An interesting dichotomy occurs when we listen to music. The more we listen, the more we find that we like, or dislike, a particular song or album. Yet, this contrast is unexplainable as there is no guarantee which emotion we will feel. Yes, there are many who wish that Celine Dion’s songs will simply cease going on and on, and some who want to miss everything Aerosmith sings about. Then there is The xx, a band that I had completely ignored until their latest release. Initially, as I sampled the tracks from I See You, I was unsure if I even wanted to listen to the album. I felt as thought there was something missing, but I remained intrigued and kept sampling the tracks to try and figure out what it was.
This previous weekend as our family set off on a road trip, I decided to download I See You in TIDAL Hi-Fi’s offline mode. For those interested, the two other albums I downloaded for the drive were Sepultura’s Machine Messiah and the classical album Cantillation Allegra: Miserere. Yes, dear reader, my music interests are vast and I have no issue whatsoever in changing between these two styles of music. That said, my significant other rolled her eyes elegantly as I made the change. Nevertheless, the time had come for The xx’s I See You to take a virtual spin.
One would think that a 2016-model motor vehicle would have a respectable stereo system, but I am constantly let down by the unit’s internal DAC, so I devised an experiment to see if I could get a better, more accurate, sound reproduction from the stock stereo. Using Oppo’s remarkable HA-2 DAC, I ran the signal directly from my iPhone, via the lighting to USB adapter into the DAC. Then I ran a 3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo cable from the HA-2’s Line Output to the Line Input on the car stereo. This process bypasses the car stereo’s inferior DAC and merely requires the car stereo to handle the amplification process; a task it can handle admirably.
Listening to an album in this manner may never be a perfect way to audition and review and music, but the fact remains that through this technique the sound emanating from the car stereo was simply gorgeous. Of course, it was nowhere near the quality I experience with my main stereo system, but it was a significant upgrade to the car’s previous sonic offerings. Even my better half couldn’t believe the stark contrast in quality by simply adding the Oppo HA-2. It is true to say that every element in the audio reproduction chain is important and you should always start with the best source possible and proceed from there.
On that note, I feel it is essential to illustrate that this isn’t merely a one-off occurrence. A number of years ago, my significant other and children gifted me the Bose AE2 headphones. To be completely frank, I couldn’t stand them. They are the most comfortable headphones I have ever had the pleasure of wearing, but their sound was thin and shrill when connected to every single piece of audio-based technology I owned. When I got the Oppo HA-2, I decided to give the AE2 headphones another try and I’m not joking when I say the HA-2 breathed new life into those Bose headphones. It was proof that the DAC/Amplifier element in the process is essential to getting the very best from speakers, headphones, and digital music. Hence, TIDAL Hi-Fi + Oppo HA-2 = Beautiful Sound Reproduction even with modest headphones and audio equipment. I’m sure many of you are saying that the Bose AE2 is now the weakest link in my headphone setup and while I agree, they do tick off the all important Wife Acceptance Factor. The bottom line is that I can listen to this combination for hours without suffering any physical or mental fatigue and the sound is absolutely non-offensive and engaging.
Getting back to listening to music in the car and I couldn’t help but ponder if other albums that I had dismissed in certain surroundings, wouldn’t have appealed more to me in different situations. Yes, another crazy thought from the guy that believes metal and classical music can happily co-exist. The interesting aspect, however, is the human element. There is simply no way to predict the emotion created by the situation and the associated music at a given point in time. It is, therefore, another instance of a dichotomy that one may experience when exploring new music. Even music we know and love can sound different as time passes and our interests change. I notice this occurring more frequently as I age. While there has been plenty written on the subject, the best book I have read thus far is John Powell’s Why We Love Music. It is to the point, not overly complex or presumptuous, and insightful.
Regardless, I See You just felt right in the car and a grin formed from ear to ear that didn’t erode until it was time to exit the vehicle. It was this experience alone that ensured I became a fan of The xx. I’m even tempted to buy the vinyl release, the album is that good, but the real lesson in my never ending ramblings is that there is no perfect way to listen and appreciate music. It is subjective and if it induces an emotional response, then the music and the hardware available to you has done its job.
The album artwork is simplistic but iconic and as I looked through The xx’s catalogue of releases I couldn’t help but see the consistency of the X symbol. While some may complain about the artwork being too similar, the similarity does assist in branding and allowing oneself to be immediately identifiable. To this day I still think of Prince as a symbol. I used to find it humorous to see where music stores would try and place his albums after he undertook the transition and I can’t help but wonder how one would search for his symbol in the modern Internet era.
That makes me wonder, can you search Google for a symbol?
Anyway, that isn’t important and as always I digress, let’s get back to the review in question.
I also appreciate the difference in artwork between the digitally purchased/streaming releases and the Vinyl/CD releases. It gives me, as a collector, another reason to seriously consider adding the physical release of the album to my collection.
Dangerous sets the tone of the album and the horn introduction is pure perfection. The bass beat throughout, while predictable, is pleasing to the ears with more than enough depth to encapsulate you in the middle of the soundstage. It isn’t my favourite song on the album, but I do enjoy it.
Say Something Loving has a really unique vocal introduction that I’m unsure of. However, it is strangely well suited to the track and as the song progresses the vocal tonality and variance in the beat is superb. It is an exceptional song, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that it could be more dynamic as the soundstage feels a little too restrictive and fails to completely absorb the listener in the music.
Lips begins with a glorious vocal interlude that reminds me why I consider vocals to be more aligned to an instrument, than a literal storytelling aspect of music. Lips is possibly my favourite song on the album, but there are so many wonderful tracks. It has a perfect harmonic presentation and is thoroughly engaging. If you only listen to one song from this album, make it this one!
A Violent Noise slowly builds a sonic masterpiece from elements that are continually added as the song progresses. It pulls you in and captures your soul. It is spectacular!
Performance is a lovely ballad-styled song that presents Croft’s vocals so clearly and forward in the soundstage that one would believe she is present in the room with you. It is a performance that has to be heard to be believed.
Replica follows the ballad pace of Performance beautifully and is equally compelling. While I love my physical library of music, the lure of TIDAL Hi-Fi can be seen in the ability to be exposed to so many great musical talents, such as that of The xx. For all of life’s worries, music lovers certainly live in exciting times.
Brave For You is perfectly tracked and isn’t merely there to provide filler for the album as it, along with the previous two songs, is amongst some of the best compositions on the album. The bass track throughout this song has an incredible timbre that simply amazes me every time I hear it.
I simply love On Hold.
I Dare You has a fantastic beat and is a perfect song for any road trip.
Test Me is a lovely song to end the album on. While not as upbeat as the rest of the album, it does encourage me to listen to the album again and stay within The xx catalogue.
It is important to note that the above opinions were a culmination of my experience with both the Oppo HA-2 via the car stereo and the Oppo BDP-103’s analogue stage via my home stereo. While both platforms utilise different DAC’s, the house sound of Oppo is somewhat similar and therefore the differences between the experiences are minimal.
Both playback methods presented a nicely balanced soundstage that was immersive. There are a number of elemental aspects to the entire album that I truly appreciate and they became even more apparent in my higher resolving main stereo setup. I found the low end of the album to be on the precipice of distortion but it never went so far as to drown out other musical elements.
While the average dynamic range of the digital releases, including the Audiophile 96kHz/24bit HDTracks edition, was 6 out of 20, the vinyl release is reported to raise that average to a 9. It is disappointing that the loudness wars once again plague modern recordings, but as I was listening to the album, I did not feel it was compressed as badly as these numbers may suggest. While I would welcome an increased dynamic range, I feel it is important to also consider that certain musical styles and sound signatures are well suited to lower dynamic ranges. After all, this is not a symphonic release. That said, it is disappointing the HDTracks has an edition that is inferior in dynamic range to the vinyl release, especially when the marketing team are content with declaring it as being an audiophile release. In light of this, is there any reason in wondering why the average consumer classes high-resolution audio as snake oil? I guess that is why I find TIDAL Hi-Fi to be the happy medium as albums are presented in CD-quality with many thousands being released as TIDAL Masters (I See You is not one of them), thereby competing directly against HDTracks, but included in the price of TIDAL’s Hi-Fi monthly subscription.
Despite all of this, I found the sound presentation to be exceptionally engaging. The xx have released a sonic masterpiece and I’m certainly looking forward to listening to the rest of their catalogue and all future releases.