Listening #95

The English public may not like music, but they absolutely love the sound it makes.—Sir Thomas Beecham

Just as car magazines are filled with descriptions of how fast their subjects don't go and how surely they don't stop, magazines such as ours are filled with descriptions of how neutrally our subjects don't play tones, and how precisely they don't place images in space.

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That's good—but not good enough. Just as the automobile's existence is motivated less by a love of going and stopping than by the fact that people have places they wish to be, so is the existence of audio gear motivated less by a desire for sound than by a desire to hear music. You could replace the last desire with a stronger word and the sentence would still be true.

My existence is motivated by the need to annually remind you: Audio gear distorts music just as surely as it distorts sound. And I don't mean the sound of the music, but rather the music itself (footnote 1). The mechanisms that make it so are understood in some corners but under-discussed in the audio press—compared, that is, to such hot topics as image specificity and the sounds of concert-hall ventilation systems. Harmonic additives alone can alter to different extents the attack and decay components of different recorded tones, altering not only the timbres and textures of musical notes but also their perceived starting and stopping points. High levels of jitter in digital sources and stylus misalignment in LP players (not to mention poor product engineering) can distort timing so subtly that the music's sense of natural flow is impeded. Dynamic compression, especially in the midrange and treble, can rob performances of their nuance and sheer humanness.

Yet there are drawbacks to writing about such things.

First, doing so is at once stultifyingly simple—there are limits to how many times, and in how many ways, one can declare a product to have or not have good musical flow—and agonizingly difficult, the latter if only because it takes time to ensure that the shortcomings we hear are created by the product under test, and not by headache, drunkenness, ambient noises, or bad moods. One reviewer colleague—the one person in my trade whom I admire above all others—recently confided that he concentrates on such things as image specificity simply because "Otherwise, I would never be able to write anything" (my emphasis).

Second, there's the small matter of credibility. When some reviewers wax poetic about sandy-tan trebles, caramel-colored midrange tones, or one product's image placement being more "real" than another's—when, in fact, precisely located instrumental images have nothing whatsoever to do with the sound of music in a concert hall—most high-end readers accept it as gospel. Yet when I or a handful of other writers talk about momentum in record players, or about one preamplifier having less pitch certainty than another, we're often derided by the same sorts of people who, whenever they think someone's watching, conspicuously raise their glasses to MUSIC!

Indeed, writing about imaging, groove noise, aliasing, clipping, and caramel colorations (all of which, again, are foreign concepts to real composers, performers, and musicologists) has a rightful place in the reviewing of playback gear. And it always will. But relying exclusively on those sorts of things can cause one's erstwhile knack for understanding and appreciating music—for critical listening—to shrivel up and die.

I also worry that, for some people, time spent reading Stereophile or one of our junky competitors can lead to the belief that, when it comes to critical listening, audio reviewers are more insightful than the average person when it comes to critical listening. Honestly and without hyperbole, I would rather a person believe in directional AC conductors or the possibility of magnetized vinyl (pace everyone) than to swallow such nonsense.

Critical listening has everything to do with music and nothing to do with sound. Critical listening is learning how to identify and understand intervals, harmonies, motifs, modes, and keys—and the reasons composers and musical improvisers might use them. Critical listening is learning something about the history of music and relating it to other arts and events. Critical listening is recognizing Ralph Stanley's shape-note singing, or the connection between 12-tone composing and the structures of Charlie Parker's sax solos, or the things that really distinguish a good conductor from a bad one.

Let me make it plain: If you think that critical listening has anything to do with listening for colorations, microdynamics, or "locating images in space," I pity you. You've wasted a chunk of your life learning not how to understand music but how to imitate your favorite audio reviewer. That's pathetic.

There is an alternative.



Footnote 1: Some listeners would tell you that modern audio gear distorts music much more than it distorts sound, just as surely as the inverse was true of very early audio gear.
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