The Sound Of Music

"Most people really don't like music—they just like the way it sounds"

At first blush, the above statement might strike one as the verbal equivalent of a fur-lined teacup. Its capacity to startle and amuse derives from its nonsensical, even absurd, nature.

However, on closer examination, this bon mot carries within it an important truth that perhaps can shed light on the current state of melancholy and angst among those who make and sell equipment dedicated to re-creating music—and music alone—in the home.

Years ago, it was said that anyone who knew enough to be a good computer salesperson could make more money as a computer consultant, that anyone who knew enough to be a good computer consultant could make more money as a computer programmer, and that anyone who knew enough to be a good computer programmer could make more money running his or her own software company.

Leaving aside the issue of whether this dynamic operates to promote people above their level of competence; it does show that people who are acting as rational economic actors usually migrate in the direction of more money. Rare indeed is the "stereo shop" of yore that has been able to survive, let alone prosper, without making some kind of accommodation in the direction of home theater.

I don't fault anyone for doing whatever is necessary to keep in business. My point in this essay is that those of us who care mostly about music as a necessary source of beauty and truth need to do a much better job of defining terms, establishing and respecting boundaries, and gently persuading people that good audio is worth taking trouble over, because good audio can get you closer to the soul of good music—if you're willing to pay attention. Otherwise, local audio stores will keep closing, and we should resign ourselves to such minority-enthusiasm status as is accorded the Latin Mass, wooden boats, and chess.

Just like the computer salesperson who became a consultant, many former audio shops have learned that there is more money to be had, and with less fuss, by designing and installing home theaters. Mutatis mutandis, many home-theater designers now have branched out into whole-home automation, lighting control, motorized window shades, and the like. They are migrating with the money.

As far as enjoying music from two-channel sources goes, the major problem I have experienced in most home theaters is that a room that has been acoustically optimized for surround sound for movies will sound rather lifeless and uninvolving playing back two-channel audio. Tonally, this is because the reverberation time is too short. Spatially, such a room's related lack of reflective and diffusive surfaces robs the room of the ability to create the illusion of acoustical "envelopment" from two-channel sources that a good, dedicated listening room can. My rule of thumb is that a room optimized for stereo will usually sound acceptable for movies, and that that is a better compromise than optimizing for movies and getting poor-sounding stereo.

Many whole-home projects do include multizone music throughout the home, and this, one would think, should be a good thing both for music and the audio business. But the problems with this approach are twofold. First, audio quality is usually compromised in such settings. The speakers are usually located in walls and ceilings, are not full-range, and often, little or no attention is given to room acoustics. Furthermore, the audio quality of the program sources (such as music channels on cable) is often middling.

Second, the entire philosophy of "music throughout the home" is that the music is just there, an accompaniment to other activities rather than a focus of attention in itself. For this philosophy to work as designed, neither the music nor the audio system should call attention to itself, or make demands on peoples' intellects, emotions, or souls—that would interrupt the other activities.

"What's that soft but slightly tinkly noise in the background?"

"Let me look. Ah, it's the Goldberg Variations. You were saying . . . ?"

That is the Great Divide, the watershed, the line in the sand: Are the music and the music system intended to provide accompaniment to other activities (such as conversation, cocktails, housework, or reading), or are they intended to be a focus of attention in and of themselves?

As I think many retailers have discovered, people who want music to accompany other activities are not interested in the equipment in and of itself as a hobby, nor are they all that much interested in music in and of itself. As long as the equipment sounds noticeably better than the overhead speakers at the supermarket, where Steely Dan accompanies your provisioning, customers are happy.

Years ago, if you wanted music to accompany other activities, you had to get a regular stereo just like everyone else. It would often be located in the living room, and was played loudly enough to be heard in the kitchen or elsewhere. Now, you can command audio in a room as easily as switching on a light.

This is where Sir Thomas Beecham's quip, which I paraphrased at the beginning, reveals itself as prophetic. People who aren't passionately involved in the search for the deepest meanings to be extracted from a composition or performance really don't like music; they just like the way it sounds. And if you just like the way music sounds rather than what it might mean, a decent mid-fi system—or in-wall speakers—will be good enough. It is only when the search for meaning becomes paramount that we hunger and thirst to extract from a recording every last nuance of dynamics and detail.

If we want to keep on making and selling (and writing about) fine audio equipment, we have to help people recover the lost skill of paying attention, for considerable periods of time, to something other than television; we have to help people discover that there is meaning in music above and beyond the way it happens to sound; and we have to show people that fine audio equipment helps you get those deeper meanings.

High-end audio dealers can act in their own enlightened self-interest by hosting "listening nights" at which compositions that will be performed live within the community in the near future can be previewed—and not necessarily in the store. A small hall or auditorium will be more impressive and seat more people. Enlist a local classical DJ or music professor to provide commentary. Or, invite young student musicians in to hear how the pieces they're working on are supposed to sound. How about a discount program for professional musicians and music educators? Lots of families spend hundreds or thousands on music lessons and instruments. They should be good prospects for affordable but good dedicated audio systems. The possibilities are not really endless, but they are substantial and underutilized.

Reaching out without dumbing down is always a tough nut to crack, but the alternative should be obvious.