Earing is believing….in all things musical.

Posted on by Mike Quinn

A few years ago, after a few relaxing few days at the beach, I developed an inner-ear infection which resulted in a temporary, but frightening, very severe hearing loss in my left ear. Weeks went by with no self-induced improvement, so I finally resorted to consulting my doc who, of course, piled on the antibiotics. Took a couple more weeks, but things finally got back to normal.

Normal ear and infected ear: the latter makes music listening nearly impossible.

Now, for someone who is supposed to audition audio equipment and report those findings to you readers, this was a pretty scary time. In fact, for someone who simply likes to listen to music, it was a pretty scary time. I tried to fire up my system on several occasions for some relaxed listening, but the muted results were more terrifying than soothing. The fear of being permanently locked into a muffled world of partial hearing was truly alarming, as was the inability to achieve the normal instant gratification achieved by slapping some new tunes on the box.

This episode gave me cause to think about the way we listen to music these days: how we listen, the whys and wherefores of the equipment choices we make and the importance we place on bringing music into our lives in some way or another. When my hearing finally returned to normal, I was, without doubt, cognizant of what I had been missing, and extremely grateful for the ability to once again take joy from something so many of us take for granted.

Miles Davis: Bitches Brew LP Cover

Just being able to listen to music again took on new meaning. And I began to remember the long, late-night listening sessions of my younger days; when the acquisition of a new Dolphy, Weather Report or Miles LP would keep me mesmerized in front of the stereo for hours at a time, absorbing every note, reading and rereading the liner notes and repeatedly turning over the album jacket to study the photos.

These days, how often do any of us have the luxury of devoting the time required for listening like that? More typically, we get a new disc, crank it up, then proceed to tackle other tasks, cooking dinner, washing dishes, surfing the ’net. Our attention drifts elsewhere, and the music becomes secondary. About the only time we have to really pay attention to the music is in the car. Oh, wait, in the car we are supposed to be paying attention to the road and not analyzing the intricacies of a hard-blown sax solo.

But why don’t we allow ourselves to be lured into that magical midnight world like we used to? Is it merely a time issue, or are other factors involved?

Jazz bassist and noted audio designer Mark Levinson talks about a “disconnect” with music we began to experience with the onslaught of the digital age. He says the human brain has a difficult time trying to reassemble the digitally sampled and chopped smooth wave forms of music, making it impossible to achieve the same level of connection to recorded music we experience with analog. He contends the brain just says, “Stop!”.

How as sound wave in analog compares to the digital version. Or why digital sound sucks.

I have to admit that, in my experience, I can trace some sort of correlation to the advent of digital with my decreased desire to spend real quality time with my music collection. Somehow, it seems, CDs can’t hold my attention the same entrancing way vinyl can. That digital sound possesses an almost-irritating quality, and that it fails to engage the listener physically and emotionally is a common sentiment in the hard core audiophile universe and helps explain why there are still dozens and dozens of turntables and plenty of new LPs on the market.

On the other hand, I’ve read much lately of how the iPod, in spite of it’s typically compressed digital files, is bringing the younger generation back to music, that the iPod is stirring a more vigorous passion for music than existed just a few years back. Certainly the variety of tunes available to anyone, anywhere, via the Web has widened the horizons, we hope, of music fans young and old. For example, I just saw an ancient TV clip, circa 1963, of a very young Frank Zappa trying to convince program host Steve Allen that bicycle spokes played with a double bass bow did, indeed constitute a musical instrument. Without the Internet, I would probably never have seen this priceless encounter.

Frank Zappa on Steve Allen's TV program, circa 1963.

But perhaps the real reason for this renewed interest in “the music” is the way the iPod allows for more concentrated listening; it might not be hi-fi, but who cares? The music is right there, and, as riders of mass transit can attest, the iPod creates an intensely personal listening environment where some real musical communion can take place, not unlike that which took place in the darkened living room wombs of our youth.

I’ve also read that the iPod might just help lead some of today’s young music lovers into the world of the audiophile. Perhaps, thanks to the increased storage capacity of tomorrow’s hard drives, they will spurn the low-fi MP3 for the higher quality sound offered by lossless compression schemes or even non-compressed sound files. Or maybe it will lead them to the joys of analog sound and those 12-inch album jackets.

There is no question that better reproduction can make listening more fun; as I recently learned, the better you can hear, the better you can listen. Taking that one step further—and into the realm of this column—the better the playback equipment, the better you can hear. That is, as long as we don’t let the pursuit of the equipment get in the way of the our real goal.

Too many audiophiles allow their quest for better sounding components to displace their ability to just sit back and enjoy the music. One must not let the gear-bug take over, but rather, let the music itself do the talking. In the right context, a low-fi iPod can hit the mark just as easily as a megabuck speaker can miss it.

To get a broader perspective on these ideas regarding the enjoyment of good music, enjoying good audio equipment and striking a healthy balance between the two, I’ve been eavesdropping a bit on several audio-oriented Internet bulletin boards (www.audioasylum.com and stereophile.com). Though there are still plenty of techno-geeks who will never get the musical part of the equation, there are just as many audiophiles who understand that the music is what matters most.

One perceptive contributor summed up his personal epiphany this way:

“Musicality is my current goal for my system. I recently spent a good chunk of change on component changes. These changes provided a great wealth of detail and I found myself constantly saying to myself, ‘Man was that really cool.’

“A funny thing happened over time, though. I found myself actually listening to my system for shorter lengths of time. All of that detail was wearing me out. I then visited a well-respected audio designer and manufacturer. He came over one Saturday to listen to my system. I then went and listened to his. I was surprised at how sterile my system sounded. It is so easy to get addicted to detail.

“Like he said to me: ‘How many people go listen to live music and say “Man, did you hear how detailed that was.”’ I have since changed my system with musicality being my paramount focus. I’m now back to enjoying music again.

“It seems to me that we can sometimes forget that our systems are tools, to get at, and to the music, nothing more and nothing less. If we get too wrapped up in trying to hear if one cable sounds better than another cable, or whatever, we are missing the music and that is kinda sad.”

Musicality is a quality often thrown about on this site to describe a component’s ability to convey some key aspects of the experience of live music. But what does this term really connote? Another participant in this ongoing Web discussion tries to explain it by first quoting a definition of the term given by the godfather of audiophiles, J. Gordon Holt, then attempting to explain how the word is used in regards to evaluating components:

“ ‘Musical, musicality: A personal judgment as to the degree to which reproduced sound resembles live music. Real musical sound is both accurate and euphonic, consonant and dissonant.’

“I suspect that many uses of ‘musical’ in the audio review context somehow attempt to relate to this. Do we relax while listening to come out of the session vibrant, charged, stimulated? Or do we emerge somehow ill at ease, tight, or rattled?

“If so, then this use of such an amorphous term points at an important quality. How does listening to music make us feel—not necessarily the music, per se, but the act of listening? A simile, perhaps, would be watching a movie that’s ever so slightly out of focus. You can still enjoy the movie for itself but the act of watching it isn’t entirely relaxed and free of effort.”

His point here is that, by removing the “unmusical” aspects of a listening session—an extreme example might be the clicks, pops and scratches of poorly maintained vinyl, though inaccurate reproduction of any sort can help destroy the illusion—we can more fully derive the soul-charging benefits music has to offer.

Another revelation I had while contemplating all of these complex issues, is that, though even within this site I frequently state that one system or another presents the sensation of a performer being in the living room, few if any recordings present music in a way that can honestly mimic live musicians, at least not from the perspective of an audience member at a club or concert hall—the modern recording process just does not offer that simulacrum, or at most, very rarely. This has more to do with the artificial acoustic environment the recording presents than with your system’s ability to convey the sound of an instrument in a believably accurate manner.

This was made clear to me recently when I heard a bootlegged audience recording of a prominent contemporary recording artist whose concerts I’ve attended on several occasions. At first the music sounded indistinct and distant, not at all like the close-miked, up-front-and-personal commercial live recordings I was used to and love dearly. Then I realized the commercial sessions, though exciting and full of detail, are, in a way, not honest. They present the music more from the performer’s perspective and not the audience’s: the detailed, woody sound of the drummer’s sticks on the cymbals, the too-close, almost dead sound of the piano, are all artificially microscopic in a manner of speaking, not what you’d typically hear listening to live music from the audience.

In contrast, the audience recording in question proffers a more lifelike portrait of the music, replete with all the reverberant acoustical information of the concert hall—the impression is more true to what you might get sitting in the tenth row instead of on top of the piano. Similarly, I attended a classical concert a few nights ago and was unable to “hear the rosin on the bow” as so many audio critics proclaim they can when reviewing a particularly revealing component, a phenomenon likewise resulting from ultra-close miking during the recording. Rather, I heard the same slightly distant blending of instruments echoed in the acoustic of the venue that I heard on that bootleg. That is what real, live music sounds like, though few commercial recordings pull the mikes far enough away from the instruments to create this more lifelike perspective.

So, since our records don’t convey a true reflection of live music, can we expect our stereos to do so? Well, of course not, not really. However, as mentioned earlier, better components can make listening much more fun. And they can do a better job of properly reproducing the details of individual instruments and vocal styles which, in a sense, is what we talk about when we say a great component can make a musician come alive in our living room. Sure, an iPod will play the music, but a tricked-out tube amp and a pair of properly designed speakers will pull us in much closer to the musician and the tonality, dynamics and feel of the playing. In the same way, a Kia will get our bodies from one city to another, but the experience of driving is enhanced exponentially when we take that same trip in a BMW. It’s just a hell of a lot more exciting, exhilarating and maybe just a bit more soulful.

Another bulletin board commentator puts it this way: “As for live sound being the gold standard…well, we have to have something to calibrate our ears to. But most studio recordings aren’t going to sound much like it. If a recording lets you hear the soul of the music, then it’s good. If it doesn’t then it ain’t.”

The soul of the music. That’s what it really comes down to. We gather around this site because we love music, and if we are lucky enough to have our hearing unimpaired, then we owe it to ourselves to, at least on occasion, take the time for some real listening, listening without the distraction of the kitchen, the phone or anything else—a peaceful time during which we can attempt to connect with the soul of the music.

Music to, or in, one's ears???

And remember that our ability to listen, or the way we perceive what we are hearing, is a complex matter, tied into every aspect of our lives. One Audio Asylum “inmate” posits it this way: “Some days my system sounds wonderful, while other times less so. I wonder how much stress, moods, concentration, etcetera, affect our enjoyment.” He forgot to mention, though, that music has the power to correct some of those negative outside influences, at least once you get to that admittedly sometimes elusive soul of the music.

Will a better system help with that connection and better that enjoyment? Generally speaking, I think the answer to that is a resounding YES! Though better equipment is only a vehicle for the music and should not become the focus of our listening, it can certainly enhance our ability to peer into the music with just a bit more clarity.

The ear is the most important audio component we can possess.

But most importantly, we need to remember how to listen. Really listen. Pull out a stack of favorites and turn down the lights, turn off the phone. Then treasure the experience, the ability to hear the music in the first place, not to be taken for granted, because, as I found out the hard way, a day without music is truly like a day without sunshine. The ultimate lesson I learned is that our ears are certainly the best audio equipment we possess.

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