Know Thyself: Audio Existentialism

Playing recorded music in the home is a complex, coded, cultural experience: We sit, we listen, we think and dream—and, when it feels just right, we admire. We admire who we are and how we arrived at this beautiful moment. This simple act of admiration is usually a happy sort of self-congratulatory expression of our basic desire to have meaningful as well as enjoyable experiences. We are proud of our good taste and love of music. But this type of listening can also provoke anxiety and self-recrimination. We ask ourselves why we like this music and not some other kind. What would my friends think if they knew I was listening to "truckin' wit' th' doo-dah man"—or Deodato?

And if you're an audiophile . . . holy crap. You have so much more to worry about. It's ridiculous. A hundred obvious and absurd things could be making your system sound bad, and you might not even realize it.

For decades, I asked myself: How do I know if the music I'm playing and the sounds my system is making are worthy of my attention? Often, playing records made me feel restless and discontent. Eventually, I understood: These questions and feelings are the core of audio's lonely existential anguish.

If you're seeking your first truly high-performance stereo, you must begin by examining your personality and tastes. Why? Because you can't find what you're not looking for. Reading reviews and listening to systems at your local audio salon will be pretty much meaningless until you understand precisely what kind of music playback you actually need. Yes, need.

Aspiring audiophiles need to self-reflect. Are you traditionally masculine? That is, do you like your music loud and forceful? Do you admire precision and clarity? Do you think good form is a moral imperative? Are you aroused by definition and control? When you listen, do you stare at the space between the speakers?

Perhaps you're more feminine. Are you turned on by mystery, hidden powers, and what you don't understand? Do you aspire to beauty? Given a choice, would you trade clarity and detail for rich, painterly color? When you listen, do you close your eyes and see pictures in your head?

If you can identify your personality type on this continuum of gender, you're halfway to finding your own "essence" in the existential realm of listening to music in the home.

Likewise, fine art has been categorized into gendered types: disegno (hard and male) and colorito (soft and female).

Disegno artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael emphasize line and form, using well-drawn shapes and compositions as containers for moral concepts. Color and sensuality are suppressed. What color there is is used rather locally and descriptively (green trees, blue sky, etc.). Paint is applied evenly, not expressively. This type of art, also called linear, reflects a tradition of solidity, reason, and conceptuality over feeling.

In contrast, colorito artists, such as Titian and Giorgione, showcase saturated color, expressive brushwork, and misty atmospheres. Colorito art is about poetry, mystery, reverie, with color employed to suggest feelings and states of mind. This art, also described as painterly, usually features feminine sexual forces operating in a floating, shifting world.

Fashion designers, and Italian automobile designers such as Pininfarina and Bertone, also work within these philosophies. Unwittingly, so do most audio manufacturers, who are forced to choose—or find a balance—between science and art. Should they focus on test-bench engineering and aim for clean, low-distortion sound? Or opt for something more like gourmet cooking, choosing design topologies and components for their color, texture, and flavor?

Feelings or facts, yin or yang, earthly or heavenly, Apollo or Dionysius—these are ancient dichotomies. Appreciating music and buying audio gear can be much easier when you know your own position in these philosophical matters.

As I get older, I become more suspicious of so-called "facts," and more willing to sit and examine the feelings I'm having. When I listen to recorded music, sonic facts usually assert themselves in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. How skillfully the music was recorded and how effortlessly it is being reproduced are unavoidable realities that I am forced to enjoy or disregard.

Usually, I can spot pretty easily the disegno/factual stuff. More difficult for my mind to access are the music's colorito aspects: atmosphere, tonal color, poetic intention. Therefore, I insist on being able to recognize and feel the musical energy in the room. I need to "see" the tones, and feel the music's weight, its body—its reality. I need to sense the instruments' metal and wood, imagine the moisture on the singer's tongue. I want to connect with the attitude of the musicians—by which I mean my need to identify the humanness in the music. In science, these types of needs are called "intangibles."

Typically, music strives to direct our attention toward these types of intangibles—most often, ones like death, love, loss, and freedom. That is why people make art in general, and music in particular. And that is why we listen to it.

But identifying and appreciating these intangibles requires a more deliberate and cultured self-awareness. It demands more sophisticated listening skills that require extended time and patience to develop.

The ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself" was once inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. I believe that knowing what sort of personality type you are, and exactly what one needs to be happy, are the best antidotes to most of audio's existential dilemmas. This knowledge is also the secret to knowing if the music you are playing, and the sound of that music as reproduced by an audio system, are worthy of your attention.—Herb Reichert

remlab's picture

Sorry, a little too phosisticated for my tastes..

tnargs's picture

Hello Herb, good to see you in print! It has been a long time since I enjoyed your Casual Reactions column.

The audio question behind your article, I think, is whether the playback equipment truly limits or controls the depth of our ability to appreciate the subtlety of the music itself. And even if the answer is yes, the next question is whether that is entirely due to the sound waves alone, or is it really due to our feelings about the equipment itself, e.g. warm glow of valves, etc.

SpiderJon's picture

What a lot of simplistic nonsense. And trying to anchor it in "fine art" terms really doesn't excuse things.

DaveinSM's picture

I don't agree with that simplistic assessment at all. In fact, such a dismissive attitude strongly suggests that you probably aren't getting all you can out if your own audio experience. I have been diagnosed as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP, look it up on google), and I find this article spot on and valuable. Though I am "sensitive", that just means that my nervous system is ramped up compared to most, and I believe my heightened senses explain why I am able to detect and discern, and thus have an appreciation for good sound. I love and appreciate a wide variety of music, but my main taste runs more towards rock. I value a clean, accurate, more 'masculine' sound if you will, and it is not surprising that I ended up with Thiel speakers driven by Krell electronics. No romanticizing or softening of my music-- even classical-- for me! I want details, clarity, truth, and accuracy, even at the cost of rough recordings not pulling any punches. And I get it in spades. I think that with all the choices in equipment and music out there, one's hi if rig is very individualistic and can tell a lot about them and who they are.

michaelhigh's picture

Some peoples' truth is others' psychobabble. As a classically-trained musician, sometimes the only way I can convey musical values to non-music-readers is to use visual art parallels. Your observations are spot on to me. I am not Joe SixPack, so esoteric comparisons between visual and auditory art appeal to my creative sensibilities. Thank you for your insightful observations.

deanderson's picture

I think in audio, because we're using money to create the musical space we desire, and it is limited, and there are usually multiple, discrete components in the chain, your note that "you can't find what you're not looking for," although philosophically debatable, is quite helpful.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the spectrum of delineation and mystery you outline (aptly and remarkably codified by the Apollonian/Dionysian duality), something like this does emerge (or has emerged for me) when I sit down and listen - do I prefer linear articulation, which can be at the expense of a holistic experience, or a warm, inviting sound, which can lack definition? Do I find both elements present (probably more likely the case) in my particular setup? - And how do I reconcile their differences? I think the reconciliation of disparate elements, or opposites, in this case, is at the heart of what it is to be human, and no one with a discerning ear (not that this is important, or even helpful, but it is a phenomenon, especially within communities like this one) can deny this tension.

These are good questions, and, although the conversation can seem a little 'high-brow,' I think these are honest reflections on how all serious audio enthusiasts feel. We are all seeking some kind of experience, and while that adventure may not easily be represented by a spectrum, there is certainly a tension between something like the poles you lay out. No one can deny that they like or dislike certain aspects of a recording, or the headphones they are using, speakers, DACs, etc., and that these preferences have led them to purchase audio gears that best suite their needs.

At least in my audio journey, which has just recently begun, I'm learning about these things, so it's good to see confirmation by others that there is a reality to the kind of (I'm not sure I would call it anguish, but something like that) that I grapple with when listening, and the kinds of thoughts it inspires - why else would we discuss and debate which products are 'better,' and how else could there be differences in opinion?

Is it merely because the audio equipment I'm using just isn't to my taste, or is there some deeper, natural process going on here that listening (yes, we listen, we don't just hear) to sound and music captures and mimics for us?

remlab's picture

.. Neurotic obsessiveness does nothing more than harm our enjoyment of anything, let alone music.