Bad listening habits are hard to break

What is the best way to listen to music?

Here's the way it used to be, back in the old days of music and technology. New vinyl albums always came out on Tuesday, and you would probably have a purchase in mind when you visited the record store every week. Or maybe not, because unless you had read Rolling Stone or Billboard, you wouldn't know what might be in the new section - it would be an actual surprise.

So imagine it's the late 60s, and your purchase for this Tuesday is one of the best albums issued in that summer of love, 1967 - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. You buy the LP, and take it home. When you have an uninterrupted hour that evening, you warm up the old Macintosh tube amp, and sit down with your prize. Opening the plastic film protecting the record, you inhale the aroma of newly printed cardboard and vinyl. You open the gatefold to enjoy the artwork there, and peruse the contents of the sleeve pocket - there are extras here, like posters and postcards, just for fun.

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The record itself comes out, gets inspected and then brushed with a felt cleaner to get rid of any debris from the sleeve and static, and is gently placed on the turntable. The Klipsch speakers have been around a while, and use tried and true technology perfected over the years to produce a big, accurate yet natural sound. You sit back in your listening chair, light a candle and turn off the lights, listen to side 1, and get up only to flip the LP over for the other side. You don't answer the phone if it rings, you don't watch TV while I'm listening, and the only thing you might read is the album jacket with the lyrics printed on it. The warm analog stereo sound envelops you, takes you to another mental space where there's only the music, and you have a real, genuine, awesome listening experience.

Now, here's the the way we listen to music in the modern world. You notice on Rolling Stone's web site (some things never change) that Lady Gaga's latest mp3 song is available on iTunes. You know your teenage daughter is gaga over this new tune, so you download it for her listening pleasure - to her smartphone. The first experience she has of the music is over the tiny and tinny speaker built into the phone. Later she might use her cheap earbuds to listen to the song in actual stereo - not that she would be able to tell much of a difference. She doesn't like really loud music that demands her full attention - she might need to talk or text or do both, and the music is really just wallpaper for her life. In fact, she actually complains and asks you to turn it down when you're in the sanctity of your listening room - it bothers her to hear you play that old-fashioned stuff so loudly.

As you can see, there's a rather large difference between the two experiences. To give music lovers an idea of what they are missing, a dj in England got the idea of holding listening sessions for her friends. She and her husband happened to have a state-of-the-art sound system with a high-end turntable, electronics, and speakers to fill a large room. These home sessions went over so well that they decided to find a larger space, promote it like a concert, and sell tickets to the public event.

Now the idea has been imported to New York City, where classic album Sundays are held, and sell out regularly. At a typical session, a presenter talks about the album to be played - let's say it's the Doors' first self-titled album - passing the jacket around, reminiscing and giving some background info about it. Then the listening experience starts, and everyone is quiet. Cell phones are turned off or silenced, and conversation is frowned upon. Listeners lounge on pillows or relax in comfortable chairs while the big warm analog sound washes over them. Jim Morrison's voice coming out from the huge speakers makes him an eerie living presence in the room, even though he tragically died at 27 years of age, back in the early 70s. After the record is over, the attendees go their separate ways or gather in a nearby bar for discussion. It's really like a listening class, and the idea is apparently taking off.

Of course, it's sad that it has come to this, that for many music lovers who may have an idea that they are missing something, a real listening experience is only available in such a public situation. After all, small apartments and rooms aren't practical for big sound, and who can afford this kind of equipment anyway? The hi-fi business is still limping along, but the cost of a complete high-end system can be as little as a used car or as much as a new house. But for people to be able to hear music the way it should be heard, it's easy to see that this kind of thing might become more common, in other ways and forms.

Maybe it will be something like the old listening rooms that record stores used to have, but bigger and equipped with good stereo set-ups of course. Audio salons could have larger listening rooms for rent that people could share with others or pay to experience on their own. At any rate, it's an interesting notion that music lovers will pay for the opportunity to hear music on a high-end playback system, in contrast to the tinny little smartphone or headphone experience that passes for listening to music these days. Deep down, we instinctively know the best way to listen to music - it's just not an option anymore.