One thing that boggles my mind about audiophiles is how the hobby tends to support old technologies over new ones. You can see this reflected in the fact that streaming HD files is somehow seen as not as good as crappy vinyl by some (although certainly not all) of the old guard. I’ve said it many times before, but vinyl mostly sucks. Yes, it is cheap. Yes, it is analog. Yes, it is how the artist/producer/engineer wanted us to listen to the album. Those are all good arguments.
But if you want to hear the music as it was likely recorded, whether on two-inch analog master tape or straight to a disc, you want to listen to it on digital HD formats. Almost nobody has access to first-generation analog master tape, nor do they have the tape machines to play back the now-degrading magnetic tape. That is just fact for a post-factual world. Moreover, going analog in terms of vinyl leaves you with at best 65 dB of dynamic range, which is half of what you would need to faithfully reproduce, say, the snap of a hard-hit snare drum.
Beyond dynamics, you have the issue of that “warmth,” which is just a euphemism for harmonic distortion. Why did you just invest $10,000 in that Audio Research or Mark Levinson stereo preamp then feed it a high distortion source? It’s like fueling your new Ferrari 812 with 50 octane fuel. But then again, you’ve likely heard all of these arguments already from me.
Qobuz, Tidal, and now Amazon Music all offer, for about the price of one new Compact Disc, access to damn-near every album ever recorded. Many of these recordings stream into your high-performance audiophile system at such a low cost, yet at such a high level of fidelity, that you really have the musical world as your oyster. Shouldn’t this transformational access to music lure new music lovers to the world of high-performance music as the iPod did years ago thanks to the incredible convenience and portability?
Not really, it turns out. This brings me to Pandora. Pandora was recently bought by the parent of Sirius-XM radio, basically off the junk heap. They were led to the altar of high-resolution audio but insiders tell me they simply blew the opportunity. So, why should audiophiles take Pandora seriously? One reason and one reason alone: Pandora’s algorithm is simply better than any other streaming platform. Let’s say your favorite song is “Super Freak” by Rick James and you like “Kiss” by Prince. With that little metadata Pandora can, unlike Amazon, Spotify, and so many others, create a playlist for you that is remarkably in tune.
Call it artificial intelligence or just good programming, but the concept that you can, with the press of the + or – button, build an entire, bespoke playlist that can open you up to new music is nothing short of amazing. The quality of these playlists is far better than I ever dreamed possible. You don’t have to be part of the process, but if you are the playlist gets better and better all the time. You can explore wild musical ideas and find songs and/or artists that you may have never known existed but you really dig.
Pandora’s weakness is their MP3-like, low resolution delivery. It was supposed to be upgraded to HD, but I’ve been told that this plan got foiled, which is truly a shame. Music in HD is something to behold. Giving a true, digital facsimile of the analog master tape to your 300-watt amp, 32-bit DAC, killer floorstanding speakers, and beefy subwoofer is the direct route to musical heaven. The cost of getting there and the volume of access to songs and albums at this level have never been better, and I encourage you to enjoy your system this way as much as humanly possible.
With that said, don’t dismiss Pandora because of its low resolution. Pandora’s superior ability to seek out new music is next-level. Pandora’s ability to help you find new music can replace the long-gone-out-of-business record store that you and I miss so badly. If you have never done it, give Pandora a quick try. I think you can do it without a subscription, but it has ads. Getting rid of the ads doesn’t cost very much and is well worth your investment. Before you call me a lover of “low resolution,” take a quick tour and play around with their technology. I think you will become a fan quickly, and let’s all hope that Pandora, with new backers behind it, will get the memo on music in HD, as that would make it a must-have streaming source for all music-lovers worldwide.
What is your experience with Pandora? Do you use AI to build playlists to help you find new music? Would you? Comment below, as we love to hear from you.