Wednesday, 23 July 2008

In Praise of the iPlayer and a little Peeve . . .

Generally I only listen to the Beeb on my computer(s) under protest, but I had noticed that the sound quality of the BBC iPlayer (are they paying royalties to Steve Jobs?) is considerably in advance of Windows Media or RealPlayer. I thought, therefore. I ought to have a quick listen to one of the repeat Proms broadcasts via the website.

Unfairly, but in my erstwhile mean hi-fi reviewer mood, I picked the first Prom's Messaien on the Albert Hall organ (a very stiff test for any audio setup) and listened through the Sennheiser cans I use for audio editing hooked up to my Mac laptop. Oh, and yes, I have heard the organ live there since it was rebuilt, so I know what it's supposed to sound like.

It didn't do a bad job at all; there's obvious muddle in the treble and midrange when the score gets even remotely complex, and while the bass end sounds impressively solid, its depth is an illusion, though a very convincing and persuasive one. The compression, 'flattening' and chopped off treble and bass registers are pretty obvious if you compare it to 'real' hi-fi, but given that the bitrate is less than the MP3's many people load onto their iPods, it does give a good overall impression. Just don't look for subtleties of interpretation or fine nuances of instrumental texture.

Still, despite myself, I'm impressed. And since many people around the world often can't hear a Prom concert they'd like to on FM, or sometimes at all, because the local broadcaster doesn't relay it or buy the recording, there are a lot of music lovers for whom this is a godsend. And it's way, way superior to listening on AM or SW, the way I've sometimes had to do in the past when I've not been in London. The BBC techies deserve to get as many compliments as we can muster for that, I think.

All the same, if you can listen to any concert on FM and through serious hi-fi, even if it's only a handful, do. It's not the same as being in the RAH, but as a general rule the BBC's engineers take a lot of care and put a lot of hard work in to get as near as they can to the real thing.

(On the other hand, the Prom site  Interactive editors don't. Deserve any compliments. I know I said you might find me at odds with some other reviewers, but I'm at odds with them, by the looks of it. They're ignoring me. So my professional pride is hurt.)

I just made the mistake of glancing at the Proms Message Board. If you would like to be reassured that classical music is an elitist pursuit of the middle classes and should have been encased in amber around  1850, and be fenced off from unworthy interlopers, have a read of what they are saying about Roger Norrington, or the Folk afternoon. It doesn't half make me angry. If I'd come across that sort of thing when I was 11 and just discovering classical music, which none of my working class family had any interest in, I'd have a run a mile from it and never have had the years of pleasure I have had out of it and would like a lot of other people to have, too.

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