In a recent interview with The Verge (opens in new tab), legendary musician Neil Young came out against the MacBook Pro, calling the new 16-inch model "a piece of crap" and "Fisher-Price" quality. That's definitely a take, but it left me wondering, has Neil Young ever heard any other laptop speakers?
I mean, as a general rule of thumb, laptop speakers aren't regarded by anyone as being the pinnacle of sound quality. In this interview, however, Neil Young uses this as a reason why folks shouldn't be creating music on a MacBook Pro, that the loss in fidelity is a "problem." It's the same energy that he presented when he said he was "saving music" with the Pono player way back in 2012.
When Young goes as far to say that Steve Jobs didn't care about quality, but rather just consumerism, that's a pretty tame take overall. I don't have an issue with that, and even agree. However, when that take is behind an incredibly elitist approach to both the consumption and creation of music, there's a lot to unpack.
Laptop speakers are bad, actually
I have a confession to make: when I'm reviewing a laptop, the speakers are lowkey one of the most important features to my experience. I spend a lot of time listening to music, to the point where I basically carry my laptop around my apartment when I'm doing my chores instead of just getting a smart speaker like a normal person.
But, wow, are most laptops packing some of the most tinny and useless speakers I've ever heard in my life. Even gorgeous top-of-the-line flagships like the Dell XPS 13 have these bottom-firing speakers that just sound downright lame. What's the point of turning up some Kim Petras if you can't hear the bass, right?
That's one of the core reasons I use a 13-inch MacBook Pro as my daily personal laptop. The speakers aren't quite up to, like, professional studio monitors, but they're still better than pretty much any other laptop speakers on the market, no matter what Neil Young says.
For most people, the speakers on the MacBook Pro, especially that shiny new 16-inch model, are far better than anything else they'll find on the market today. Now, obviously, you can connect a good pair of headphones or speakers through a DAC and get a truly more transcendent experience out of it, but that should be pretty obvious.
Still, short of recording a song, the MacBook Pro 16-inch speakers are probably fine for most casual music listening. They're punchy, loud, and can absolutely deliver where it counts.
Maybe we stop the elitism?
Of course, Neil Young isn't just a casual music listener. This is the same person that was behind the failed Pono player, a portable music player that could play back lossless audio in order to "save music." Hearing Neil Young come back with hyper-elitist takes on audio shouldn't be surprising to anyone.
In the interview, Verge Editor in Chief Nilay Patel mentions to Neil Young that kids are "starting on a MacBook, recording straight to MP3", to which Neil Young responds "Yeah, I know. But if that's what they want to put out as a record, that's a problem."
This is an incredibly lame take from Young. One of the coolest things about the music scene in 2020 is the fact that anyone can take out their laptop and start creating art and distributing it to everyone who wants to hear it. In fact, there are some great laptops for music production out there today.
This antiquated idea that albums should only be recorded in an exclusive recording studio that can cost artists thousands of dollars per session is inherently classist and elitist, and an idea we should wholeheartedly abandon. If kids are able to create art and put it out for the world to listen, shouldn't that be celebrated, rather than being sneered at for not being "high quality" enough?
Neil Young even comes up with a solution for the perceived problem: "you have to use an external DAC and do a bunch of stuff to make up for the problems that the MacBook Pro has because they’re not aimed at quality." There are definitely artists who peruse high audio fidelity and a professional creative setup to create their art, and that's totally valid. For those folks, picking up a DAC and a bunch of professional audio equipment is important.
But, for people that can't even afford that new 16-inch MacBook Pro, who just want to record some songs and upload them to Soundcloud or Bandcamp, any laptop is a totally valid way to create the art they want to create. I have the same problem with this Neil Young interview as I did when Apple head of marketing Phil Schiller said that kids using Chromebooks in school wouldn't succeed. Let people live, let people create and let people learn no matter what hardware they have access to.
At the end of the day, music belongs to the people, and the more accessible the hardware is, the better - even if it doesn't offer the most pristine audio quality in the world.
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