Illusions, Riddles, & Toys Page 3

Critical listening syndrome. . .
. . . is a cluster of reflexive responses and behaviors that occur automatically in an audiophile the instant he or she hears music. The analytical left brain continuously monitors and attempts to dissect and override the emotional responses of the right brain, which desperately needs the exercise and nourishment of unencumbered free association. This internal conflict is a source of unresolved tension in the afflicted audiophile, manifesting itself in a dour attitude and a nitpicking dissatisfaction with almost everything heard.

Critical Listening Syndrome is the compulsion to analyze the sound quality of audio components whenever and wherever music is being played, whether such analysis is appropriate to the occasion or not. (And even at times when no electronics are involved: I once heard an audiophile describe a live jazz band---all acoustic---as "too bright.") Sufferers frequently babble in an esoteric jargon full of references to "tonal accuracy," "timbral delicacy," "textural shadings," or "harmonic integrity." They will assign actual dimensions to an imaginary soundstage: "It extended about 3' to either side of the speakers and about 4' above them." They will fidget uncomfortably if required to sit through an entire piece of music without making frequent adjustments to the equipment and/or comments about what they're hearing. Conversely, they will play the same 30 seconds of a favorite piece over and over again all night long, each time through a different combination of cables, in an obsessive need to quantify some slight sonic difference between them.

Critical Listening Syndrome interferes with the ability to enjoy music---the very reason we were attracted to this silly business in the first place. It stands like a Berlin Wall between the audiophile and the soul of the music. CLS is an insidious ailment crippling an ever-increasing number of audiophiles. Hear me now and believe me later: If you don't get CLS under control, you will die broke and unhappy.

Despite being highly opinionated, many CLS sufferers are dogged by a lack of confidence in the soundness of their own judgments and look to professional experts for validation. Although many of them seldom hear live music, they uphold it as a standard to which they negatively compare the experience of listening to audio systems. "Not a convincing performance" or "Failed to transport me to the recording session" are the audiophile's kiss-of-death for gear and music that don't quite cut it in the "realism" department.

The symptoms of CLS vary widely, but the overwhelming commonality is the inability to turn it off, to simply relax and enjoy the music. It's also characterized by an extreme disdain for ordinary music lovers, the masses of poor misguided souls who are moved by the music they hear through their "$1000 rack systems"---a phrase usually spoken with a hint of nausea on the part of the speaker.

We audiophiles are quite the classic missionaries, bemoaning the state of the pitiful heathens. How much better their lives would be if we could teach them to speak our language and worship the one true God. Quite the contrary: I think these untutored savages have a lot to teach us. I think they hear music in a purer way. They aren't aware of the equipment: they don't listen to it, they listen through it. They don't let technical shortcomings interfere with their enjoyment. The music is all they hear. They're like children in their innocence, and that innocence is the state of being we're all trying to get back to even in our tortuous, roundabout way of nonstop criticism and constant equipment upgrading.

There's an easier way. It's called letting go of the critical voice. Once you've got your system set up and sounding good, relax and give yourself over to the music. You don't need to make any judgment about the way it sounds. No one's going to grade your listening skills.

Don't get me wrong. Critical listening is a valuable and important attribute, an ability cultivated through years of study and practice. But learn to load your Critical Listening Program only when it's needed: in the evaluation of equipment you're considering for purchase, or to make your system and listening room sound as good as you can make them. When that job is done, file the Critical Listening Program away, including its nagging subroutine, "Realism?" Critical listening is a useful tool, that's all. It's not the meaning of life.

A different world
An illustrative anecdote: Last autumn I had the opportunity to house-sit for my friend Michael while he and his family were away on vacation. In the evenings, after feeding the animals and watering the gardens, I'd sit in the small study of the quiet farmhouse and avail myself of Michael's library, which is largely devoted to his profession of woodworking and residential construction, and---his passion and the source of endless friction between him and his wife Serena---model railroading.

The study's bookshelves were bowed with several years' worth of publications like Vintage Rails, Railroad Model Craftsman, Trains, Rail News, and Model Railroader, which I read at random. I couldn't resist doing a little comparative anatomy between the two hobbies. (Judging by the number of journals devoted to it, model railroading absolutely dwarfs hi-fi.) The back pages of the rail magazines were clogged with small ads from hobby shops (names, addresses, phone numbers; long lists in small print of items stocked) and manufacturers of accessories, add-ons and upgrades for model railroad layouts---small buildings and vehicles, bridges and trestles, miniature trees, custom wheels and couplers, and special paints.

I marveled at the photographs of amazingly lifelike models, and pored over painstakingly well-researched articles on the histories of individual locomotives or entire railroads, profiles of prominent hobbyists and industry luminaries, and technical pieces on the construction of realistic mountains from styrofoam blocks and papier-mâché, applications of Digital Signal Processing in the production of authentic railroad sounds (!), and the use of fiberoptics for believable flicker-free lighting in passenger cars. The journalistic level was soberingly high.