Magic Picture Shows

Axiomatically, audiophile audio is about quality of reproduced sound. Experientially though—for me at least—it's about visions in the mind's eye. The older I get, the more attentively I listen to recordings, the more importance I assign to the myriad moving pictures I see between my speakers.

As I walk about my garden under the dome of city noise and sky, the mixed sounds that enter my brain are of two types: those whose source is within my field of vision, and those I can't see directly but can still picture in my mind. Every time I hear a jet passing overhead, I'm aware of "seeing" a jet without looking up.

My partner, bb, says I didn't actually see that jet—the one that made the noise. She says I see a composite of all the jets I've watched pass south to north on their descent to LaGuardia Airport. I wonder, how does she know? Maybe I did see that jet. When I ask bb why my mind sees a jet, she says, "It's a survival thing."

If I hear a siren, depending on the pitch and timbre of its sound, I "see" a firetruck, an ambulance, or a police car. My brain routinely and effectively converts distant sounds into clear moving pictures that skip briefly through my consciousness, interrupting my awareness of whatever I was previously observing.

Except for the occasional racket of chickens fussing or bees buzzing, the garden itself is quiet. Except for the occasional jet passing or siren screaming, my listening room is quiet in that same, contemplation-inducing way, especially at night. In my listening room, most of the sounds I convert to pictures pulse from a pair of foot-tall boxes that guard the entrance to a rack of audio hardware and a volume of cluttered space wherein I've seen whole operas, jazz acts in smoky basement clubs, the stage at Woodstock, monks chanting in temples, and drummers in front of desert tents. For me, the main excitement of audiophile audio lies in the magic picture shows it presents.

No matter how much I jabber on in my columns and reviews about the "sound of sound," the "intensity of sound," or the "beauty of sound," what I am experiencing—what dominates my attention—is some manner of audio holography that rouses me to imagine I am "watching" some event taking place somewhere.

For example: When I listen to "Balloon Payment," the first track on The Ready Made Boomerang by Pauline Oliveros's Deep Listening Band, I am always looking out from a microphone set at the same height as, and maybe 3' away from, an inflated, dark-gray balloon mounted on a black tripod framed by the rusty-orange iron wall of the empty, million-gallon steel cistern (dubbed "the Cistern Chapel") that this track (and the rest of the album) was recorded in. As the recording starts, I savor the attack of the initial, gunshot-like pop and that first loud whoosh of escaping air. After that, I track every reverberating millisecond of these sounds' 44-second echo-decay.

It is only when I stop picturing, step back, and ask myself why a recording is so captivating (or not) that I begin noticing sound as physical energy pulsing from my speakers. When that happens, I have stepped out of my lucid-listening consciousness and into my empirical-observation consciousness. But even in my most empirical listening mode, my mind is still picturing the textures, force, and viscosity of the energy I'm observing.

Parenthetically: Listening to live music is more intensely physical, more conspicuously there all around me. My direct view of the musicians dominates my awareness, alongside the full, body-stimulating force of the pulsing soundfield. At a live concert, I picture less but see more. While I play records, my brain continuously maps the spatial coordinates of the performers I'm observing. I can point to their vaporous holograms. The perimeters of these séance-like scenes are presented to my eyes as shadowy "places" worthy of scrutiny.

On the surface, this type of aural-visual experience seems like nothing more than shallow entertainment, and often it is only that. But in my room, with the recordings I choose, these ritualistic listening-picturing experiences are much like reading books or studying paintings.

I listen to a lot of field recordings made by ethnomusicologists because I like the types of music these simply miked, unedited performances present, and because the soundspaces in these recordings are real: typically a small church, a front porch, or the dining room of a wood-frame house. The sounds of the walls and floor and trucks driving by are as real and present as the singers and their instruments. It helps that on field recordings the microphone's view (and therefore the listener's view) closely resembles that of a camera lens.

My experiences with attentive listening have led me to believe that "picturing" is the main thing our senses were engineered to accomplish. My partner bb says that picturing helps us monitor our safety and regulate energy in our minds.

If these hypotheses are true, then listening to reproduced recorded music may be a cultured manifestation of an important human-evolutionary process—a ritualized, high-level form of integrated learning. Close listening is a solitary, meditative act of cultural exploration. To me, the raison d'être for audiophile audio.

joe149's picture

Wonderful column! I concur 100% with your observations - and I would imagine that most of us here listen to music on our systems in a very similar way. We talk about soundstage and imaging a lot - for me these are the critical elements in a system, and crucial for me to be able to visualize a performance.

But you used the term 'audio holography, which piqued my interest. Has this term been used before? I Googled it and found an article on 'acoustic holography'. All interesting indeed..

John Atkinson's picture
joe149 wrote:
Wonderful column!

Yes indeed. Some of Herb's best writing.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Herb Reichert's picture

kindly John.

I am honored by your praise.

Glotz's picture

Used the term 'Sonic Holography' on his equipment in the 1980's...

This was a great essay and I wish I had a garden like this...

jimtavegia's picture

I have always enjoyed JA1's descriptions of his preparations of his recording session and then enjoying the results. It is also interesting to learn all that the venue required him to overcome and some of the gear failures along the way.

I am sure that the pandemic has stopped his recording efforts as it has mine, but I hope he is considering doing more. I am when given the chance. I know first-hand it is a lot of work lugging gear around and setting it up, and then tearing it down to go home.

I love the recording stories, especially the K622 effort and the Sante Fe releases.

John Atkinson's picture
jimtavegia wrote:
I am sure that the pandemic has stopped his recording efforts as it has mine, but I hope he is considering doing more.

I haven't engineered any recordings since June 2019, when I worked on "Translations" with the Portland State Chamber Choir - see and But I worked on a project for Sasha Matson in the fall of 2021, producing an album of 3 works he had written for jazz orchestra: a piano concerto, a symphony, and a tribute to Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. We recorded the works at Oktaven Studio in Westchester, New York with Ryan Streber engineering, and mixed the album with Nick Prout at Chesky's Manhattan Studio. The album will be released on the Stereophile label as a double-LP set, a CD, and 24/96 downloads.

jimtavegia wrote:
I love the recording stories, especially the K622 effort and the Sante Fe releases.

Glad you appreciated my efforts at catching lightning in a bottle, Jim. Saddened to report that I just learned that pianist Joseph Kalichstein, who was featured on my 1998 recording from Santa Fe of the Elgar Piano Quintet, passed away from pancreatic cancer on March 31. He was just 76.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

jimtavegia's picture

I have enjoyed the Portland works and the choral recordings are one of my bench marks for DAC clarity so I can understand the lyrics of the mass voices. Tight Lines I have equally enjoyed.

As I side note I have enjoyed the Now Hear This PBS Series and my 3rd purchased DVD was of "Beethoven's Ghost" with Scott Yoo is a fun program. With a lesser DAC I own I was having a hard time understanding the two actors who play Beethoven and Freud, but with one of my 2 Project S2 DACs it all was much clearer. It all matters.

I will have to check out the double LP set if still available. I consider your work reference quality and really enjoyed K622. I have enjoyed my SACDs but find that 2496 files really suit me just fine and I can burn them on DVDs.

Sorry to hear of Joseph Kalichstein's passing. My wife is 71, had cancer twice (fully recovered) and I had prostate cancer in the fall of 2020...awful to go through, but great when you beat it. For his family I an sorry for their loss.

rocky rqccoon's picture

Herb, never mind the audio for a moment. I am so glad spring has sprung and your garden is blooming !

Herb Reichert's picture

the one in the photo

is now Daffodil City


tonykaz's picture

We'd have Family over to make Traditional Paticea Bread ( like Gramma used to make for the Holidays ), the girls would play Shania Twain and blow the roof off the place with singing and swaying, having a wonderful and memorable time.

Christmas Music,
"Happy times are here again" Political Celebration Music,
Star Wars Drama Music,
Beethoven's 9th!

Music is a Powerful Mood-Altering, synapse firing Drug, perhaps even a Powerful Addictive Drug that doesn't need a "Music-Anonymous" 12 Step Group system ( aside from staying up to the wee hours listening to favourites like Michel Jones "Pianoscapes" and "Endings".

Audiophiles do need Sponsors like Stereophile, the "Audiophiliac", Mr.JA1 and even "CheapAudioman" on Youtube.

Decades ago we enhanced our listening with Booze and wacky-tobacco which I understand is still a common practice.

Music is an important traveling companion and polite friend that transforms a lawn chair & fresh air into an open air Symphony with no admission charges. ( Keys, Wallet, iPhone, Music player --- never leave home without em )

Music has been a lifelong friend that never turned on us ( except for the Headbashing "Metal" , possibly )

Have we ever met a person that doesn't enjoy music ?

Our Music, like language, is the important carrier of our enherioted culture, it's also a treasure chest of joys. ( I think ) ( should we play it through schiit? )

Tony in Florida

Jack L's picture


YES, it is my wife, who is extremely indifferent to music, unfortunately! She always find it 'noisy'.

That's is a prime reason why I've installed my auido paradise down my basement with closed door since day one we moved into this house 30 years++ back !

So home sweet home upstairs & music sweet music downstairs in my basement.

Jack L

tonykaz's picture

Audiophile wives ( in the USA ) don't seem to share husband's ( our ) obsessions when it comes to playing high performance Audio gear. They can usually sit thru a 5.1 Movie performance.

Europeans seem to live in smaller apartments with married couples making joint decisions on nice music systems like a complete Linn System, Meridian System, Focal Naim system, etc.

Women will select a "good" Sound system in a Car Lease i.e. a Levinson car audio system not knowing that our Mark Levinson was one of the Giants of HighEnd Audio.

A long time ago I represented JVC Home Audio and had a complete JVC system in our House, the gear was festooned with triple function controls to the point that we often could not figure out how to get it to play. hhmmm Later I replaced the entire rig with Electrocompaniet that had only three tiny switches and one large Knob. ( anyone can understand )

My outbuilding Wood shop is now my little hermitage, wives don't seem to enjoy obsessive wood working skill building either !!

Tony in Florida

Briandrumzilla's picture

I want to chime in here but, decorum wins the day.

ok's picture

..can only be described by metaphores.

Jonti's picture

I think it can also be described by writers. ;-)

remlab's picture

..why I only listen to my system with my eyes closed. Thanks Herb for hitting the nail on the head. Wonderfully written.

Jack L's picture


Sorry, I always have my eyes wide open to 'watch' the music performances reproduced: how deep, wide & lofty inside the front wall behind my audio rig.

Jack L

remlab's picture


Jonti's picture

Listening to live music is more intensely physical, more conspicuously there all around me. My direct view of the musicians dominates my awareness, alongside the full, body-stimulating force of the pulsing soundfield. At a live concert, I picture less but see more.

I've had the same experience. But there's a "hack" that we can employ there at the live venue to subvert and up-end the whole listener-musician relationship:

Close your eyes.

Now the detached picturing merges with the immediate physicality, as you rightly put it, of the live spectacle, producing what I would venture is the ultimate (if slightly self-indulgent) audiophile locus.

(This works best in small, intimate venues.)

P.S. To misquote Abba, thank you for the writing. ;-)

kg's picture

This is interesting. I almost never ever have visions when I listen to music. I don't even see colours. In fact, whenever I read that a system/equipment sounds colourful, I have to stop for a moment and deliberately process what the writer means. In my brain sound is connected to tactility (and co.) and I feel soft, elastic, hard, rough, velvety, cool, warm, etc., even density and weight. I can speak about how the sound feels to the touch but I cannot see what I'm talking about.

Jonti's picture

...examples of synaesthesia. The senses are all interlinked.

Herb Reichert's picture

You are not alone in how your brain 'translates' tones and sounds. I am an artist and I have met

many art lovers that 'see' paintings primarily as tactile surfaces with various textures lines and bas relief

characteristics, but struggle to see the more optical relationships of color and tone.

We all appear to process data differently and that's probably a good thing.


Anton's picture

"The problem of other minds" rears it's fascinating head!

As the great philosopher Ebn Ozn once said, "There are 178 parent languages on our planet, with over one thousand dialects. It's amazing we communicate at all."

thethanimal's picture

So what music would you call upon to evoke that garden view — the juxtaposition of concrete and masonry with voluptuous foliage and riotous color, the exotic rose of Sharon and vegetables with the native helianthus and rudbeckia? I imagine that’s a midsummer snap, but the hopefulness of vegetation amongst the urban might have me listening to Copeland’s Appalachian Spring as I cuddle our newborn in an Atlanta hospital this afternoon.

Glotz's picture

Blessings for your family!

Jack L's picture


WoW! Boy or girl ?

Jack L

thethanimal's picture

This is our second baby girl. I was just able to complete my listen to “Appalachian Spring” with her sleeping on my chest before leaving to get our toddler to an urgent care for abdominal pain. All is well now, but a newly acquired LP of Gregorian chant from 1952 was just helping me relax. A couple years ago as the PTSD hit after our first daughter finally started sleeping through the night I remember listening to Portland State’s Doors of Heaven and Translations albums (JA1 recordings) with tears streaming down my face.

Some may dismiss Herb’s article here as navel gazing, but if all your shiny technology doesn’t connect you to the Divine and the people around you then you’ve missed the point of music. I enjoy this magazine for the technological discussions and the emotional introspection, so keep it up Herb, JA1, et. al.

Jack L's picture


I sorta envy you, my friend. My family is 2 sons & 2 kddie grandsons. I really wish I got grandgirls as well.

Jack L

teched58's picture

I thought the editors were out of touch, but apparently the readers are, too. There's so much interesting technical stuff and debates to cover that you could write about, and we get navel gazers like this. This makes JA2's columns look like they're on point by comparison.

Anton's picture

So, navel gazing should be OK. I plead guilty!

Seriously, we think we like or appreciate music better than non-audiophiles, hence our gear fetish? I don't buy it.

That's like saying we need to do a speculum exam to fully appreciate romance. (Sorry for the heteronormative metaphor, it was meant as a generalized example.) Although, the 'eyes closed' vs. 'eyes open' question applies to both. ;-D

Look at the demographics of our hobby. Does that mean middle aged men love music the most?

JHL's picture

...find it solipsistic, onanistic, a gear fetish, nor would I disclaim heteronormalcy or middle age defending it. (I've yet to find it omphaloskepsistic either, but then the remark you responded to already dripped with self-parody in that regard so there we have it.)

Done very well great audio is exuberance, connection, color, and life. It is after all siblings with the universal language; part art and part physics, deeply imbued with how transcendent they can become when practiced well together, and anything but a vice. On this tragic globe there are a hundred worse ways to spend time.

Were we to hear a facsimile of the living presence in our homes, so to put it, I suspect we'd get this. And if we never had - or hadn't the capacity - we might deny it, as evidently some must. They're like atheists; the box in the neighbor's garage has to be empty or why would it be there.

Likewise sound like this. Let's talk 'technology' instead.

But thankfully Herb gets it. Here's to those who do.

MBMax's picture

And proceed to fall asleep. So, no.
My audio bliss comes from memory of past venues saturated in great musical and human experiences. As I listen to and appreciate a well sorted soundstage, I am transported to Sunset Sunside Jazz in Paris, Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz, Davies Symphony Hall in SF, Center for Performing Arts in San Jose, a centuries old church in Prague, and more.
One thing I love about Herb, and so appreciated about Art, is that their pursuit of HiFi nirvana is/was about so much more than shiny boxes, technical developments, and even detailed subjective observations. Frankly, sometimes even our beloved live venues have a bit of boom in the bass, roll-off in the highs, wonky soundstage, and more. We can't all have 5th row center. That rarely detracts from the moment in my experience however...
To me, great music and great HiFi are generally free of such anomalies, but more importantly combine to transport us listeners to places and times in which God's gift of music bring heaven and earth a little closer, and, even for a few beautiful moments, transcend the struggles of the human condition.
A little navel gazing? No, more like star gazing.

DougM's picture

To all the misogynist DBs here- FYI, the first good system I had in the 70s was selected by my dear departed ex and by me, and paid for by her, because she earned a lot more than me. If this is indicative of the typical Stereophile reader, I hope it dies quickly, along with all these jackasses.