As We See It: Between the Ears

Audiophiles constantly seek ways to improve the experience of hearing reproduced music. Preamps are upgraded, digital processors are compared, turntables are tweaked, loudspeaker cables are auditioned, dealers are visited, and, yes, magazines are read—all in the quest to get just a little closer to the music.

These pursuits have one thing in common: they are all attempts by physical means to enjoy music more. But there's another way of achieving that goal that is far more effective than any tweak, better than any component upgrade, and more fulfilling even than having carte blanche in the world's finest high-end store. And it's free.

I'm talking about what goes on between our ears when listening, not what's impinging on them. Our ability—or lack of—to clear the mind of distractions and let the music speak to us has a huge influence on how much we enjoy music. Have you ever wondered why, on the same system and recordings, there is a vast range of involvement in the music? The only variable is the listener's state of mind.

Because audiophiles care about sound quality, we are often more susceptible than usual to allowing interfering thoughts get in the music's way. These thoughts are usually concerned with aspects of the sound's characteristics. Does the soundstage lack depth? Does the bass have enough extension? Is the treble grainy? How does my system compare to those described in magazines?

Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is perpetuated by high-end audio magazines. The descriptions of a product's sound—its specific performance attributes—are what make it into print, not the musical and emotional satisfaction to which the product contributes. The latter is ineffable: words cannot express the bond between listener and music that some products facilitate more than others. Consequently, we are left only with descriptions of specific sonic characteristics, a practice that can leave the impression that, as described by Martin Colloms in his essay on pace and rhythm elsewhere in this issue, being an audiophile is about dissection and critical commentary, and not about more closely connecting with the music's meaning.

A few months after I became an audio reviewer (and a much more critical listener), I underwent a kind of crisis similar to that described by Corey Greenberg in last July's "As We See It." Corey related how, after he became a reviewer, he lost interest in listening to music. His experience was strikingly similar to mine: I, too, found myself no longer enjoying music the way I once did. Listening became a chore, an occupational necessity, rather than the deeply moving experience that made me choose a career in audio. While Corey's disaffection came from feeling that he should listen to audiophile recordings instead of his favorite music, my dilemma was precipitated by the mistaken impression that whenever I heard music I had to have an opinion about the quality of reproduction. Music became secondary to sound. Music was merely an assemblage of parts, something to be dismantled and studied, not something that spoke to me emotionally. If this was common among high-end reviewers, could it also afflict other audiophiles? (footnote 1)

I found, however, that only after I'd turned in the month's reviews did the party begin. I stopped being a critic and became a music lover again. I played favorite records, not those that would tell me what the equipment was doing. The music as a whole, not the sound as an assemblage of artifacts, once again became the object of my attention. It was as though an enormous burden had been lifted. I made up for lost time in those few days before the inevitable return to reviewing as the next month's products were set up for critical auditioning.

Here I was with a custom-built listening room, racks full of the world's finest audio reproduction equipment, and a job in which I spent a good deal of my time listening, yet most of the time I wasn't enjoying the music. My cheap car stereo gave more musical satisfaction. Something was dreadfully wrong.

This experience precipitated a catharsis that forced me to reexamine what music listening—among other things—was all about. I decided to forget about the sound for the vast majority of the listening time and let the music tell me which components were better than others. Critical listening and analytical reasoning became secondary to musical enjoyment. I began listening to music I liked, rather than diagnostic recordings that would tell me about the product's specific characteristics. The impulse to disassemble, listen to the sound, and constantly form judgments gradually disappeared.

The result is that I now enjoy music more than at any other time of my life. Better sound does result in more music, but paradoxically, only when the sound is forgotten. Moreover, this conversion increased my listening and reviewing skills: I now have a much better feeling for which products will produce long-term musical satisfaction.

Nevertheless, analytical listening using particularly revealing recordings must remain a vital part of the reviewing process. Similarly, conveying the specific sonic characteristics of products under review is essential—potential purchasers should know what the product sounds like and decide if it's what they're looking for. But this type of diagnostic analysis no longer dominates—it has become merely one aspect of reviewing. Moreover, I came to realize that the information gained by analytical reasoning is a lower form of knowledge and that the feeling about a product's quality—its ability to convey the music—is a higher form of knowledge.

These experiences point to a deeper problem of how rationality and the impulse toward dissection as the vehicle to understanding pervades Western thought. Traditional rationality views a whole as a collection of parts. The need to dissect, classify, and assign hierarchal structure is the very foundation of rationality. Our Western upbringing makes it seem so natural that any entity is merely an assemblage of component parts. Why should reproduced music be any different? Consequently, we hear in reproduced music treble, bass, midrange, soundstage, detail, and air. But how often at a live concert do you dismantle the sound the same way you do when listening to a hi-fi? I don't know about you, but I never experience live music in terms of tonal balance, depth, lack of grain, or other characteristics we assign to reproduced sound.

Consider two approaches to knowing a flower. Traditional rationality would pick it, dissect it, classify its parts, and attempt to understand and document its mechanisms. Another way to know the flower would be to just sit and look at it, appreciating its beauty, discovering subtleties in shape, color, smell, and texture, and just absorbing its essence. The first method produces one kind of knowing—an important one, to be sure—but it isn't a complete knowledge.

Moreover, doesn't the first method destroy something in the process—namely, the flower? After the dissection is finished we find ourselves left with nothing. This is why I no longer enjoyed music; the analytical dismantling consumed the very thing I was trying to know. Corey expressed this in the Third Tenet of his Listener's Manifesto: "The harder you listen, the less you hear." By allowing intellectual thought to intrude, the oneness of music and listener is destroyed.

The great accomplishments of rationality—making reproduced music possible in the first place, for example—produces a hubris that tempts one to overlook the virtues of nonrational experience. Rationality can point to its achievements as "proof" of its superiority. The kind of knowing produced by nonrational experience can point to no physical manifestations of its value. Instead, the worth is completely internal and unknowable by anyone who hasn't experienced it firsthand (footnote 2).

But it isn't just listening analytically to the sound that interferes with musical enjoyment. Any intellectual activity diminishes the experience. It is the quality of the listening experience that matters—the here and now—not an assignment of value as measured against some standard promulgated by hi-fi magazines, comparisons with other systems, or anything else that distracts from the music.

I see an analogy with a hobby of mine—motorcycle touring. I bought a new Honda Gold Wing Aspencade in 1987 and have ridden it many enjoyable miles. The very next year, it was completely redesigned, with a six-cylinder, 1520cc engine (instead of my four-cylinder, 1200cc motor), reverse gear, and many other features and refinements. The motorcycle magazines raved about the new Wing, particularly in comparison with the older version I had.

But when my wife and I tour the American Southwest, am I thinking how much better it would be on the new model? Does the existence of the better motorcycle diminish in any way our touring enjoyment?

Not a chance. What would diminish the experience, however, is allowing our immediate pleasure to be intruded upon by external and irrelevant thoughts about the past (I should have waited for the new model) or future (how can I afford one?).

It's the same with music reproduction equipment. The Krell KSA-250, for example, is a much better amplifier than the KSA-200. But if you own a KSA-200, should you enjoy music any less after the KSA-250 comes out? It's a ridiculous supposition. The KSA-200 performs no differently after the KSA-250 is introduced. It brought musical pleasure when you bought it—why should it produce any less pleasure now? It's purely a state of mind.

There's nothing wrong with being dissatisfied with your system; that's what fuels improvement. And a better system does produce a deeper musical experience. But you shouldn't enjoy music any less if your system falls short of a friend's system, or if you don't have the latest hot product, or if the sound doesn't equal that described in magazines. These things are artificial constructs tacked on to reality, not the reality itself. What really matters is the experience—immediate, here-and-now existence. All other thoughts or intellectual abstractions diminish our potential for a oneness with the music.

In this way of thinking (or, more precisely, not thinking), musical fulfillment is no longer dependent on external means. Yes, the technology that brings music into our homes is physical and external, but satisfaction cannot be experienced purely through the equipment, no matter how good it is. Instead, getting closer to the music is a special interaction between music and listener, the equipment merely serving as intermediary. Without this state of mind, no level of equipment will provide us with what we seek. My temporary lack of musical enjoyment, despite having a custom-built room filled with topnotch products, affirmed this truism.

By all means, continue critiquing and upgrading your system—it can be a path to more musical enjoyment. But when a favorite record goes on the turntable and the lights dim, forget about cables, preamps, tweaks, and magazines. At that moment, the only thing that really matters is the music.—Robert Harley

Footnote 1: This syndrome may be more acute among reviewers: not only do our value judgments appear in print every month, but those value judgments guide our readers and carry large financial consequences—positive and negative—for the manufacturers whose products we review. The burden of responsibility and fairness—to readers, manufacturers, and the truth—is enormous. Reviewers may thus be more prone to "try hard" to be right, rather than letting the music speak to them. A Zen master once asked a Western audience what the most important word in the English language was. After coming up with the predictable answers like "love" and "truth," the master said that while these were important words, the most important word in the English language was "let."

Footnote 2: A remark I made recently encouraging readers to listen to the review products themselves seems appropriate here: "Why speak of that which can be known only by experience?"