It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Schwing

Epiphanies only come when you stop looking for them, and mine came in a room full of preschoolers watching cartoons at a Pizza Hut. I was taking my little nieces Alix (4) and Casey (1) out for dinner, and the last thing on my mind was audio; we wanted to PARTY! So my girlfriend Dara and I bundled them up in their car-seats and we high-tailed it over to the Hut, with visions of continuous-loop Tom'n'Jerry and cheap buffet pizza dancing in our heads.

The Pizza Hut near their house has a Kiddie Klub room off the main dining area, with pint-sized tables and chairs all set up in front of a big-screen TV showing endless Popeye, Chilly Willy, and Mr. Magoo cartoons. Aside from the overpowering smell of a billion little stinky feet, the Kiddie Klub room is a thoroughly modern multimedia room, just like those setups in Audio/Video Interiors.

Now, I know most readers think that Stereophile reviewers never stop thinking about the audio quality of their surroundings, whether listening to a fine high-end rig or judging the palpability of an 18-wheeler's exhaust, but believe it or not, we do. And as I sat there trying to wipe the tomato sauce out of Casey's hair while she spilled lemonade down the front of my pants, I wasn't even vaguely aware of the musical soundtrack playing along with Tom'n'Jerry; it was just inconsequential sub-thought background noise accompanying the hilarious hi-jinx on the big-screen.

Suddenly, with my mind on something entirely different, I became aware that the pitch of the music was quite wobbly, as if the reels of the dubbing projector had been dragging during the transfer to video. The piano music that hadn't even registered in my consciousness five minutes ago was now suddenly and painfully out of tune, to the extent that I sat there critiquing the problems with the sound while Casey went about wiping her sauce-covered hands all over my shirt.

Why hadn't the pitch instability of the cartoon's soundtrack even registered before, much less bothered me? Because the piece of music that showed up the problems was one I WAS INTIMATELY FAMILIAR WITH, AND LIKED: Chopin's Scherzo in b-flat, Op.31, the very same piece recorded by JA on the Stereophile Test CD! The other piano music on the cartoon was unknown to me, so it just went in one ear and out the other; when the Chopin came on, my attention was riveted by natural familiarity, and I heard distortions in the audio I wasn't even listening for.

Look, I know that expecting high-quality audio from a cartoon soundtrack is like expecting chain pizza to taste like Ray's Famous in NYC. But my experience at the Hut made me reassess my own views on "critical" listening, an issue I've been wrestling with ever since I started writing for Stereophile a year ago last April.

In The Beginning, I was a music lover. I had a crappy system, a ton of rock'n'roll records, and I was happy as a clam! But my grade-school buddy John Hauser had an older brother who'd set up a Bang & Olufsen rig in their basement, and between our marathon football games and listening to the Dead's Terrapin Station over and over again, I got hooked on good sound. The music coming out of that early B&O system sounded so much warmer and clearer than the all-in-one "record changer" in my bedroom, I had to put together a decent rig of my own. And once I did, I became a true believer; Better Sound = More Music.

But then this British guy called JA came along and spoiled everything. He hired me to be an "audio reviewer," which meant I had to Listen Critically to pieces of audio gear and write authoritative reviews encapsulating my subjective opinions on their performance.

In other words, THE FUN WAS OVER.

Whereas before, I'd throw on Axis: Bold As Love and travel to the gem-encrusted moons of Saturn, now I was sitting bolt upright in my listening seat, careful not to sit anywhere but dead center of the sweete spotte, filling a yellow legal pad with serious notes about such parameters as soundstaging, midrange liquidity, and the relative grain levels vis-à-vis the Device Under Test's similarly priced competition.

And the music I thought I needed to use to judge all these important things with? Well, I certainly couldn't use Hendrix; that would've been CRAZY, man! All the elitist reviewers I read in Stereophile and TAS used Audiophile-Approved music to judge their gear. Jimi wasn't recorded with purist miking, silver cables, and 128x-oversampling; how could I possibly hear all the wonders of the high-end gear I was supposed to review if I used such funky, seemingly low-rez records as 1968's Axis?

So I didn't. I got ahold of a slew o' Audiophile-Approved recordings: Clark Terry on Chesky, the Hanson Conducts Hanson Mercury Living Presence reissue, etc. And whenever I sat down to review some gear, that's what I listened to. The Hendrix, the Muddy Waters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds—all that dropped off my daily listening menu, in the interest of "critical listening." Almost immediately, I found myself dreading the chore of listening to my system, despite the sheer fun of writing for Stereophile. It had became a total drag. Why?


I'm not saying they were bad, per se; far from it. These discs give some people a lot of musical pleasure. But Carol Kidd jauntily toodle-ooing over some EZ-time standards just isn't my groove thang, and no matter how vividly imaged her voice was in my living room, I didn't give a rat's ass. If I couldn't get off to the music, I didn't care how good it sounded.

You read about Stereophile's 2nd Annual Betty Crocker Speaker Cook-Off in the May issue, where JA, RH, GL, DO, RL, TJN, the Mod Squad's Steve McCormack, and I blind-tackled ten pairs of mid-priced speakers in two mind-bending listening sessions. Tom Norton organized the entire event, as he did last year's undertaking. Coordinating the blind-listening of ten pairs of speakers, matching all the levels, humping the gear, and calculating the final scores is a Herculean task, and Tom handled it all without a hitch. TJN, my turban's off to you.

HOWEVER, I've got to say that, in all my years listening to music, I have never experienced more stress, annoyance, discomfort, and just out-and-out disorientation as I did those two days we all spent in the Stereophile listening room. And it all comes back to the parable of the Pizza Hut cartoon.

The listening sessions consisted of around ten 1.5-minute musical excerpts from a variety of Audiophile-Approved recordings, all recorded onto a JVC R-DAT machine so TJN wouldn't have to get up to load, cue up, and remove all the individual CDs like he had to at last year's event. To Tom's credit, he tried to include a sampling of many different types of music: solo piano, female vocal, percussion, and orchestral. To Tom's debit, he included no rock, blues, or soul music—the very stuff that makes me (and most of the others in the room) go schwing! (footnote 1).

We had a somber piano piece I wasn't familiar with. Some orchestral bombast I'd never heard before. And, Holy Mother of Pearl, we had AMANDA McBROOM, chanteuse non parallel, singing some wimpy-ass fluff about riding in a wheelbarrow with God or something like that, with just about the hokeyest arrangement I've ever heard. The only thing that was even mildly interesting to me musically was the drum recording Bob Harley had made at VTL's cool-man all-tube recording studio in California, and even then I couldn't really sink my teeth into it. Sure, it was a bitchin' recording, but it was just some guy randomly and non-rhythmically hitting all the various skins, "demo-record" style. In fact, the guy started really cooking at the end, but the R-DAT master suddenly faded down to silence just as he began doing something hip; every time that track was played, most of us said something like, "Aw, man! He was just starting to play something!" As RH and I concurred after it was all over, nothing we heard during the listening sessions had any meat on its bones.

So what effect did all of this have on my ability to judge the speakers behind the veil? You wanna know the truth? After awhile, I COULDN'T REALLY HEAR ANY DIFFERENCES AT ALL BETWEEN VASTLY DIFFERENT SPEAKERS WITH VASTLY DIFFERENT MEASURED PERFORMANCES! I am totally serious; after a couple of hours, they all sounded the same to me. I didn't give the slightest damn about the speakers, the listening, or anything else but BOLTING out of that room! With apologies to JA, I was not a very good judge.

So what did I glean from all this crap? My own Listener's Manifesto, which is:

1) The only way to judge audio equipment is to use it to play music which YOU love, no matter HOW "poorly recorded" you mistakenly think it is, even if you've never seen it mentioned by an elitist audio reviewer from Stereophile or TAS. ESPECIALLY if you've never seen it mentioned by an elitist audio reviewer from Stereophile or TAS.

2) There is no music, no matter how well-recorded, that will tell you what you need to know about a piece of gear as well as something you've listened to hundreds of times and still dig the most—whether it's Booker T. & the MGs, the Grateful Dead, or Shadowy Men From A Shadowy Planet. Familiarity trumps recording quality every time.

3) The harder you listen, the less you hear.

4) Amanda McBroom sucks.

So I've come full circle. After a year spent trying to be more like the elitist audio reviewers I thought I should emulate, I now reject their methods as fallacy. OUT are all the Audiophile-Approved discs I've amassed this past year, listened to in total seriousness. BACK IN are all the good old rock, blues, and jazz records I'd categorized as "OK for noncritical (read: not to review gear with) listening only"! Look, man, what's more critical than LITTLE RICHARD?! I don't give two hoots and a holler how delicately the Apogee Grands reproduce the lilting melodies of Jän Ulmstegt and Her Happy Little Dulcimer; I want to hear Little Richard scream "LUUUUU-CEEEEEEEEEAAAALL!!!!" so loud and true I can feel it resonating through my butt while I pump air-piano stabs up and down on my thighs. To me, THAT'S what the High-End Experience is all about.

It's tempting to read magazines like Stereophile and think that you have to go through all the same critical motions that the reviewers do in order to fully appreciate high-end audio gear, but that's a bunch of bull! I learned this the hard way, spending a year differentiating between "evaluating gear" with music I hated, and "listening to music" with the stuff I loved. The former is taken care of automatically by the latter. Drawing a distinction between the two is a mistake I used to make.

Do yourself a favor. Pull out the most un-audiophile, hard-rocking, meat-laden record in your collection, the one you'd least likely take along to judge a prospective purchase with. Throw it on, crank it up, and just see if your whole body doesn't FEEL better than it has in years of listening to nothing but Audiophile-Approved CRAP. I did, and I'll never go back.

Footnote 1: "Schwing" is a term of enthusiastic carnal approval, onomatopoeia for the spring-like sound of erectile tissue when rapidly filling with blood. It was coined by author/philosopher Mike Myers in his film Wayne's World, which is to my generation what Catcher in the Rye was to baby-boomers: that single defining statement that sums up a collective yearning for truth and idealism in the face of omnipresent deceit and capitalism. Robert Harley derives much of his life's guiding philosophies from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; I follow the Teachings of Wayne.—Corey Greenberg