and The Rolling Stones. Yet, although their presentations are obviously different, if we dig a little deeper, we find that these two competing services offer musical selections that are far more alike than not. It’s not so black and white. 


Joe Murphy's picture

Nice start!

Everclear's picture

Welcome back, Stephen Mejias ........ We missed your column and your writings at Stereophile ........ Looking forward to reading your column 'Undercurrents', here at AudioStream :-) .........

dysonapr's picture

Most often at work, streaming Bandcamp or Tidal "lossy". I have a Squeezebox/LMS system at home. Age-related hearing loss and tinnitus insulate me from the temptation to buy fancy audio gear. I really can't hear the difference between 16/44 and anything higher-rez. I would still buy a CD if a digital download was not offered.

sg60's picture

Great to see you writing a column again. I've missed your articles. As far as listening goes, I use most of the mediums. Vinyl, CDs, digital and streaming. I don't buy much vinyl anymore (too expensive) but I still have and listen to hundreds of LPs acquired from the 70s through to the 90s and a few others after the vinyl comeback. I still enjoy the vinyl experience. I have many, many CDs and I still listen to them. I like to own music and still buy CDs, particularly box sets. But mostly I listen to digital now. My Red book CDs make up the lion's share of my digital library but I also own a fair number of hi-res albums. I started by using an app called MediaMonkey and then moved to J River. I still use J River but mostly to create playlists (they have the best playlist creation tools in my mind). My primary listening vehicle today is Roon. The best listening experience around for my money. I subscribe to Tidal (no Qobuz or Amazon HD in Canada) which I use with Roon.

struts's picture

Welcome back Stephen! And congrats Rafe!!