Thinking About – Music in the not-so Distant Past

Thinking About – Music in the not-so Distant Past

I love the TV program Endeavour.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about Endeavour is the prequel series for the popular TV show from the late 80s/Early 90s Inspector Morse. If you don’t know who Inspector Morse is, don’t worry, it’s not important to the main topic of this blog. The thing is that when Inspector Morse was on the TV I almost exclusively watched the fairly new and exciting Sky TV, so I missed the original series. My love of Endeavour has peaked my interest though, so about a week ago I checked out the price of the Morse series on iTunes. £20 for all 8 series. Sold. So me and Cerri have been making our way through them.

The first thing I noticed is that they aren’t shot in wide-screen. At least the early ones are in the old screen format. It’s weird watching that square box. The picture quality is terrible too, only noticed after years of 1080pHD viewing. The other thing is how dated everything looks. It was set in 1987. To me 1987 doesn’t feel like that long ago, and I found myself saying something particularly daft to Cerri as we were watching. I said, “It felt so modern when we were in it!” There were people driving around in brand new Ford Sierras which, at the time, looked so cool, but now seeing them on Morse from the year 2019 look like terrible attempts at what we thought modern should look like. Other things? Smoke filled pubs and offices, no mobile phones, phone boxes, milk floats, Morse seeming to down at least three pints of ale then jump into his police car, the decoration in the houses was mostly grey and beige, people seemed to make their own sandwiches for work and take them to eat on a park bench, the police cars were old Rovers with two blue spinning lights stuck on a roof-rack, and their sirens went “nah-nah” with two tones. All things I remember well.

Why am I saying all of this?

Well, the thing that really took me back was when Morse took out an LP record and opened the lid of this rather large music centre, placing the disc gently on, and then dropping the needle, closing the lid, before the music played. I remember my Dad bringing one of those home. He was dead proud of it too. Two big speakers on the wall, LPs below in their designated place. My first proper music player was like that too and I loved it! I had the two speakers either side of my bed in my room so when the music played I was immersed in the sound. Particularly good for Pink Floyd and Yes albums!

Later those big music centres were replaced with music towers. At the bottom was the twin cassette player/recorder, then there would be a tuner and amplifier, then on top would be the record player. My favoured brand as a young adult was Pioneer, and I saved up a lot of money to buy the best one I could afford. In the end I couldn’t get the money together so I bought it on the never-never through a Littlewoods catalogue. I think it cost about £400 back in maybe 1990. That was a LOT of money, and there were certainly cheaper alternatives, but music was really important to me, so I reached for the best I could afford. We had long conversations at work about the sound quality from Bang and Olufsen speakers, the clarity of classical music being played through this amplifier or that one, the best position to place the speakers for ultimate audio effect.

It was a thing.

Then came the CD. Smaller artwork but I was so pleased to get rid of the LP record. So many scratches on albums that had literally been handled like gold. Now, not only was the music clearer, but they were so much more durable. I loved the CD age. For a very long time cars still only had cassette players, so we recorded the CDs and played the cassettes in the car. We sacrificed quality for convenience. The first car CD players were dreadful, always jumping, so the cassette remained the mainstay of the vehicle for many years. I remember thinking back then that soon there would be a music format with no moving parts. We would literally go to the store and buy a stick that contained the full album, and we would put it the music player and press play.

I wasn’t far wrong really. It’s just the internet wasn’t a thing back then, so the idea of downloads wasn’t on my radar.

So why all this reminiscing?

It struck me, as I was watching Morse how important music was back then. The pride people took with their music systems. I realised I don’t even have a CD player in the house anymore. I have my iPhone, Macs, and Apple Music subscription. The speakers we have are mono bluetooth speakers. A nice set in the kitchen, but nothing really in the lounge. Obviously where I’m sitting now is my recording studio/office so there is a good set of studio monitors to listen through, but there is no equivalent to that old music centre or Pioneer stack. It’s been such a gradual change that I can’t place a time when I let go of needing really good stereo sound, and opting instead for small bluetooth speakers. When I realised what had happened it pissed me off. I’d just seemingly been happily floating along with the current, lamely accepting the gradual reduction of audio quality as a kind of progress, when it’s anything but.

So what to do?

What is the modern equivalent of the old Pioneer music stack?

Well our music consumption has changed. Streaming services are now the thing, or at least MP3s played from a computer or other device. My heart breaks a bit when I consider people listening to music through an Amazon Echo speaker. There is no way that small speaker can give any sonic clarity or give any insight into the hours and layers of recording, mixing and mastering the musician put into that recording. It comes out of a little mono speaker with no tone control or stereo effect. Heart. Broken. No, those are not the equivalent.

So I guess we go to the Sonos speakers I’ve seen in our local store. Expensive. Really expensive. Or maybe Apple’s new HomePod? It’s not trying to compete with the cheaper smart speakers, it’s much more about the quality of the music. But it’s still mono, and although when you buy two they can interact with each other and become stereo, man, even one is a lot of money, plus it’s a MK1 Apple product, and I always try to avoid those. It feels like I’m the testing engineer, and MK2 versions are always much better, and sometimes a little cheaper. I guess back then I stretched myself to afford the best music centre I could, so maybe the Sonos or Apple HomePod really are our current best options for that quality of sound. I know people still moan about the quality of MP3s, but in truth I think they have got a lot better over the years. We once more ditched quality over convenience and now that is what new have. Again, I know about Apple Lossless and equivalent audio formats, but if you’re listening through a mono bluetooth speaker what really is the point?

I want good quality music listening back in my life. I’m climbing out of this stream, and going hunting.

How do you listen to music?

Are there any good speakers you would recommend?

20 responses to “Thinking About – Music in the not-so Distant Past”

  1. Your experience mirrors my own, Damh. Way back then, most people had access to a very small music collection – fewer than 50 LPs – so each one was special, and we knew every note, lyric, crackle and click. Now, when anything and everything is instantly available, nothing is special.
    That’s why vinyl has become popular again. It’s not the sound quality (that “warmth” people mention is actually distortion) but rather it’s the artwork, the sleeve notes, the ritual of playing the record and sitting and listening, and the restriction of material.
    Fair enough.
    As to equipment, why not buy a good used, old hi-fi? Plug an MP3 player into the amp alongside the turntable, CD, cassette and wax cylinder. Remember to buy quality speakers … and gold-plated, hyper pricey speaker cables ;-).
    By the way, where have all the Sierras gone? You never see any on the roads. The old jelly moulds can’t all have rusted away to brown powder, surely?

  2. Hi Damh….I went down the route of having a NAS (network attached storage) for storing MP3 files on, mostly flac. I listen through a Cambridge Audio Minx xi , it has an app so I can access my music via the phone, choose the next track or album etc. Speakers are Monitor Audio (bronze I think) . Richersounds are a good store for knowledgeable advise.

  3. Hello all, I love Endeavour, have followed it avidly since the beginning, even prefer his young character to the older Morse. What captures me, though, as much as the story lines is the music. I have, what some people may describe as catholic tastes in music. Depending on the mood, I will listen to many types of music. As a young girl/woman I loved classical, I couldn’t believe my ears when in a pub with friends, I first heard the Beatles. Now, depending on my mood, I will listen to all sorts, Glenn Campbell, Kenny Rogers, all the singers of that time wheel, classical, like Ralph V Williams, Elgar, Thomas Tallis, Hildegarde. Not so much opera though. I listen to Classic FM on my computer and of course, you tube gives us some wonderful variety. Life would not ever be as blessed as it is without music. Thank you for today, Love Margaret.

  4. I use a Bose docking station (cost me about £120 a couple of years ago) for my “old school” iPod Classic. I later bought a Bluetooth adaptor for that, since it didn’t have Bluetooth, and now stream to it through my iPad or Echo Dot. Proper room-filling Bose quality without breaking the bank. I must admit I never believed I would listen to so much of my music through Spotify.

  5. Hi Damh, Well though I can agree with the essence of the Article I can say that I am very Deaf and the only source of sound is through my Hearing aid, This means that clarity equals volume, there is no directional sound as I can only hear through a single source in one ear, So I feel sorry that you guys are suffering the problems of quality it must be very annoying, BUT I am luckier than any of you because as long as I can hear the Music I am very happy ! Quality is of no consequence, being able to hear through the good auspices of the National Health Service is Heaven sent to me. Deafness is a problem in our outside Grove gatherings because the sound of the human voice soars to the Heavens instead of across to me!! so hey ho and merry meet

  6. We still have CDs in our house, we have never downloaded music at all. I wouldn’t know an MP3 if it got up and bit me! Possibly something to do with the fact that we are fairly elderly and don’t so readily embrace all things new. (Note – we have all your CDs to date!)
    The biggest problem regarding music for me is the fact that I am slowly but surely becoming deaf. I use two hearing aids, but still the quality of the sounds I perceive is gradually deteriorating over time.
    Thus, I don’t worry too much about having top-notch equipment; as my husband (himself starting to lose his hearing a little) says, what’s the point of having super-duper stereo if you can’t hear well enough to appreciate it?

  7. Hi Damh, firstly, I absolutely loved Inspector Morse, as an Australian teenager we probably got the series a year or two later but it was transformational for me. Morse as a gruff, rule-breaking, romantic and his naive but good-natured side-kick. Getting to see the far-away mystery of Oxford and small English towns was like magic.

    As for music, during a brief stint in Adelaide (2013), probably the year I saw you play, I found a second-hand record store. They sold me a good quality, weighted, re-furbished record player from the 70s for about $125. I hooked it up to the 100W sound system I had purchased as a uni student (to play Metallica loudly at 5am) and have been collecting LPs.

    I know it pops and crackles, but something about 100W equalized speakers just blows cheap bluetooth and computer-speakers away. It feels like real music again.

  8. So true, music listening has changed. I have record players and a small collection of my favourite LPs (minus the ones that were too scratched), but I don’t use them. My husband and I both DJ on the side, so we have a ton of sound equipment. However we enjoy quiet at home. For the odd time that we do want to listen to something loudish, we have a Bose speaker that we can Bluetooth connect to with our iPhones. Our TV has a small sound system consisting of 2 speakers and a sub woofer; which I will crank tunes on very occasionally. Still nothing like the music-centric eras of the past. I do drool over a Bose surround system, yet haven’t had enough desire to sacrifice the amount of money that it requires. I would spring for it if we didn’t travel so much, but we always have trips booked, so my revenue gets directed toward those experiences. We tend to blame it on aging, but your post has had me realize it’s really a difference of decade. Music plays such a different roll now in society as a whole.

  9. I had the same experience last night – I’d never seen The French Connection, and found the DVD in a charity shop for a couple bucks so we plugged it an and got immediately transported back to 1971, when I was five or six. It really hit me just how much has changed! From the pervasive casual, unthinking racism, to people smoking in hotel lobbies and restaurants, to how remarkably easy it was to be unreachable, even in a city like New York.

    Re: the music question, I have indeed sacrificed (some) quality for (rather a lot of) convenience – a few years ago I ripped my entire extensive CD collection to the highest quality MP3s I could make, and now have the lot on a 128 Gb MicroSD card in my phone. I mostly listen to music via bluetooth in my car, which has a high quality sound system. (I have an hour or so commute, so I can listen to a whole album at one go, which is frankly a luxury that I would almost never be able to spare time for otherwise!)

    How much of the last paragraph would have made absolutely no sense in 1971!

  10. I still have a stereo with cassette, and CD player. When I went to buy it when I moved to Shropshire (leaving most of things like that behind with the ex husband in Stoke) I needed the speakers to be good, I needed it to play the music I wanted to hear in the way I wanted to hear it. I took “Spirit of Albion” with me. I blasted it out in Currys in Kidderminster and found the right stereo for my budget (quite limited at the time). I still have that Sony stereo 13 years later. It still booms out in the lounge, all sorts of music, from Spirit of Albion to Avril Lavigne and My Chemical Romance. (teenage daughters!) it also has a lovely hole where you can plug the tablet in, so we can listen to anything, loud and clear!

  11. Hi, I absolutely loved this post! I remember my very first record player was a Dansette Viva, not fantastic quality sound, but very portable. I took mine to Butlins when I worked there, my chalet became very popular!
    Later, I too went mostly for Pioneer, though I did like my Wharfedale speakers. This was around 1974, for the Dansette anyway.
    I loved Fragile by Yes and In The Court of the Crimson King, ELP, Steeleye Span, Wishbone Ash and so many, many more.
    I really liked Inspector Morse, though only watched the first series of Endeavour, I’ll have to catch up.
    50th anniversary tour for Steeleye Span this year. 50 years!!

  12. Hello Dave,
    Music has always been a huge part of our family. Most of us are musicians. So the sound quality of a good stereo system was paramount to me and my siblings. My parents, not so much. My dad had a small stereo, that played LP’s, 8-tracks and radio. And he loved it. Not very good sound quality, but it didn’t matter to da.
    But one of my older brothers became pretty well off because of his music career, and he had an amazing sound system in his house in the 70’s. I don’t know what brand names he had, I was just a kid at the time. But it sounded amazing.
    I couldn’t afford an expensive stereo system when I was younger, as is the case with most of us. So I had a series of portable stereos. The first one wasn’t too bad.(Candle, Citizen) It was great for my bedroom. Sound quality was decent. The last one I had, I still have, is a JVC boom box. It has a CD player, and cassette player, and a drum pad and sound effects pad. The CD player and cassette player have long since stopped working. But the sound quality of the speakers is so good, that I used it for my computer, and/or tv speakers. I have since gotten a BOSE sound system for my tv, which sounds amazing. And I still have that old JVC, because those speakers still work, and I will use them again at some point.
    I listen to music every single day, mostly through that BOSE system now, and I love it.

  13. I still have my big Mordaunt Short tower speakers in my living room and wouldn’t change them for anything smaller ..I run them with a yamaha amp that my ipod and laptop and blueray and virgin box and phone and xbox all plug into . 8)
    In my bus i have a bose soundlink 2 stereo , the phone Bluetooths straight to it and it sounds ok for that space but not for the living room but it runs from the solar panels.
    I think sometimes im the odd one out cause i wont compromise audio quality for modern tech hehe.

    There are several great quality Bluetooth speaker setups out there, just dont buy a mono thing like you mentioned.
    The bose wave range are expensive but top notch.

  14. Hi Damh

    Seeing your photo of the ‘music centre’ reminded me so much of when our Dad first bought one. Before that we had a lovely old Van der Molen with Wharfedale speakers and nothing since has ever come close to it (nostalgia probably plays a huge part in that). I remember using the cassette part of the new one to tape the top 40 on Sundays. The real skill came in knowing when to take the pause button off so you could cut out the maximum amount of chat over the tune. There was something ritualistic about the whole experience of vinyl – from saving up for an album to going into the shop to buy it (that smell, brand new records!) and taking it home in the square record bag. All the paraphernalia, cleaning cloths and the sound the speakers made if you picked a bit of dust off the needle. The new music centre had, wonder of wonders, a little dust roller and brush on the stylus! Wow! If you wanted to play a particular track you had to use a fair amount of precision to hit it right – another dying skill.

    I do miss my vinyl, although I’ve kept them all they’re now just gathering dust.

    These days I play my FLACs on my laptop through my JVC headphones or plug our computer speakers into it – but its not the same is it?

    Here’s to all of us who grew up with vinyl and miss that magic – happy days x

  15. I mostly listen to music on headphones. I have a pair of bluetooth headphones for out and about, and a decent pair of wired headphones (AKG K92).

    However, we also have a single Sonos Play-1 speaker in the lounge. Yes, it’s mono, but the sound quality is amazing, and they do link to make a stereo pair if you have a second one. So much better than anything else I’ve listened to except the top-of-the-range Bang+Olufsen speakers. They were selling them in the Bang+Olufsen shop near us, and the guy did a demo of all their speakers, including the Sonos.

  16. Hi Damh. I watch a lot of ancient TV and the old “square” screen format is quite normal on these films and TV programs. Also some in 405 or the super 625 lines (and some in COLOUR too !!!). Just shows how lucky we are to have high definition widescreen these days (Still have to add an external sound system to boost the TV speakers ! Also the 5.1 sound has “progressed” to sound bars !

    Yes, I too remember all the stages of Lo to HIFI from a Dansette player (with add on speaker for stereo) !! Cassetes (we still have some) and 8 Track recorders ( they were never going to catch on ) !! CD’s are great but purists crave vinyl !! Now, it only in car entertainment that has preserved the stereo concept but the CD is a thing of the past with Bluetooth and flash drives replacing the CD player !!

    My fav would be this amplifier..,2,6

    with a pair of Bose speakers (the best I could afford ! One day !!

  17. Dave, this article really struck a chord with me in so many ways! I am actually about the same age as the Compact Disk and the Ford Sierra, but I swear I still live in that age…

    Not that many Ford Sierras rusted. Their corrosion resistance is pretty good – my best friend from school still has his 2.0 Ghia injection. It is light-years ahead of my car, which is a Ford Capri 2.0 laser. The most technologically-advanced thing on it is the carburettor’s automatic choke. The Capri seems to be designed to trap water in every nook and cranny, and the body panels are wafer-thin. It wouldn’t have survived either if it wasn’t for my religiously touching in stone chips, replacing seals, and undersealing it with Waxoyl and Dinitrol. What killed a lot of Sierras, though, is that they were so common, they became so worthless as they aged that they weren’t worth even performing simple maintenance and repairs on… unless you really like Ford Sierras!

    Now… I still have the second type of stereo system you mention: The stack of separates, with the cassette deck at the bottom and turntable on the top. I’ve always had one. My Dad had a Technics one when I was a kid, and it still works, playing everything except MP3/internet radio. Naturally, I wanted my Dad’s amazing stereo. What lad doesn’t want to be just like his Dad? My current one is mostly bits of Cambridge Audio stuff from about 5 years ago, with a 1981 Technics turntable and cassette deck, and two massive Sony speakers from about the same year. These are SS-G1 MKII speakers, which were one of Sony’s very few forays into the “high-end” speaker market. They’re some of the best speakers I’ve ever heard, and if you can get your hands on a pair, you won’t regret it. The sound is lovely and rich, with plenty of depth, and clear at any volume – yet they’re nowhere near the price range of true “high-end” stuff like Linn. If you want the best sound quality (and build quality) you can possibly get per £, I’d always say go with separates manufactured by the likes of Technics, Sony or Aiwa between approximately 1978 and 1985. They outperform a lot of stuff that would cost 4 figures today… and can probably be picked up on a popular auction site for 2 or 3 figures.

    I’ve never understood why people can be content with tinny bluetooth speakers and things. Even as a kid growing up in the 1980s/90s, I was a bit of an eccentric out of his time. Everyone bought CDs and played them on portable ghetto-blaster type things… I loved the artwork of vinyl and the ritual of playing an LP. It demands your attention and you concentrate on it. I loved a proper hi-fi as you got a much better sound, and depending on speaker position, you’d be immersed right in the centre of it. It was getting bad in the 90s, but nowadays music really is cheap and worthless a lot of the time. It’s just a background noise to whatever else people are doing. I’ve never been happy with that. If you take, say, Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick”, Jean Michelle Jarre’s “Oxygene”, or even a more conventional album such as Family’s “Fearless” or the Sisters of Mercy’s “Floodland” (all of which the aforementioned Sony SS-G1s are perfectly suited to) – you just can’t do them justice unless you stop what you’re doing, sit there, focus, and watch that black disk spinning round at 33-and-a-third RPM. You waste the recording if you use it as a background to your other activities. An additional problem for me with downloads, is that, despite not having particularly good hearing (thank Judas Priest for that), I can hear the compression artifacts introduced into most lossy audio formats. The worst, by far, are MP3 and WMA (curiously, I can listen to a really low-bitrate OGG and not be particularly offended, though). As a result, the CDs I’ve ripped to my PC and loaded to my phone were all saved as FLAC.

    That reminds me… I need to commit your two Y Mabinogi albums to tape. I recently found a “new old stock” stack of TDK SA-90 Chrome tapes, which will keep me going for a while. I’ve recently replaced the drive belt in the Capri’s tape player, so I’m not just limited to the radio any more. I’m not sure how they will split over the tapes… gone are the days of just putting 1 complete album on each side.

    I’m not a complete technological luddite, but when you look at some things from the past nostalgically, it’s not just rose-tinted specs. They occasionally really were better. I was born after the arrival of the compact disk, yet I prefer LPs. I don’t need an infotainment system in my car, as the cassette player is easier (and therefore safer) to operate – and does all I need. I have access to a modern car, but they all look the same (and boring), the seats are hard, and the visibility is awful. (I also find it amusing that my car, out on the road, has exactly the same fuel economy and acceleration as the 2.0i versions of its two successors). I guess I’m actually a technology enthusiast, in a way. I absolutely adore my wind-up gramophone, my LP player, my car… I write with a fountain pen… Last time I went camping, I opted for a brass Primus stove, rather than my modern MSR stove. Why? The simple aesthetic pleasure of it. I love antiques and vintage objects you can still use. I love thinking about the person who first bought them, and the fact that the objects don’t need to be thrown away. I love how ingenious some vintage design solutions were. You don’t get that sort of ingenuity and creativity any more. I always marvel and wonder at how technology developed. I noticed early on that it was starting to all get a bit soulless. When you drive a modern car or stream music online, you’re really depriving yourself of a heck of a lot. Something is lost.

    And before anyone mentions “safety”, don’t forget to put on your seat belt, and join RoSPA or the IAM. Everything else is superfluous. As for reliability… yes, the service interval is only 6000 miles… But if you actually bother to service it every 6000 miles, surprise surprise: it won’t let you down! Or at least mine hasn’t. Not bad for a vehicle that’s now achieved approximately 3 times the average car lifespan. Now if I could just find some magic cure for that ******* rust…

  18. I feel sad that I too have gradually become accustomed to lesser sound quality in this time of mp3s and iPods. I confess that I can’t hear much difference in quality between m4a, WAV and so on but it didn’t dawn on me that I missed stereo and good speakers. Maybe that’s why I much prefer live music, preferably small venue and in-amped, these days.

  19. Heya,thank you for the wonderful nostalgia trip! I have fond memories – from my grandparents’ radiogram to my parents’ music centre (much like the one pictured) to my first CD walkman in 1989.These days I listen to CDs and LPs on Marantz separates with KEF speakers in our living room and this is a set up which works well for me. Although today we did discuss buying some sort of docking station to use in our dining room. I’m also currently getting used to bluetooth music in the car and I have to say it feels a little strange. I too remember the hours of creating cassette compilations for the car and then, later on, saving up to buy a CD changer, Good times!

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