🎵 Today’s listen: Gold by Sister Sparrow. Apple Music labels it an “Alternative” album, but it is blue-eyed soul all the way. My favorite track is “Can’t Get You Out of My Mind”; it’s fierce and fun.

🎵 Today’s listen: firstborn by Nicolle Gaylon. It is a veteran country songwriter’s first album. It is full of autobiographical songs which are, interestingly, chronologically ordered from birth to death.

🎵 Today’s listen: Emotional Creature by Beach Bunny. I loved this emo-pop band’s debut LP, Honeymoon, a couple years ago. I didn’t know this album was out, so I’m excited to listen to it. The lead single, Oxygen, is good.

🎧 An update on the Sony WH-1000M4

A little while ago, I bemoaned that the Sony WH-1000M4 headphones were disappointing to me. I’m happy to report they have been working pretty well as my gym headphones. The fit is pretty good (they don’t fall off unless I’m practically upside down) and the sound plus noise cancellation are more than adequate. The creakiness I observed when they were brand new seems to have gone away. My only complaint is that, when I bring my iPad with me to watch TV shows while doing cardio, it can be a pain to get the headphones to connect to it. They seem to want to connect only to my phone.

My gym almost never plays music, which is great because everybody wears some kind of wireless headphones there. I mostly see AirPods Pro around the gym, but a few people have the AirPods Max, and I wish I did, too. Their tighter fit and punchier sound, compared to the Sony WH-1000M4, would be welcome. A handful of other people at my gym use the same headphones I do, so I don’t feel crazy for not using purpose-built workout headphones there.

🎵 Today’s listen, Stop the Clocks by Oasis. It is a greatest hits album that is supposedly curated by the band to resemble on of their live show setlists. It is all the Oasis I need, and maybe a bit more.

🎮 Today’s listen: The London Suede and Similar Artists Station on Apple Music. This is probably a personalized BritPop playlist. I’m discovering a lot of album cuts I didn’t know about or bother listening to in the 1990s. Also, I now think Blur holds up far better than Oasis.

🎵 Today’s listen: I Miss Britpop. Because I do.

Oh, Schiit

My Schiit Magni 3 amplifier is acting up again. Tonight it is ground loop hum. Before tonight, it has been annoyingly sensitive (that is, it pops loudly) to the tiny amount of static electricity generated by my feet scuffing the low-pile carpet when I rise from my chair. When I stand up while wearing my headphones, it pops very loudly, which is painful to my ears, and then it will hum angrily the rest of the day.

When the Magni 3 works it is sublime. Unfortunately, I can’t always use it due to electrical issues, and I wonder if the popping problem could blow out my headphones someday. Early in its life it got fried and I had to RMA it. I’m not sure it is worth spending $80 or more for a power conditioner to try to fix it. I think it may be more trouble than it is worth.

🎧 Sony WH-1000M4 headphones are just OK and that sucks

Listening to the AirPods Max for five minutes in an Apple Store ruined me for other noise-canceling headphones. Not because they sounded good. In fact, I listened to them only long enough to learn that they are bass heavy and exciting. What wowed me about them was the active noise cancellation. It was far better than anything I had ever experienced. It made the din of the Apple Store—all those human voices, which are difficult for ANC to cancel out—go away completely.

Sadly, they are $550 headphones (street price $479) that don’t even have an analog headphone jack, so they are both outside my price range and unsuitable–at least for me—for listening to lossless quality audio. Still, I wanted “industry leading” active noise cancellation, something better than I already have in my fancy Beoplay H9, for the times that I need it.

I read a lot of ANC headphone reviews and came to the conclusion that most reviewers recommend the Sony WH-1000M4 for its sound, excellent noise cancellation, and price. At $300 (street price $279) they are not cheap, but one could buy them and the AirPods Pro for cheaper than the AirPods Max (at its list price). Also, compared to the AirPods Max, the Sony WH-1000M4 is lighter, folds into a small, protective case, and has a headphone jack for wired listening.

I received them and immediately discovered that I don’t love them. They are fine, but that is disappointing to me. Perhaps they are overhyped by reviewers. Perhaps I am asking too much from them. For whatever reason, I, unlike most people, I guess, think they fall short of greatness.

This is my list of complaints that should serve as a counterpoint to all the glowing, uncritical reviews.

  1. They sound good, but not great. The nearest analog to them that I own is another Bluetooth ANC headphone, the Beoplay H9, which sounds punchier, tighter, brighter, and more exciting than the Sony WH-1000M4. I have three non-Bluetooth headphones that sound better than both the Beoplay and the Sony, too1. I have tried to EQ the Sony via its iOS app, but I have found no preset that I constantly prefer.
  2. The active noise cancellation has an audible hiss and creates a bit of ear pressure. The hiss is disappointing. You don’t notice it during music, and probably won’t notice it in loud conditions where I would use these headphones, but it is annoying during podcasts or TV shows.
  3. Active noise cancellation does not live up to the hype. I actually use ANC headphones a lot in my home office because they remove the drone from the window air conditioner I use when it gets hot. Sadly, I found that the Sony WH-1000M4, with its industry-leading ANC, blocks that noise no better than the Beoplay H9, which is an also-ran in the ANC space and has essentially no passive noise cancellation in its earcup design.
  4. They aren’t that comfortable. My biggest problem with the BeoPlay H9 that I already had is its hard headband, which hurts my head after a while. The Sony headband does the same thing, despite the headphone being lighter and the headband being covered with softer material. The AirPods Max headband is very comfortable, but its clamping force borders on the extreme, so I probably would find it uncomfortable, too.
  5. While their moving parts are silent, the faux leather ear cups creak and squeak when I move my head. It is infuriating. I have no other headphones that do this.

I probably should have returned the Sony WH-1000M4 while I still had the chance. While I do expect to use them during walks on the treadmill and for plane travel in the future, I find that I almost always choose the Beoplay H9 over them for my everyday home-office-with-the-air-conditioner-on listening.

  1. I realize that part of my problem is that I have too many audiophile-quality headphones already. If I were comparing the Sony WH-1000M4 with my aging (non-Pro) AirPods, I would probably think they sound great. ↩︎

Jazz music is tolerated by my children

To my amazement, my kids seem to like jazz. By “like”, I mean don’t seem to mind, which I will consider a win. They don’t mind when I play John Coltrane (who is one of my favorite jazz musicians) on the kitchen smart speaker. They don’t blink an eye when albums like Jazz at the Pawnshop or Kind of Blue are playing. Today, I put on a Louis Armstrong playlist during breakfast, told my kids about him while I was playing, and my daughter expressed actually excitement about it. She told us that had learned a little bit about Louis Armstrong in school.

Playing jazz at some of our family mealtimes started accidentally. One evening I was too tired to think of anything to listen to while cooking dinner, so I told our Amazon Echo speaker to play “cool music”. I thought it would return a playlist of avant-garde pop music or underground dance- or world-music artists I haven’t heard off. Instead, to my surprise, Alexa cooly replied, “Now playing cool jazz on Apple Music.” I thought that was hilarious. I grew up thinking that cool jazz music was terrible, hopelessly lame easy-listening crap, which is the furthest thing from “cool” you could imagine. It turned out that my wife and I kind of liked the cool jazz playlist; it made for pleasant background music. More importantly, the kids didn’t ask for it to be turned off immediately.

Since that accidental discovery, the breadth of jazz that I put on for them has increased dramatically. I think this is a great development because I grew up in a house without music, and had to learn about all the different genres on my own. I am still trying to work on introducing my kids to classical music, but that has been a much harder sell.

🎵 Betwixt

When I was in college at Brandeis University, a friend of a friend1 was in a band. A cool band. He played cello in Betwixt, which was, at the time, a critically-acclaimed Boston-based noise/art-rock band. They played a few shows on campus, and I’m pretty sure I saw them play in Boston at least once, too. It was always a blast to see them perform. Their onstage vibe was cool and sexy. The singer was always dancing and working the crowd, while the lead guitarist stood in the back doing everything he could to avoid playing a normal guitar line. His guitar, amp, and effects pedals were coerced into making the most unusual sounds, all rhythmically slotted into into cheerful, poppy tunes. All together, they blew my mind.

I found their music on Apple Music today and listened to their two albums, Moustache and The Salty Tang. It was a fun nostalgia trip.

  1. And fellow Brandeisian. ↩︎

🎵 Do you really want to cry today?

Watch this video: “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. I dare you.

Everything about Cash’s performance is powerful. Honestly, though, the music video’s imagery is perfectly attuned to the music and to the singer. Director Mark Romanek and his small team who made the video were working at the top of the game.

(I didn’t just learn about this song or video. On Friday, I watched a short documentary about music producer Rick Rubin that reminded me of it.)

🎵 FTHC by Frank Turner

One of my favorite artists from the last few years, Frank Turner, has a new album out: FTHC.1 It—at least parts of it—represents a swing back from his acoustic guitar-led singer-songwriter fare to his roots as a hardcore artist. Yes, that means it’s peppered with screaming and righteous anger. That usually isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m down with it. Frank Turner is cool and makes good records; you should listen to them.

What I love about Frank Turner is that he comes across as incredibly, even uncomfortably, open and honest. His songs mix together toughness with sensitivity, and cynicism with optimism, in a way that reveals both his maturity as a person and his cleverness when it comes to song structure. His lyrics range from poetic and clever to raw and emotional. His music ranges from quiet and beautiful to thunderous and anthemic—often in the same song. Overall, his albums give you the impression that he held nothing back in creating them. I very much respect and admire that.2

Unlike any other musician I can think of, Turner even did a very generous two-part interview with a tech podcast, Dialog, a few years ago. He talked about his songwriting process and what it was like to be a working musician who is a little older and wiser than the clichéd young rock star you might imagine.

  1. According to Wikipedia, it is an initialization of “Frank Turner Hardcore.” ↩︎

  2. Another artist I like that does the same thing is The Avett Brothers. (Interestingly, The Avett Brothers were once a punk band that evolved into an acoustic Americana band, which is not too different from Turner’s evolution from a punk singer to a singer-songwriter.) ↩︎

🎵 I love the album All Mirrors by Angel Olsen. Everything about it is stunning.

🎵 A new album from an old favorite of mine dropped today: Lucifer on the Sofa by Spoon. A straight-ahead rock album is a great excuse to turn up my speakers today.

🎵 I’m enjoying “The Weeknd Essentials” playlist while I work this morning. I have learned to appreciate his music over the past two years. I was familiar with his biggest hits, but I wasn’t sold on his sound until Due Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” came out and reminded me how cool and sexy modern 80s-inspired R&B can be.

🎵 I have listened to Adele’s new album, 30, about five times today. I’m into it!

🎵 I can’t wait to listen to Adele’s upcoming album, 30, which is coming out on the 19th. I have been looking forward to it for weeks.

🎵 Red (Taylor’s Version)

One thing I didn’t expect when listening to Taylor Swift’s honest-to-goodness money-grab re-recording of her album Red is how good it is, and how many songs she added to it. Hell, Red (Taylor’s Version), even sounds better. The engineering and production are amazing, and I very much enjoy listening to it on my best speakers and headphones.

Now I am very much looking forward to Swift’s re-recordings of 1989 and Speak Now, which are my daughter’s favorite records. 1989 in particular already sounds fantastic, from an audiophile perspective; that’s going to be a tough act to follow.

🎵 Cool jazz

This is my music find of the week.

I asked my Amazon Echo speaker to play “cool music” while I was making dinner and had no idea what I wanted to listen to. (I was hungry and tired, and couldn’t even name an artist of a genre at that point.) Alexa starting playing a “Cool Jazz” radio station on Apple Music, and it was actually perfect background music for making and eating dinner. Now I have an alternative to “lo-fi hip hop” which the rest of my family hates. (OK, to be fair, my kids hate the jazz music too.)

🎵 Best of You

Do I like Foo Fighters now? Today I’m loving when their tracks come up on my randomized Apple Music post-album ∞ (“infinity”) playlist.

I have had a grudge against that band since I saw them in concert almost 20 years ago and hated their set. Maybe Dave Grohl was having a bad day that day. I thought he hated the crowd, of which a small majority, including me, were there to see the co-headliner, Weezer, who performed before him.

🎵 I listened to Lana Del Ray’s new album, Blue Banisters today, plus a new single by Beach Bunny, and enjoyed them very much. Adele’s new album is coming out soon, and I am really looking forward to it, too.

Material obsessions

I have two collections that I love but cannot justify: high-end headphones (each is sub-$500, but still really expensive and good) and mechanical keyboards (each is $240 or less). It took ten years to build up these collections, so the embarrassing amount of money I have spent is spread out over a long, long period. I was wondering today if people who spend a lot more than I do on vacations do so because they forego (and don’t care about) material objects like pricy headphones and keyboards.

Getting into these “hobbies” (if buying stuff can be called a hobby) was entirely accidental. I’m part of a product review program where I can occasionally select products I like for no money up front, and then only pay taxes on their value months later. I got my first taste of better headphones and better keyboards through that program, essentially through the luck of the draw. (I’m not in charge of which products become available for me to review.) If not for that, I probably would have no other headphones other than my AirPods, and would probably have a $100 Microsoft or Logitech keyboard that I would have to replace (because of wear) every year or two.

I think I am finally nearing “endgame” in both of these categories. I have fantastic headphones of nearly every type (dynamic and planar magnetic, open-back and closed-back, Bluetooth and wired), and they cover every situation, that I need. Similarly, I have mechanical keyboards for all of my computers, have tried a bunch of different key switches (clicky, tactile, and linear), and have even bought a “weird” ortholinear board that I never thought I would ever want until a couple months ago. Any new keyboard purchases are going to be about fixing something that is broken (my wonderful and unacceptably buggy Durgod tenkeyless) or trying out a different type of keyswitch on my new, hot-swappable ortholinear board. At least I hope that will be the case. Collecting more and more of these objects sometimes feels like an obsession, and is not something I want to keep doing forever.

Background music and Endel

Sometimes when I’m working, I want music playing, but I don’t really know what I want to listen to, and I don’t have the patience to think about it. In these situations, I have tried listening to classical music, jazz, and lo-fi (hip-hop/trip-hop, etc.). Over the past week, I gave Endel an honest try, too.

While I enjoy classical music in a live setting, I don’t like listening to it in my headphones. Its wide dynamic range makes it so that I can’t hear some sections of it, and other sections are too loud. That doesn’t work for me; I want something that is not too loud, but is completely audible, all the time.

Jazz (especially classic jazz) was what I listened to almost exclusively during my senior year of college. It got me through reading and writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of text. However, I find my engagement with jazz to be all over the map. I love some of it and I hate some of it, and the kind of jazz you can just have on, not listening to—smooth jazz, I suppose—is just bad. All in all, I find jazz too distracting to listen to while I work, unless I listen to a single album that I already know and love.

Lo-fi hip hop is my favorite background music at this point. I appreciate its nearly constant beat, somewhat consistent tempos, and there appears to be a never-ending supply of it. My wife hates when I play it in the house when I am doing chores or writing, though, which means I can only really listen to it via headphones when I’m around her. It works great on my headphones while I read on my iPad, or through my loudspeakers when I work.

Over the past two weeks, I tried to get into Endel, which offers an AI-based soundscape that constantly changes and continually evolves as you listen to it. I like the idea a lot more than the reality of it, though I think it has a lot to do with my tinnitus. Endel is extremely treble-heavy and bass-light (really, there is no bass at all), and only one of its scenarios, Focus, has a beat. I would not describe the sounds as shrill, but they aggravate my tinnitus instead of helping me ignore it. Last week, I listened to Endel exclusively through headphones (my B&O H9s and my AirPods) while I did chores like the dishes and laundry. This morning, now that I am back at work, I tried listening to the Focus soundscape for a few hours through my loudspeakers. It drove my wife and both my kids absolutely bananas. Each of them yelled at me to stop playing it, even though it was not playing loudly, and they were on a different level of the house. After that experience, I think I will not be buying an Endel lifetime subscription.

Tomorrow I plan to listen to Lofi Girl for much of my workday. That is the best bet for me, when I can’t make up my mind about music and need to focus on my work more than what I am listening to.

The nuclear option, or how I gave up completely (on my music library) 🎵 💣 💥

I have been an Apple Music subscriber from the service’s very first day. I was an iTunes Match subscriber before that. I have been pulling an enormous electronic library of albums and songs forward with me since I was a teenager. We’re talking about thousands of albums, dozens of playlists, and a lot of complications that have stuck around in my library since the CD days.

Apple Music gobbled up all that music info and turned it into a frustrating mess for me. I have duplicate albums, duplicate tracks in my albums, unplayable tracks in some albums, and most of my library does not play in Apple Music’s new lossless format. A lot of music playing for me takes place outside my library, but that is in large part because my Apple Music library is an awful mess.

Today, I just couldn’t take the jankiness anymore, so I took the nuclear option: I deleted everything from from my Apple Music account. All my music is gone. I also turned off the “add songs from playlists added to library” option, which was inconsistently applied amongst my devices, and peppered my library with useless, one-track albums. I added some of the artists and albums I actually listen to now (as opposed to many years ago when I bought a used CD somewhere), and will rebuild my collection from there.

Despite my nuking of my Apple Music Library, None of the music I bought in the past is really gone. All the CDs I actually wanted to keep are ripped to a well-organized, if rarely touched, folder on my NAS. I will probably continue to ignore this, to be honest, and focus mainly on what’s new.