Why Music Matters Most
The ultimate goal of the hi-fi enthusiast is the enjoyment of pre-recorded music in the home. But, strange as it may seem, hi-fi hobbyists embroil themselves in endless debate over the finer points of this enjoyment: Do cables matter? Do all amplifiers sound the same? Are LPs better than CDs? There are hundreds morejust read any Internet forum on hi-fi any day of any week. With such a seemingly simple endthe enjoyment of musicwhy so much discord and disagreement over the means?
The term hi-fi itself, short for high fidelity, may contain a few clues. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, the word fidelity means "the quality or state of being faithful"in this context, faithful to the sound of the original recorded event. Further, that ideal original event has been defined in the audio press, and is generally accepted to be, a live, acoustic performance. So when we say hi-fi, we're talking about assembling a collection of equipment and media that will faithfully reproduce a live acoustic event. The pinnacle of achievement is thus one of illusion: a reproduction that sounds so like the original event that it makes us suspend disbelief and imagine that we're listening to that event right there in our listening roomwith, necessarily, our common sense also suspended, and our eyes closed.
Of course, any form of audio reproduction is flawed from the get-go; the closest you can come to an original event is the event itself. But even though it is doomed to fail, we seem to have latched on to this idea of a convincing illusion as the holy grail of hi-fi. I often wonder why we strive to have our hi-fis fool us, especially when the illusion is so . . . illusory.
I can think of four reasons why this illusory approach is ill-considered:
music is art
a work of art is a complete and rewarding thing in itselfa painting is a painting is a painting (apologies to Ms. Stein and her rose).
the appreciation of a work of art is a highly personal experience
in determining personal enjoyment, objective criteria are meaningless.
While we can argue about which music we deem to be most artful, it's irrelevant to our discussion, so long as we can agree that music can be art. When I say that "a work of art is a thing in itself," the simplest way I know of explaining what I mean is this: The experience of looking at a painting of an apple is not the same kind of experience as looking at an apple. To start with, you can't eat the former, and the latter isn't flat. Similarly, the experience of a live acoustic event is not the same kind of experience as listening to a recording of such an event at home. Why then should we use the first to judge the quality of the second?
In other words, since listening to music on a hi-fi isn't the same kind of experience as listening to live music, criticizing hi-fi's inability to create a convincing illusion of a full orchestra or stadium-scale rock concert in my home makes as much sense as complaining about live music's inability to let me hear Jimi Hendrix open for John Coltrane tonight.
Listening to music on a hi-fi is an event in and of itself, and its success or failure lies in its ability to engage us over timeor, more simply, it lies in the listening. But waithaven't I just thrown out all objective criteria? Doesn't that leave us adrift in a sea of sonic anarchy, with people simply buying whatever they like to listen to, with no way of determining who has the good, the better, or the best hi-fi? How can we justify how much to spend? How can we compete with each other? How can we decide?
Objective criteria are meaningless in determining personal enjoyment. If the point of listening to music on a hi-fi is enjoyment (and if it isn't, you and I have nothing to discuss), and if music is art, the more meaningful experience comes about through our increased knowledge and enjoyment of music, not our increased knowledge of and fascination with hi-fi's ability to fool the ear. Trompe l'oreille?
Which brings us to the audiophilethe lover of hearing. Audiophiles put the high in high fidelity. We're not only interested in a faithful reproduction of the recorded event; it also must be an objectively more faithful reproduction than any other. Here's where most of our arguing is rooted, and it's where I think we've gone astray. If our ultimate purpose in buying a hi-fi is the appreciation of art, the process of selection becomes one of finding which hi-fi components we most like to listen to. Just as it's silly to walk through an art museum with the sole objective of finding the painting that looks most like an apple because we're hungry, when auditioning hi-fi gear, rather than search for the next best thing to being there, we need to look for the experience that feeds our love of listening to music. Besides, with painting and hi-fi we're already there.
Let's redefine high fidelity as being faithful to the passion for and discovery of music. This means that the best hi-fi is the one that perpetually fans the flame of this passion.
Listening to music on a hi-fi is one of the most luxurious uses of time there is. It's completely and totally unproductiveunless we want to count enjoyment as a factor of the Gross Domestic Product. I think some audiophiles want to believeperhaps even need to believethat hi-fi has an objective, measurable value is to alleviate their guilt over the fact that we're feeding what begins and ends as a sensual pleasure. Hi-fi's value is not its ability to create a convincing, objective and measurable illusion; its value is the ability to let us listen to whatever we want, whenever we choose, and as often as we like. Whenever I hear an audiophile utter the phrase critical listening, I'm reminded of the discreet packaging of "adult" mail-order products.
When it comes to your appreciation of art, don't listen to anyone who suggests that something he or she knows means more than your own experience. You may end up enjoying art that deviates so far from the illusion of an apple that you're left hungry for more. It's okay. People have been doing it forever. If you want a convincing illusion, bend over forward and look through your legs at the rising moon. But listening to music on a hi-fi is something I prefer to do with all my senses and imagination wide open, so that I can better revel in the passion that music demands.