The Entry Level #40

Today, the system sounds better than usual—in fact, amazing: warm, detailed, powerfully present, remarkably true. But how can this be? Isn't it more likely that my system, a well-considered but nevertheless inanimate, unfeeling collection of boxes and wires—NAD C 316BEE CD player, Arcam FMJ A19 integrated amplifier, KEF LS50 loudspeakers, AudioQuest Big Sur interconnects and Rocket 33 speaker cables—sounds today exactly as it did yesterday?

The system hasn't changed, but something has. How else can I make sense of the fact that, today, my experience of listening to music through the hi-fi is different from what it was yesterday? Does it have something to do with the suddenly cold, gray weather? Or that I've been fighting the flu? Is it because I'm sitting at a desk, on an old orange elementary-school chair, off to one side of the right-channel speaker? Or because a scented candle is burning? Does it have something to do with the new pair of Levi's I'm wearing? Or is it because Ms. Little is at her parents' house, trying on wedding dresses for our ceremony (this October)? Is it because the cats have been peacefully napping? Or does it have something to do with the music—first Matteah Baim, then Lorde, now Beyoncé, and later Wild Beasts?

I suppose it must be some combination of all these things, plus others I haven't yet considered. I suppose the system is might be really good, too.

It's strange that I even try to come up with an easy answer. Music, after all, is one of the arts—a representation or embodiment or performance of beauty, form, perspective. And of the many factors involved in the appreciation of art, perhaps none is more significant or variable than the state of mind of the person doing the appreciating—in the case of music, the listener. I think it's important to remember that, even when the goal is pure enjoyment or simple understanding, work must be done—that we must, in fact, try to connect with the artist. Because while it's true that any artist, musician, or engineer can fail at the job of delivering an artistic message, it's just as true that we—the audience, the listeners—can fail at the job of receiving that message. We're better at it some days than other days.

"Learning how to listen to music—how to identify and understand various elements of composition, how to distinguish good playing technique from bad, and so forth—is a lifelong journey of considerable value." Art Dudley's words, taken from this issue's "As We See It," can be repeated until memorized like song. We can all be better listeners.

Today, perhaps, I'm listening well.

Informed appreciation of something beautiful
Or maybe I'm just imagining things. In "Placebo-philes," a recent posting to his entertaining blog Anxious Machine (footnote 1), Robert McGinley Myers discusses his brief experience as a headphone enthusiast. Myers buys one set of headphones, then a better (more expensive) set, then adds a headphone amplifier, then a better (more expensive) headphone amplifier. With these tools, he escapes into his music: "I had moments . . . when I heard things inside songs I swore I'd never heard before, when I felt as if parts of the music were two dimensional backdrops and then three dimensional shapes would leap out of the picture towards me, or the music would drizzle over my head, or crackle like lightning, or I'd swear I could smell the studio where the song had been recorded, or something."

To me, this sounds very familiar. It sounds real. I bet it does for you, too. However, in retrospect, McGinley Myers finds it simply "absurd."

"I was an idiot," he writes. "Because on other nights, usually after I'd owned that same set of gear for a little while, I wouldn't hear those things any more, and I'd start thinking that I needed better gear."

After browsing online forums and discovering that other headphone enthusiasts had plunged down the same "rabbit hole," Myers, despite having enjoyed many nights of happy listening, realized that he was "listening to his equipment rather than the music" and decided to sell it all. He attributes his experience to the placebo effect—the improvement in health or behavior following a treatment (in this case, "better" headphones) that arises not from the treatment itself but most likely from expectations about the treatment. And though for a while he felt ashamed of being "its victim," Myers now realizes that the placebo effect should be embraced for the happiness it provides.

Myers quotes from a recent Reuters piece by Felix Salmon, on the nature of the placebo effect in wine tasting:

"The more you spend on a wine, the more you like it. It really doesn't matter what the wine is at all. But when you're primed to taste a wine which you know a bit about, including the fact that you spent a significant amount of money on [it], then you'll find things in that bottle which you love. . . . After all, what you see on the label, including what you see on the price tag, is important information which can tell you a lot about what you're drinking. And the key to any kind of connoisseurship is informed appreciation of something beautiful."

Myers wonders if listening to high-end headphones, like drinking expensive wine, is "really about ritualizing a sensory experience." In performing such a ritual, you are telling yourself, I am going to focus on this moment. I am going to savor this event.

There are indeed great pleasure and value to be found in dropping a needle onto a record, properly positioning a pair of loudspeakers, or carefully placing a set of headphones over one's ears and being transported by music. And I have nothing against happiness—real, perceived, or otherwise manufactured. But I think Robert McGinley Myers and Felix Salmon place too much emphasis on price. Informed appreciation doesn't necessarily have to come at high cost. For instance, knowing all there is to know about a loudspeaker—whether it's the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($349/pair) or the Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria XLF ($200,000/pair)—will inevitably enhance the experience of listening to that speaker. The owner of the Wilsons isn't necessarily having more fun than the owner of the Wharfedales.

Myers is probably correct when he says that he stopped listening to his music and started listening to his equipment. It's hard for me to accept, however, that he ever actually stopped hearing the magic in his favorite recordings. The magic was there; I suspect he simply became inured to it. After time and with increased familiarity, even the magic—the crack of lightning, the smell of the studio, whatever—can become commonplace. If you stick long enough with this hobby, you may very well come to a point along the way when you find yourself listening more to the equipment than to the music.

This is okay. There's nothing inherently wrong with listening for differences between two or more components. In fact, the practice can be as educational, entertaining, and even as insightful as listening to music. The gear has its own story to tell. But if you find that focusing primarily on equipment drains the hobby of its joy, then take some time to reevaluate your values and priorities. New, more expensive gear can certainly help re-create the magic, but it's not our only salve. New music—the best tweak for any old system—can also help.

Audioengine D3 USB DAC–headphone amplifier
Similar in size, shape, and functionality to AudioQuest's popular DragonFly (version 1.2, $149), the Audioengine D3 ($189) is a very small USB DAC–headphone amplifier with a USB plug at one end and a ¼" jack at the other. It comes neatly packed with a light-gray felt case, a ¼" adapter cable, and a well-written setup guide. You can plug the D3 into a USB port on a Mac or PC, then plug a set of headphones into the D3's ¼" jack. Or, if you'd prefer to listen in open space, you can use a cable with a ¼" connector to mate the D3 to a pair of powered loudspeakers or a component hi-fi system. (Have I mentioned that the USB DAC–headphone amplifier is a brilliant component category?) Essentially, the D3 replaces the computer's highly compromised audio circuitry to deliver a cleaner, purer audio signal to headphones or speakers, thus transforming the computer into a legitimate music-playback source.

Footnote 1: My thanks to Stereophile reader Marshall Bolton for directing me to Anxious Machine.

dalethorn's picture

The ear/brain can hear very tiny differences, and even subliminal things are sensed. But at different times of day the ambient noise varies, AC line noise varies, the human body may have very different active energy levels - all adding up to very different perceptions.

Utopianemo's picture

Thanks, Stephen.  

Some very astute observations.  It kind of makes me a little happier with my entry-level Grados and my Hifiman Waterlines.  Maybe I don't need more expensive gear, just 3 or 4 decent-sounding headphones that I can rotate between for that new-sound feel. :)

Music_Guy's picture

I enjoyed the referenced articles/blogs (almost) as much as your piece here.  The concept that even though I may know better, things are actually enjoyed better with context and external reinforcment stimuli makes perfect sense to me.

My music sounds better when I sit down and savor it.  When I hear a piece of music that I haven't listened to in a long time, I hear things I did not hear (or don't remember having heard) before.  I absolutely enjoy my stuff more because I know how I searced for it and chose it and set it up than if I just came upon it complete.

As the technology improves, the differences between high-end DACs and entry-levels ones is shrinking. (IMO)  It takes careful comparison with short intervals between listens to detect these differences.  My less than golden ears find it nearly impossible to hear the differences when I hear gear in different places and at differnent times. But when I do crtically listen, I invariably hear differences and for the most part enjoy each new sound and usually think it sounds "better" especially when I am told that there is some improvement in there soemwhere.

You know what car runs better after I wash it.  I know it can't be...but it sure seems that way to me.

I am going to polish my tonearm, re-seat the cables, re-route the speaker wire and enjoy the improvements....

Tiger Al's picture

I'm gonna throw in a cd and enjoy the music.

Kettch's picture

Hi Stephen, I just read that you are leaving Stereophile. Is this true and will you be continuing to write through a personal blog or other platform? I always appreciate your insights from your column. 

John Atkinson's picture

Kettch wrote:
I just read that you are leaving Stereophile. Is this true and will you be continuing to write through a personal blog or other platform?

Sadly, it is true. Stephen left Stereophile at the end of March after more than 13 years with the magazine. He was made an offer to join cable manufacturer AudioQuest that he would have been crazy to turn down. His new position is VP Communications for that company.

His final "Entry Level" column appears in our June issue. He will no longer be writing about hardware for Stereophile or blogging for our website, but it is possible that he will still be contributing record reviews to the magazine.

We are not replacing "The Entry Level" as such but editor Michael Lavorgna will start contributing a column with the July issue.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Utopianemo's picture

Mr. Atkinson,

I was immediately sorry to hear that Stephen has left the building.  When you say "The Entry Level" will not be replaced, do you mean that Michael Lavorgna will be continuing "The Entry Level"?  I sure hope so.  I am not familiar with Mr. Lavorgna's writing, but I know you understand how important this specific column is to your magazine(and to us).

Stephen, if you can hear me, good luck and thanks.  Em, good luck and thanks in any case.


Nathan Daniels

John Atkinson's picture

Utopianemo wrote:
I was immediately sorry to hear that Stephen has left the building.

Me too :-)

Utopianemo wrote:
When you say "The Entry Level" will not be replaced, do you mean that Michael Lavorgna will be continuing "The Entry Level"?  I sure hope so.

No, Michael's column will explore the kind of products he currently writes about for in greater depth. We will continue to cover affordable components in our reviews and regular columns, but "The Entry Level" was so strongly identified with Stephen Mejias that I thought it best to cease publishing the column as it currently stood. I hope to be able to launch a replacement column devoted to entry-level components when I have discovered a writer who offers the unique combination of experience, listening ability, a love of music, the ability to communicate what he and she thinks, and a love for uncovering affordable great-sounding gear.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Kettch's picture

Hi John, thank you for the reply and I had hoped it was just a rumour but at the same time I am happy for Stephen. His column will be greatly missed.


Utopianemo's picture

I'm sorry, I just don't buy the wine thing.  I agree with Felix Salmon's assertion in the above referenced Reuters piece that knowing the price one paid for wine corrolates to one's enjoyment of said wine in part.  I know that effect is true for some people, but by no means all. My own particular bias is oriented around getting the best value; If I wasn't paying specific attention to the taste, I'd be the most impressed with the one that had the highest cost that I paid the least for.  That's why I get all excited when I hear the phrase "it sounds as good as speakers retailing for twice the price" in reviews.  That's the placebo that activates my pleasure center.

dalethorn's picture

It's even more likely to sound "As good as items at twice the price" if the user is willing to do a little tweaking, but it seems so many audiophiles today say "If it isn't perfect out of the box I'll just send it back".

tnargs's picture

Of course our receptivity changes from time to time, with the same equipment. I take that as a given.

And of course it means the Stereophile-style 'listening' 'test' is a joke. I take that as a given too.

And of course the placebo effect is real. I take the fact that audiophiles even want to discuss this point, with reference to our hobby, as a simple matter of re-education (away from everything audio journalists have been writing and towards simple realities).

But the Myers solution of selling good gear and going back to worse gear is not one I commend, except for him personally if he was truly unable to simply enjoy the music through high performance gear. But that is simply a *personal* psychological issue for him.

It is still okay to obtain high performance equipment and thoroughly enjoy our music through it, comfortable in the knowledge that there is less interference between us and the music that way.

luvmusic1945's picture

When i drank, i would listen to music and never thought the volume was high enough for me to hear everything; about 6 months after i quit, i put on a record and was amazed at the instruments i could now hear on same  record. I was now paying attention to the music. Going back to the wet years and the subject of price vs hearing, i'd like to add that i once went to a high gear store and heard a pair of speakers that sounded so real, that i went home and would not play my gear for a couple of weeks. I knew it would only make me feel sick, knowing, what i could be enjoying if i invested in better stuff. It's between the ears, some say, but as a V8's posess a distinctive sound, you know, when you hear one.


In my experience the biggest changes in audio response in transducers come from changes in humidity.