God is in the Nuances Page 6

The result of all this is a deep thirst for experiencing one's self. Bungee jumping, canyoning, and other fashionable sports reveal the desire of getting to know one's abilities and limitations. Roller coasters have to be built on ever-grander scales, with steeper inclines and sharper descents to catch the attention of the paying public. You get my drift.

Life is becoming boring. We want more! In the words of that great philosopher, Calvin: "I think life should be more like TV....I think we should all have powerful, high-paying jobs and everyone should drive fancy sports cars. All our desires should be instantly gratified. Women should always wear tight clothes, and men should carry powerful handguns. Life overall should be more glamorous, thrill-packed, and filled with applause, don't you think?" (footnote 5)

That thirst for experience also manifests in hi-fi. How many loudspeaker reviews have you read where the reviewer spoke of trouser-flapping bass? If it is achieved, great; if not, the reviewer will go on to say that the speaker has other, redeeming qualities. But in the figure of speech is revealed the desire to have a physical effect that can be experienced with more than just the sense of hearing. Similarly, cinemas are going for ever-higher sound-pressure levels to intensify the movie experience, and much of home theater seems geared to just intensify the physical experience of sound effects like bombs, car crashes, helicopters, and other such boombastic assaults on our nerves.

Listening without hearing
On the other hand, for musical enjoyment, all of this should be irrelevant. In terms of the evolution of man, the part of the brain responsible for the recognition of sounds is relatively new, being located in the cerebrum. The part responsible for emotions is comparatively ancient, being located in the brain stem. With this in mind, researchers have conducted the following experiment (footnote 6).

It's possible to numb the specific part of the brain responsible for the recognition and critical evaluation of sounds. If a person so treated is exposed to music, he or she will hear nothing. Yet the listener's mood will still be influenced by the music! This means that, for the emotional response to music, the sound, or at least the conscious experience of the sound, is unimportant!

The far-reaching conclusion: You cannot tell what your emotional response to a component's sound will be from a description by a critical listener, because that response is independent of the conscious perception of its sound.

I can't claim originality for my observations. Other journalists seem to have had the same gut feeling, even in the pages of this learned journal, which otherwise prides itself on its no-nonsense stand toward sound reproduction. Starting with this magazine's founder and erstwhile chief tester, J. Gordon Holt, here are some quotes (and yes, I know that you can prove just about anything by quoting out of context; I wish to make it clear, therefore, that although these quotes were not made in the context of a train of thought similar to my own, I do think that they are valid):

Larry Archibald: You're saying that there's a complete disjunction between pleasure and accuracy?

J. Gordon Holt: Yes (footnote 7).

"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 The Absolute Sound. Especially if you've never seen it mentioned by an elitist audio reviewer from Stereophile or The Absolute Sound.

"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. and the MG's, 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."---Corey Greenberg (footnote 8)

"Because audiophiles care about sound quality, we are often more susceptible than usual to allow interfering thoughts to 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 the 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 . . . being an audiophile is about dissection and critical commentary, and not about more closely connecting with the music's meaning.

" . . . this experience precipitated a catharsis that forced me to reexamine what music listening---among other things---was all about. . . . Better sound does result in more music, but paradoxically, only when the sound is forgotten."---Robert Harley (footnote 9)

There could be more quotes, but I hope my point is made.

Footnote 5: From Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: The Revenge of the Babysat, Andrews & McNeel, 1991. Imagine the two heroes in a childrens' wagon on a roller-coaster ride down a steep hill fraught with perils, imagined or otherwise. The punchline goes, "Of course, if life was really like that, what would we watch on TV?"

Footnote 6: Unpublished research at the University of Giessen, Germany, related by Jürgen Ackermann.

Footnote 7: Stereophile, December 1991, Vol.14 No.12, p.25.

Footnote 8: Stereophile, July 1992, Vol.15 No.7, p.11. A personal comment: Ana Caram sucks, too.

Footnote 9: Stereophile, November 1992, Vol.15 No.11, p.7; Bob's "Listener's Manifesto" is also worth rereading: Stereophile, January 1992, Vol.15 No.1, p.111.

dcrowe's picture

Markus Saur's article lists several effects that I have noticed myself.

1. Increased accuracy, lower distortion, and increased speed do not assure increased enjoyment of music for many listeners. Hearing things never heard before in the music is considered a sign of superior audio equipment performance [I agree with that myself], but the new things may be distractions to some listeners. My teenage son, who is a musician as well as a brilliant computer and science student, prefers the sound of his game grade headphones to my high end audiophile headphones. It is the sound he expects and it masks the limitations of the rest of the sound system he is using. I am reminded of people who prefer McDonald's to gourmet food. [my son is not one of those, he is a gourmet cook himself].
2. The sound of one Watt class triode amplifiers is preferred by some. I wonder if the electron cloud saturation of these amplifiers compresses the dynamic range so that quiet components in the music are more prominent without turning the peak sound level up to the threshold of pain.
3. I happen to prefer highly accurate playback. It enhances my enjoyment. For example, the distortions caused by wear and mis-tracking on vinyl discs irritates me. I prefer high quality digital sources. I also prefer amplifiers that have power in reserve. So I may be in a minority camp, but in that camp accuracy is in, distortion and compression are out. I can hear the forest AND the trees simultaneously, and am displeased with equipment that falls short of giving me both.