Know Thyself: Audio Existentialism
And if you're an audiophile . . . holy crap. You have so much more to worry about. It's ridiculous. A hundred obvious and absurd things could be making your system sound bad, and you might not even realize it.
For decades, I asked myself: How do I know if the music I'm playing and the sounds my system is making are worthy of my attention? Often, playing records made me feel restless and discontent. Eventually, I understood: These questions and feelings are the core of audio's lonely existential anguish.
If you're seeking your first truly high-performance stereo, you must begin by examining your personality and tastes. Why? Because you can't find what you're not looking for. Reading reviews and listening to systems at your local audio salon will be pretty much meaningless until you understand precisely what kind of music playback you actually need. Yes, need.
Aspiring audiophiles need to self-reflect. Are you traditionally masculine? That is, do you like your music loud and forceful? Do you admire precision and clarity? Do you think good form is a moral imperative? Are you aroused by definition and control? When you listen, do you stare at the space between the speakers?
Perhaps you're more feminine. Are you turned on by mystery, hidden powers, and what you don't understand? Do you aspire to beauty? Given a choice, would you trade clarity and detail for rich, painterly color? When you listen, do you close your eyes and see pictures in your head?
If you can identify your personality type on this continuum of gender, you're halfway to finding your own "essence" in the existential realm of listening to music in the home.
Likewise, fine art has been categorized into gendered types: disegno (hard and male) and colorito (soft and female).
Disegno artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael emphasize line and form, using well-drawn shapes and compositions as containers for moral concepts. Color and sensuality are suppressed. What color there is is used rather locally and descriptively (green trees, blue sky, etc.). Paint is applied evenly, not expressively. This type of art, also called linear, reflects a tradition of solidity, reason, and conceptuality over feeling.
In contrast, colorito artists, such as Titian and Giorgione, showcase saturated color, expressive brushwork, and misty atmospheres. Colorito art is about poetry, mystery, reverie, with color employed to suggest feelings and states of mind. This art, also described as painterly, usually features feminine sexual forces operating in a floating, shifting world.
Fashion designers, and Italian automobile designers such as Pininfarina and Bertone, also work within these philosophies. Unwittingly, so do most audio manufacturers, who are forced to chooseor find a balancebetween science and art. Should they focus on test-bench engineering and aim for clean, low-distortion sound? Or opt for something more like gourmet cooking, choosing design topologies and components for their color, texture, and flavor?
Feelings or facts, yin or yang, earthly or heavenly, Apollo or Dionysiusthese are ancient dichotomies. Appreciating music and buying audio gear can be much easier when you know your own position in these philosophical matters.
As I get older, I become more suspicious of so-called "facts," and more willing to sit and examine the feelings I'm having. When I listen to recorded music, sonic facts usually assert themselves in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. How skillfully the music was recorded and how effortlessly it is being reproduced are unavoidable realities that I am forced to enjoy or disregard.
Usually, I can spot pretty easily the disegno/factual stuff. More difficult for my mind to access are the music's colorito aspects: atmosphere, tonal color, poetic intention. Therefore, I insist on being able to recognize and feel the musical energy in the room. I need to "see" the tones, and feel the music's weight, its bodyits reality. I need to sense the instruments' metal and wood, imagine the moisture on the singer's tongue. I want to connect with the attitude of the musiciansby which I mean my need to identify the humanness in the music. In science, these types of needs are called "intangibles."
Typically, music strives to direct our attention toward these types of intangiblesmost often, ones like death, love, loss, and freedom. That is why people make art in general, and music in particular. And that is why we listen to it.
But identifying and appreciating these intangibles requires a more deliberate and cultured self-awareness. It demands more sophisticated listening skills that require extended time and patience to develop.
The ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself" was once inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. I believe that knowing what sort of personality type you are, and exactly what one needs to be happy, are the best antidotes to most of audio's existential dilemmas. This knowledge is also the secret to knowing if the music you are playing, and the sound of that music as reproduced by an audio system, are worthy of your attention.Herb Reichert