David Binney: On Bowie and Not Being an Audiophile but Subscribing to Stereophile

"Are you an audiophile?" I find myself yelling into my semi-functional smart phone, sitting in my dimly lit cubicle in Stereophile's New York office.

On the other end of the line is my close friend and long-time mentor, David Binney. We're FaceTiming in slow, fragmented motions as he eats his dinner in a lively restaurant before a gig in central Belgrade.

"No, definitely not." He says quite matter-of-factly. "I subscribe to Stereophile but I don't consider myself an audiophile. I wish I was, but it's too expensive. I obviously love great sound, but as a musician, if I just hear the music clearly enough, I'm fine. I care way more about the music than how it sounds coming out of speakers. If I could afford it, I'd have an amazing set up. But I can't. So I don't."

I found this fascinating. Binney is a phenomenal saxophonist, composer, and producer. He's an incredibly sought-after musician credited on over 250 albums, with more than 20 as a bandleader alone. The vast roster of musicians he's played with includes Jim Hall, Wayne Krantz, Chris Potter, Brian Blade, Antonio Sanchez, the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and countless others. One of his earlier albums, The Luxury of Guessing (1995), was even released on the audiophile AudioQuest record label.

But he's not an audiophile. He's just a subscriber to Stereophile who appreciates quality music and makes quality music.

"Why do you subscribe to Stereophile?" Not that I typically question anyone's motivations to subscribe to Stereophile. I'm just intrigued by the dichotomy.

"Because at some point I want to buy a nice system and I like reading about audio equipment once in a while. I also like the music reviews (Thomas Conrad, etc.)" A perfectly reasonable response. Though, as a caring friend, I do make a mental note to force him to read Stereophile more frequently in the future.

My interest is piqued: "What do you use to listen to music?"

"It's basic. I'm not even sure!" He laughs shyly, "Tannoy monitor speakers I think? I'm a producer so sound is very, very important to me. I really know those speakers. I use them for mixing too because I'm so familiar with them. I also use Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. I love those. They're the flattest headphones I have ever found. There's no emphasis so I feel like I'm really hearing the true sound."

My interest is piqued even further. He's produced all of his own albums (some are even released on his own record label) and Donny McCaslin's last seven albums. Yes, the saxophonist from Bowie's Blackstar.

Since Blackstar is so powerful, I can't help but ask, "Can you tell me about your involvement in David Bowie's last album?" I had heard rumors here and there about Binney being involved somehow but never exactly knew how. He's been a long-time influential force behind-the-scenes for many musicians and always seems to have played a part in major transitions.

"It seems that very few people know that I put that band together. I envisioned Donny doing electronic records a few years ago, so I got that band together and we went in that direction. Bowie heard it, flipped out, and wanted that sound for his record. That's how Blackstar happened. Somehow I get cut out of all the 'back stories' about that record. But trust me, that wouldn't have happened without me. So I'm pretty proud of that."

"What are you listening to right now?"

"Frightened Rabbit - Painting of a Panic Attack

Thomas Ades - Violin Concerto

Edu Lobo - Mela Noite

Glen Hansard - Rhythm and Response

Oliver Lake - Heavy Spirits

Prince - 1999"

"When is your next album coming out?"

"I just recorded a new album of my music with my regular group (Jacob Sacks, Eivind Opsvik, Dan Weiss), also known as the '55 Bar Group' because we have a twice-monthly gig at the 55 Bar. It'll be out in September on Criss Cross Jazz, and it's my favorite record to date. It was recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn which is where I've recorded most of my records. The engineer was Max Ross and it was mixed by Dave Darlington."

So: A maker, listener, and lover of music. A self-diagnosed non-audiophile who subscribes to Stereophile. A historic influence who brought together the Bowie Blackstar band.

Even though David doesn't consider himself to be an audiophile, I still think he is - to some degree. Even though I marvel at the audiophile dichotomy that is David Binney, even though I use terms like "audiophile" and "non-audiophile", I think it's really a lot more fluid than that. Aren't all music lovers audiophiles in a way?

fetuso's picture

He's totally in denial; he is very much an audiophile. Just goes to show that people wrongly conflate audiophilia with the need to spend gobs of money.

Anton's picture

You'd think any system musicians listened to would be wrong, from their vantage point. I mean, how many audiophiles go for the "first person" perspective of what David Binney hears when he is playing?

It's a cool line where the border of musician meets up with the border of audiophile land.

I think I know more music lovers who are not audiophiles than I do vice versa. Both in numbers and in ratios.

jimtavegia's picture

An audiophile is a person who, within the confines of their budget, seeks the highest sound quality possible. The fact that he even mentions Tannoy and the Sennheiser HD 600's puts him there. The idea that one has to spend crazy money just to be in the "club" is ridiculous, but often mistaken for true.

All of my recording gear is capable of 2496 and one piece is 24192 capable. I love 2496 and have a harder time hearing the diff at 24192 mostly due to my age, but as a Math teacher I know it is capturing more of a performance. My 3 old Sony DVP-NS 755V's play my SACDs just fine as well as my burned 2496 DVD-rs as DVD-Vs.

And listening to hirez playback does not require 6 figures to do it. Many great headphones are out there for under $500 and headphone amps as well. I love my cheap Steinberg UR-22 usb interface ($150) that does 24192 with a decent headphone amp built in, as does my Sony Sound Forge. I can burn my 2496 files to DVD-rs with Cirlinca and they sound great. My Focal Spirit Pros are just fine as are my AKG K701s and my 2 pair of 271s in my studio.

Just because most of us cannot afford an MBL system or a dcs stack does not mean we are not part of the club who just wants to hear the music we love in a better way than redbook offers. It take a little more effort, but it is worth it. I just wish more music was tracked at 2496 or 24192 so when it was offered as a hirez download, it really is hirez.

mghcanuck's picture


Thanks for this, David Binney is a favourite musician, composer, etc., of mine. I have yet to hear him with his own band. I read an interview with Donny McCaslin recently and he mentioned that David was instrumental in getting the band together for Mr. Bowie. I also read that Maria Schneider probably made the introductions when she took Bowie to see a gig, I think it was at 55 Bar, which as you point out is hangout for Binney and company.



rwwear's picture

I read Stereophile and am not an audiophile. I like to read about new technology, equipment and enjoy the record reviews. I don't hear any difference in cables and a lot of it is all BS to me. I do own lots of high end equipment and enjoy quality audio. I buy lots of Blu-ray, SACD and DVDA discs. And I listen to vinyl.

Jeffreylee's picture

So how would you define the term audiophile?

rwwear's picture

I believe an audiophile tries to get the best sound possible and will use any means possible to do so. They will constantly compare cables and equipment and pine over the latest and greatest.
I on the other hand prefer vintage equipment and although I want great sound I believe we have pretty much reached the plateau at this point. I find it's more fun to listen to the music rather than obsess. Although I think it's perfectly fine to do so if that's your thing.

Jeffreylee's picture

That's your definition, whereas the actual definition as per Merriam-Webster's defines an audiophile as someone who's "enthusiastic about high fidelity sound reproduction." No offense, but I prefer to assume that most people fit that description while you seem to assume the worst.

rwwear's picture

If that be the definition then I suppose I am one. I am just a non-believer in a lot of what audiophilia has become.

cgh's picture

Don't need a rag for that. I go where the music leads me.

Talos2000's picture

Interesting that Binney doesn't care enough about about sound quality to want an "audiophile" sound system for his own listening pleasure, yet is a respected producer, and in that capacity is responsible for the sound quality of what "audiophiles" like me get to listen to.

I suppose that when he wears his producer hat he gets to use a monitor-quality sound system in the studio, which is fair enough. But when he's in the studio, listening to the "good stuff", and making final decisions as regards the sound quality, he's still the same guy who doesn't care enough about that self-same sound quality to wish to recreate it for his own listening pleasure.

I'm intrigued by the dichotomy.

FYI, since the article mentions it, when listening to Blackstar, I find I can only enjoy the music if I'm in a room elsewhere in the house. If I'm in front of the speakers the compressed dynamics (an intentional artistic decision, I know) makes me feel ill.

OK, I've got the Tylenol ready. Start telling me how I don't like/know/understand music, despite spending silly money buying equipment to play it.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You absolutely don't like/know/undertand music, despite spending silly money buying equipment to play it.

Just kidding...