Summertime Outdoor Personal Audio Blues

George Gershwin may have written "Summertime and the Living is Easy" many years ago, but the circumstances that came together to inspire his words haven't changed much. It still gets hot (maybe even hotter) and folks still flock toward outdoor activities that can offer some respite from the heat. Here in Colorado you can do anything you want in the morning, as long as you get down off those mountaintops before the afternoon thunderstorms blow through. And since I'm an audiophile, the summer weather (which has traditionally been "the dead season" for audio gear) inspires me to think about portable and outdoor audio and when, where, and how music should be heard.

AR-0outdoors1.jpgAs regular readers know, I'm big into portable high-performance audio, but my interest ceases when it comes to "outdoor audio." Why? Well, first off most of the places I've lived playing music outdoors via loudspeakers would be inconsiderate and rude. When I lived in Boulder Canyon I could hear it when someone ½ mile away decided to serenade the world with their music. And I did not like it. George Carlin's definition of good music applies - "Good music is whatever I want to listen to right now. Bad music is everything else." Your soundtrack for living will almost certainly not be what I want as background for my own outdoor active life.

I realize that some people believe that every human social event needs to have music to accompany it. Years ago, I attended a party at Harry Pearson's Sea Cliff home. It was a summer affair with partygoers inside and outside on the large wrap-around porch. Given The Absolute Sound's publisher's well-known love of music, you would have expected some "tunes" happening during the soiree. But the only sounds I heard were those of happy guests. There was NO MUSIC PLAYING. I asked Harry about the lack of background music and he told me "I have too much respect for music to use it for background." Later in the afternoon the party did have music - a string quartet played and we all shut up and listened.

AR-outdoors2.jpgI have thought a lot about Harry's position vis-à-vis music as background or soundtrack for living, and I understand his point. If you are really listening to intently to music you can't very well be carrying on a conversation simultaneously (although at many live concerts it seems as if a good part of the audience is trying to do exactly that). Personally when I'm at a social event with music I either want to A - Hear the music better because I like what I'm hearing or B - I wish the music was quieter because I'm trying to carry on a conversation here and the music sucks anyway. Perhaps my own narcissism has finally gotten to the point where I know I'm in my own movie and don't need a soundtrack to prove it.

Personal audio offers users a way to listen to music out in the world without injecting it into other peoples' aural consciousness. But the problem with personal audio is that it isolates a listener from their immediate physical environment. When you're sitting in an airport with 1:15 to go before your flight boards that's a good thing. When you're going crosstown on your bike with isolating in-ears personal audio can be downright dangerous. And any party where everyone has their own personal audio soundtrack going on won't be very heavy on personal interactions.

AR-outdoors3.jpgMusic in public spaces is almost as common and ubiquitous as oxygen. And like oxygen is pretty much taken for granted. But unlike oxygen, if removed, music's exclusion won't cause instant asphyxiation. But many times, in many places, music can feel a lot more like aural pollution than environmental augmentation and our lives would be less stressed without it. So kid, get off my lawn and take your damn Bluetooth-enabled boombox with you...

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