Are you listening more but enjoying it less?

I have a hunch that the overwhelming majority of Stereophile readers have pretty decent hi-fis, but they probably listen to a lot more music in their cars, or through computer speakers, or on the go with headphones. I'm in that last group, and log more hours listening to Jerry Harvey's astonishing JH13 Freqphase custom-molded in-ear 'phones than to my Magnepan MG3.7 speakers—but music moves me more through the 3.7s. I can fully savor the White Stripes only when I'm on the couch, letting Jack White's blistering guitar and Meg White's pounding drums rearrange my brain. I'm not just talking about fidelity—how and where we listen changes the way we experience music.

When I first started playing CDs, in the early 1980s, I got into the habit of having music on all the time, so my ratio of CD to LP listening skewed heavily toward silver discs. I was listening more, but looking back, I was enjoying it less; music was merely background to other activities. I still had to pop in a CD every hour or so, but thanks to music servers Spotify and Pandora feeding our multiroom music systems, no one has to suffer through the drudgery of selecting tunes anymore—the music never stops. And that's part of the problem—when the music plays on and makes no demands, it's just sonic wallpaper.

Uncompressed recordings with intact soft-to-loud volume changes, meaning that their full dynamic range is intact, are an annoyance when the music's in the background; you can't just set the volume in your Jetta GLI to keep the music loud enough to be heard and not get blasted when the band really gets going. That's why record producers overcompress music—they're trying to maintain a consistent maximum volume level that's ideal for background listening when jumping between albums and tunes. That's too bad—compression doesn't sound so great for audiophiles craving maximum dynamic contrast, but we're just a tiny minority of music buyers. Even so, it seems as if we're becoming more like the other 99% of all listeners, those who aren't focused on sound, so the quality of the gear is beside the point. Good enough is good enough, and a Sonos wireless Play:3 speaker wouldn't sound much different from a Quad ESL or a Magico when played quietly enough to merely provide ambiance.

I polled my Twitter and Facebook friends to see if they still listen to music at home, and most said things like, "It's rare for me to find the time, but I do like good sound . . . ," or "In this day and age it's in the car, using the phone as the source." One was even more direct: "I get most of my musical enjoyment from my iPhone and iPad, in spite of having a nice high-end system that I also enjoy. That's one of the reasons I refer to myself as an ex-audiophile." I get it—listening at home is on the wane—but we somehow find the time to watch YouTube or surf the net for hours at a time.

I was starting to get depressed, but I felt better after I spoke with a few folks who'd just bought their first turntable. Music wasn't background for them, and each one, without any prompting from me, said the same thing: Music on vinyl is impossible to ignore. These people, aged 14 to 40, grew up with digital music, but when they play vinyl they don't skip from track to track, and they don't multitask. Most of them don't have expensive rigs, but they all felt that listening to vinyl is different from and better than listening to MP3s on the go. One said that listening to 1960s- and 1970s-era LPs is like reading literature in the original language. The attraction wasn't fidelity per se; these "kids" found music on vinyl more satisfying than the digital alternatives. Which also proves that you don't need a great hi-fi to fully appreciate music, but you do have to listen—and most people, audiophiles and "civilians" alike, rarely listen anymore. They've replaced focused listening time with other things.

Then again, I have a small number of digital-loving audiophile pals who never just have music "on" because they find it too distracting. They don't play tunes in the car or at the gym; they prefer books or podcasts, and they best appreciate music at home or at concerts. So please don't mistake my pro-analog stance as anti-digital. I cherish my collection of 3000 CDs and SACDs and I love to listen to them. They're different from, not inferior to vinyl. I own a lot of great music in different formats, and get pleasure from them all.

My desktop system, with Emotiva Airmotiv 4 speakers and a Schiit Bifrost DAC, sounds pretty good, and that's a concern. Computer audio is starting to cut into my quality listening time. My hi-fi is just on the other side of the room, but I'm falling into the trap and listening to more and more tunes on my computer. When I walk the 12 steps to my hi-fi, plop on a record, and listen, the experience is so much deeper. The thrills come more often, the music means more. I'll grant that computer audio and high-resolution downloads are getting better all the time, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. When I'm working at the computer, music is distracting or merely background noise.

If you have a nice system but aren't playing it as much as you used to, try to find the time to close your eyes and reconnect, one on one, with your favorite music. Force yourself to listen to a couple of tunes without doing anything else, and see if that rekindles your passion for music and sound.

It's time to get back to where we once belonged.

Snowdog57's picture

In the last few years I've been taking the time to reinvest in my home audio - on a budget and limited time to devote to 2-channel escapism. However, the time my family and I get to enjoy a real live LP is worth every minute. I've also built up a modest, quality system to complement our hi-res LP conversions on the iMac. I truly feel that immersive, quality recordings is "good for the soul". Keep up the great articles, Steve!

eugovector's picture

This is precisely the reason I host monthly listening parties for our social group: my music was background, or secondary.  I'd sit down and watch a 2.5hour movie from start to finish with no distractions, but put on a 45 minute album and I felt the need to wash the dishes, surf the internet, or some other distraction.

I'll have to do up a little video, but essentially, everyone invited brings a song or two.  We usually listen at my place as most of my friends would not be considered audiphiles, though they are music lovers.  We introduced a few games to make the selection process more fun, we stay away from snobbery, and we don't talk about the equipment *gasp*.  This is about the music, not the gear-worship that has come to define audiophelia.

volvic's picture

It's all about the music, that comes first.  If you have a good system it will make you happy whether it is being used for background music or for more critical listening.  I can't wait to come home and turn on my system and enjoy my music whether it is played on my turntable, CD player or computer.  I had to change certain components to reach the level of satisfaction I currently enjoy, perhaps if some people are spending less time with their home systems they may have to consider upgrading.  

LA mitchell's picture

Sure, it CAN be fun to sit there and reeeeaaallllllyyy absorb my favorite song.

For the most part, I think having music on at home is great for the simple reason that I CAN GET OTHER THINGS DONE.  As oppossed to TV where I feel like I have to keep looking at the screen to see what happened.

It was fun sitting around the stereo in my twenties with my buddies listening to music all night, but hey... I've got a real life with stuff going on.  My wife and I love having music on, but more as a part of what's going on, rather than the main event. I find that my taste in music systems is towards non-fatiguing (ie. tubes, silk dome tweeters, sold state that isn't edgy, etc).... and guess what: too much of a dynamic range shift can cause me to skip to the next song.

So I'm going to sit in front of a speaker system for hours&hours&hours and just listen to music?  No way. I've got the laptop open and I'm browsing some blogs, or cleaning the kitchen, folding laundry, eating dinner, etc.  

But hey. That's just me. 

prerich45's picture

I listen for about 2 to three hours 4 times a week, lights dimmed very low (just a few halogens) and the music.  This is something that me and my sons have always done. My sons are all grown now (one is deceased) - but they all maintain a system and make time to just listen (my youngest is overseas and I'm holding his system until he returns).

Now do we listen to ipads and listen in cars (backround music)...yes we do - but we don't count that time and genreally it's a different type of music that we listen to then.  When we sit down to listen - we really want ot hear something good, something moving, something dynamic!

SItting back enjoying music and music itself is something I will always do until the casket drops or my ears stop.

prerich45's picture

I'm also an ex-dj - so I know the analog world pretty well - had a collection of over 1000 LPs at one time in the 90's (sold them when I stopped). I think that may have been something - I looked a spinning records as work! The sound of analog was great, but I'm experienceing a different greatness, now that I've gone to a PC based rig connected to my main system.  As a matter of fact, if I get back into vinyl, I'd purchase a Music Hall USB turntable to go into my PC.  Also, we digital folk aren't limited to just computer speakers ;) - the wife knows its time for serious listening when the cell phone goes to Gizmo remote mode and the screens go off.  

dalethorn's picture

I clearly remember the day I got a $400 portable CD player by Denon, and a great weight was lifted from me - the nightmare of vinyl and tape was finally over. Fast forward 10 years or so and MP3's arrived, and the bad dream of discs was finally over. Another 15 years give or take and hirez music on 192 gb portable players is a reality. What can make this better? Eliminate the player without dependence on the Internet, or reduce the player to a size I can carry everywhere. i.e. the wristwatch size of the previous gen. iPod Nano, with the functionality of the AK120 music player.

BTW, I don't share my music listening with other tasks.

mauroj's picture

I went through all of the listening phases as well and then stopped really listening to music altogether, except as background music. Then I won a pair of Denon D2000 headphones and music opened up for me again. Digital became fantastic and I built a system around a tube amplifier. However, in cleaning up my fathers garage, I found his JVC QL-F6, NAD 3020A and Klipsch Heresy I speakers. With a little maintenance and love I now have a fantastic vinyl system and digital is a thing of the past. I haven't used my DAC and Headphone amp for months because a couple times a week, I am able to spend 3 or 4 hours listening to my burgeoning vinyl collection and I love every minute of it. The sound just draws me in, calms me down and gives me a profound sense of peace. I am happier for having this in my life and I know my wife would agree I am more often in better spirits because of it. I still use music in the background but I enjoy it so much more when it is analog and I can focus completely on it.

mauidj's picture

And that sums up why the hifi industry is in a mess. If you have to force yourself to sit down to listen to music you are not a music lover....just a liker. I am saddened by the need for the article and some replys coming from people who profess to love our hobby. If I can't get a couple of hours of listening to my rig (mainly analog but digital too) then it means I have been really busy and unable to do so. But on a daily basis I listen to at least 3 albums all the way through. It brings so much joy and my day would not be complete without it.

prerich45's picture

Agreed..., it shouldn't be something you force  yourself into - it should be something you look forward to doing!!!  I was sad because I didn't have an opprotunity to sit down for a while and listen before I went to work today (I love doing that)!

Chigo's picture

I agree that if you love something, you should not have to force yourself to do it. But I think what Steve is saying is not that we have to force ourselves to listen to music, but that we have to make the time to just listen to music, and nothing else. As mauidj said, sometimes you get really busy and are unable to spend that time listening, and with modern life, that can happen often. We are also a culture of (often inefficient) multi-taskers, and sometimes we have to remind ourselves to stop and be in the moment, doing one thing--and only one thing--mindfully. No matter how much we may love something (or even someone), it's all to easy to neglect it when life gets in the way, and it's all to easy to let life get in the way. Many times we tell ourselves, "I'll get to it when I have time," but that never just happens on its own. Nobody ever just hands us a chunk of time, and it never falls in our lap. We have to actively work to make time, to make something a priority, and I think Steve is just reminding us all not to lose sight of that. For that, Steve, I thank you. I for one will be going home today and sitting down in front of the main system because you reminded me to make it a priority to do so. 

Chigo's picture

eugovector, I love your idea of monthly listening parties. I have thought about doing something similar, and maybe incorporating themes (e.g., everybody picks a selection or two based on certain criteria) to keep it interesting. The fact that you are actually doing this is inspiring.  

eugovector's picture

Thank you.  They are tons of fun, we're doing one tonight as a matter of fact.

Starting with a game of telephone: I picked a starting song, that was passed to the next person on the list who uses that song as an inspiration for their pick and so on down the line until the 6 of us have made a collaborative 6 song set.

Free Selection: The next 6 songs are simply everyone bringing in something that they want to share.  No criteria.  This is how we typically do it, no games or themes and everyone picks 2-3 tracks.

We'll be ending with a new game that is dangerously close to my "no snobbery" rule for listening party: Healthy Alternatives.  We start with a song that is as close to being universally accepted as "bad" as possible: think Achey Breaky Heart.  Then, you have to provide a healthy alternative that is thematically or lyrically similar, or somehow connected to the "bad" song: for instance "How My Heart Behaves" by Feist.

This implies some pretty arbitrary judgment on good v. bad music, so I'm hesitant to make this a common fixture in listening party.

Have fun with it.  You'd be suprised at the level of taste your friends may have.

Ariel Bitran's picture


Nellomilanese's picture

So when i actually listen I just fall into it...maybe just 1/2 hr at a time....if it's a Sacd the whole album. The other night I went through Norah Jones's sacd TWICE !                                                                                  

Maritimer's picture

I wouldn’t consider myself to be an audiophile but I love music and I appreciate good quality sound. My living room used to be dominated by a television that always seemed to be on whether anyone was watching or not but in the last year I banished the set and made this room for music only (another room is set up for home theatre). Then I bought a new Rega turntable, after going without one for years, to go with my modest vintage two-channel system, dusted off my old records and starting buying new ones as well as CDs. I just became addicted to music all over again and I am currently hunting for a better set of speakers. 

I used to feel guilty if all I was doing was listening to music and not puttering around doing chores at the same time. Now I consider it a reward to myself after a hard day at work catering to other people’s needs. 

Psychedelicious's picture

My computer workstation is also my stereo system, so I get to sit in the sweet-spot all day long. The only risk is that a totally mind-blowing song will send me into a trance, while I'm trying to get some work done. Life is tough.


DetroitVinylRob's picture

quite the opposite.

Happy Listening!

deli84's picture

My wife and I just had our first, so as you can imagine this last month and a half has been a blur.  My only music listening has been in-between baby wails in a desperate attempt to drown her out with music.  (BTW, she likes 90's rock alternative--it could be worse.)  For the sake of time and ease, I've been using computer speakers we'd received with some desktop we'd long ago discarded.  Supposedly they're Harman/Kardon, but I think all HP's came with them 10 years ago, so I imagine they're nothing special.  Today was the first day she was mellow enough I felt it was worth powering up my USB DAC and the amps for some serious father/daughter music listening time.  I was astonished by the sound quality difference.  In just six weeks, I'd forgotten what good sound sounds like and had become complacent to the anemic sound produced by those chincy plastic speakers.  I wonder if people have just forgotten how good music can sound through a good system because they haven't had time to sit in front of one and give it their full attention lately. 

Pauliet's picture

I have a VPI Traveler turntable on my desk at work along with a set of Klipsch speakers. I bring records with me and play them while siting at my computer doing digital sorts of things. Granted it,s not like the critical listening I do at home in the evenings. And, it is definately a conversion starter.

What has always puzzled me is why the industry compressed the CD's, and not added audio compressors to car music players. I completely agree that listning to full dynamic range music is difficult in a vehicle, but why make the decision to reduce the quality of a product so it can be played anywhere. We buy the music, why not let the consumer make the decision to compress or not. This most likely explains one reason so many of us have given up on CD's and dusted off our vinyl. (mine was never dusty).

I am by no means against digital, I actually digitize my vinyl records at 24/96K and produce CD's 16/44.1K with the full dynamic range. These CD's sound infinately better than comercial CD's, even though they do have a somewhat limited upper frequency range. The high-def digital music sounds almost as good as the vinyl from where they came. I also play digital music directly through a DAC at home and at work.

Digital music can work, it just has to be done right.


eatapc's picture

I'm listening more and enjoying it more. Listening more because of Pandora and Spotify. Enjoying it more because I'm buying less music based on reviews and guesswork (which resulted in a large collection of LPs and CDs I didn't enjoy). It's similar to the old days when I listened to FM radio; I knew I liked an artist's music before I bought it.