Just What Is High End? Page 3

But is musicality intrinsic to some products and not others, or is it something else?

Musicality, which every high-end designer strives for in his product, is more than "something" which some products have and others don't. Musicality is an event---a dynamic, flowing experience---not a static condition that exists in greater "quantity" in some products. Musicality is the relationship between music and listener---how deeply involved the listener becomes in the music, with the playback system serving as the intermediary. It is the abandonment of all thought except the music's meaning (footnote 3).

Because musicality is an event that depends to a large degree on the subjective perception of it, Western scientific dogma regards it with suspicion. Our subject/object duality provides no intellectual mechanism for understanding an entity that exists in the immediate, dynamic relationship between subject (the listener) and object (the audio component) and is intrinsic to neither.

I am reminded of an exchange with a friend who fancied himself a comedian and was always making me laugh. I said to him, "Bruce, you have a great sense of humor." He replied without hesitation "No, you have a great sense of humor---for recognizing what's funny."

Musicality is like that. It exists because someone perceives it. Those who believe that the idea of musicality in audio components is a myth are right---it doesn't exist for them. But for those to whom music is a vital part of their existence, musicality is very real.

To some, this view would suggest that musicality is "merely" subjective, an invention of the mind and thus not a real physical phenomenon. This argument would also assert that, because this experience is dependent on many factors---music, mood, environment, and an individual's ability to lock into this form of consciousness---one audio component cannot be more "musical" than another.

In my experience as a reviewer, I have found that the ability to achieve this intimacy with the music is highly dependent on the components in the system. Some products readily facilitate this experience; others seem to do their best to prevent it. When day after day, mood after mood, music after music, I am drawn inexorably into the music and not the playback system, this is the surest indicator that a product is "musical." With other components, the magic never happens despite the presence of many other conditions that one would expect would encourage this optimal experience.

The high end fundamentally differs from mass-produced components because it recognizes that musicality exists and strives to make it happen for listeners through their products. If a designer or retailer doesn't have the sensitivity to musicality and never experiences it, how can he wish it for his customers?

To the novice, like our 1-bit friend looking through a high-end magazine for the first time (footnote 4), it may at first appear that musicality and high-end audio are about soundstaging, image outlines, bloom, bass extension, lack of tonal coloration, and the like. In fact, high-end is about the absence of these qualities. For it is when we are oblivious to everything but the music that we feel the greatest musical joy. It is this lack of awareness of specifics that allows the meaning of the music to be felt most deeply.

I see a parallel between a high-end component's ability to convey the music's meaning and being fluent in several foreign languages (footnote 5). If someone speaks and reads many languages, he may read a letter, pass it to someone else, then realize the other person doesn't speak a language other than English. The multi-lingual person may suddenly be oblivious to what language the letter was written in, but is vividly aware of its meaning. The specifics---the words on the page---are completely transparent, but the content and meaning are vibrantly alive in consciousness.

Conversely, another person, barely able to read the foreign language, must concentrate his attention on the individual words, not the meaning. To him, the overall meaning is secondary to the specifics.

High-end audio is like the fluent linguist---a transparent conveyance of the music's meaning. It is when the playback system is forgotten, replaced by the performers in your room. It is when you feel the composer or performer speaking across time and space to you. It is when you feel a physical rush during a musical climax. It is the ineffable roller-coaster ride of emotion the composer somehow managed to encode in a combination of sounds. It is when the physical world disappears, leaving only your consciousness and the music.

That is high end.

Footnote 3: This experience of total immersion is described in an excellent book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has spent 25 years studying the "flow" experience in a variety of situations and activities. Flow is published by Harper Perennial.

Footnote 4: Incidentally, I later got a call from him after he found a Rotel dealer and decided to listen to the RCD-855. Recalling that I told him to let his ears be his guide, he asked me what music he should use to evaluate the two CD players. I still have hope for him.

Footnote 5: This example comes from Michael Polanyi's seminal book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. It has much to say about scientific objectivity, personal skills, and how we acquire and use knowledge. It is out of print, but can be found in some libraries and used book stores. Personal Knowledge is published by The University of Chicago Press.