Why Music Matters Most Letters

We received a large numbe of emails in response to Michael's essay:

Right on!

Editor: Michael's October "As We See It" was and is beautiful and right on. Thank you!—Hal Marcus, Address withheld by request

Enjoy them for what they are

Editor: Michael Lavorgna's "Why Music Matters Most" editorial hit the nail on the head. Somehow, we audiophiles have to learn to enjoy the sounds our systems reproduce. It's "the art of recording" we are all listening to. I believe there is no harm in enjoying the recording, even if it falls short of the perfectly reproduced sound. I enjoy my records for what they are, recorded music, and that's enough for me.—Russ Schaeffer, Palmdale, CA, cschaeff@roadrunner.com

Hitting the nail on the head

Editor: Michael Lavorgna's essay in the October issue ("As We See It—Why Music Matters Most: Enjoyment, Illusion, and the Audiophile:) is the most insightful and grounded treatise on the audiophile condition that I can remember having read. There are so many diverse opinions about equipment and source material that the purpose of it all—to please the individual—becomes clouded.

I will have to admit that I haven't always paid much attention to Stereophile, mostly because of the assumption that not being a member of the Rothschild, Gates, or Buffet families would prevent me from ever being able to own the equipment often advertised in Stereophile. I have continued my subscription over the years because I know what high-end systems can sound like and I enjoy your reviews of music recordings.

I can still remember being a young member of the military on leave in New York and visiting an audiophile store where an enthusiastic salesperson auditioned a high-end system and pointed out the subtleties of Pink Floyd's The Wall. It was like nothing I had heard before and became my "target" for the future. Needless to say, 44 years later, my home-theater system is nothing like what I saw and heard that day, but I love it because it's mine and I built and rebuilt it over many years of research and intense listening. I have collected everything, from 78s to SACDs, and enjoy each and every one for what they are—the performing artist's and recording engineer's best attempt to provide me with something that I would want to listen to. And I do listen.

My preference is to listen in a darkened room which, with a clue taken from a blind friend, enhances the listening experience. And that, to paraphrase Mr. Lavorgna, is a most luxurious use of time.—Michael Dougherty, michael_dougherty@msn.com

Why music matters most

Editor: It was a pleasure to read Michael Lavorgna's editorial in the October issue (p.3)! Only one question remains after reading it: Why does Stereophile gradually reduce the space it devotes to reviews of music?

How in the world can you claim in an editorial that "music matters most" when the balance between equipment reviews and music reviews in Stereophile is completely skewed toward equipment? We need lots and lots more music reviews. Music is what our hobby is all about.—Anthony Melein, meleina@xs4all.nl

Good point, Mr. Melein, but the fact of the matter is that Stereophile has always primarily been a magazine about audio hardware. Cutting back on our coverage of audio components in favor of more music reviews is not what the majority of our readers desire.—John Atkinson

Eminently sensible

Editor: Anything I could say about Mr. Lavorgna's eminently sensible "As We See It" in the October issue would be superfluous. I'll go ahead anyway. His analogy of an apple to its depiction on canvas as it relates to live and reproduced music is right on. He implicitly explodes the fantasy that, in "critical listening," we audiophiles are engaged in some leading-edge or priestly enterprise. He yanks us back to earth: Listening to music is a luxury that is "completely and totally unproductive." He asks us not to take ourselves—or our gear—too seriously as we park ourselves in our chairs and spin our discs. Pure pleasure—passion, if we're lucky—will have to be justification enough for the putting aside of precious earthly time to listen to the music we happen to love.— Bruce Moss. Santa Fe, NM, BruceMoss@earthlink.net

I've been called a number of things in relation to my column, Mr. Moss, and I can assure you that "eminently sensible" is both new and welcome. Thank you for your kind words, and for going ahead anyway. I could not have said it better.—Michael Lavorgna

A false and useless analogy

Editor: The main points of Mr. Lavorgna's argument (October, p.3) derive from a totally false and useless analogy: An apple is to a painting of an apple as a symphony in a concert hall is to a recording of a symphony played at home. The logically defensible analogy is: A recorded symphony played at home is like a copy of a great painting whose original is on display in a public museum. There are good copies and better copies, and there are very bad copies. Take The Starry Night. If you want to see exactly what Vincent van Gogh painted, you need to travel to the Museum of Modern Art, buy a ticket, and stand in line. If you want a copy to hang over your mantle, you can choose anything from a $50,000 hand-painted copy that only 10 experts in the world can tell from the original, to a free Day-Glo poster on aluminum foil. In Lavorgna's world, both are equal representations, there being no "objective criteria" for distinguishing them, only "personal enjoyment."

Likewise, if you want to hear what Osmo Vnsk does with Beethoven, you need to buy a ticket and show up for the concert. If you want to hear a reproduction of that at home, you can listen to a mono AM radio or you can listen to an SACD through high-resolution playback equipment. In my world, those alternatives are differentiated by personal enjoyment and objective criteria: one sounds very little like an orchestra playing Beethoven, while the other sounds very much like an orchestra playing Beethoven. In Lavorgna's world, it just depends on which a listener likes better. To prove it, I quote him: "Hi-fi's value is . . . the ability to let us listen to whatever we want, whenever we choose, and as often as we like." By that definition, a cheap MP3 player with $3 earbuds and 30 lbs of AAA batteries is way more hi-fi than any home-based reference system.

Please get rid of this guy, or send him to mandatory rehabilitation at a logic clinic.—David Woods, deepthicket@comcast.net

Mr. Woods, the logically defensible analogy is: A recorded symphony played at home is like a copy of a great painting whose original is on display in a public museum. Listening to music on a hi-fi at home is not a copy; it is an event in and of itself.

"In Lavorgna's world, it just depends on which a listener likes better." Exactly. And thank you for suggesting that I have logic to rehabilitate.—Michael Lavorgna

A sad truth

Sure, Michael, and every time you play the same recording on the same equipment in the same room, it's a whole new event, right? Just like a real-time live concert—except, of course, it is exactly the same every time, accomplished without human involvement, creativity, or thought. You not only don't see it, I am beginning to wonder whether you hear it, either.

Your reply simply confirms a sad truth. A magazine that adopts the worldview of a three-year-old (the only thing that matters is what I think) and confuses that with reality has nothing to offer those of us who prefer exceptionally good recordings and sound reproduction. There was a time, long ago, when Stereophile provided pretentious but useful assessments of equipment and recordings. The pretense remains, but the utility is virtually gone. The role of the reviewer in your world is rather limited: "I like it" or "I don't like it" covers the full range of possibilities. That type of mindless, worthless feedback belongs on the Internet, not in a magazine that consumes actual paper and ink.

I'm sure you are a fine person and all that, but you are not helping anyone identify exceptional recordings or exceptional equipment, and therefore you are not helping anyone to enjoy reproduced music. So what are you doing?—David Woods, deepthicket@comcast.net

As a matter of fact, Mr. Woods, yes: Each time I listen to a recording, it is a new experience, especially when the listening sessions are separated by long enough spans of time that, to each one, I can bring new experiences to the experience (so to speak), and maybe some additional knowledge as well. I'd think this is the same for most people, excepting those so blinded by self-congratulatory bloat that they cannot possibly accommodate, or learn, anything new.

I have to wonder why you're so confused (not to mention insulting) about so many things, Mr. Woods. First, I'm not a reviewer for Stereophile or for anyone else. Second, you've got this bit just plain wrong—it's not what I think that matters, nor did I ever suggest as much; in the appreciation of art, what matters is what each of us experiences. (That last bit is important, so feel free to reread for clarity.) Further, I did not write about "the role of the reviewer" at all—not once. In my column I specifically wrote about the hi-fi enthusiast and his or her enjoyment of listening to music through the hi-fi. Somehow, that is apparently not what you read.

I'm sure that you, too, are a fine person and all that. What am I doing, Mr. Woods, with all this talk of music and enjoyment? I'm entertaining some and annoying others. Harrumph!—Michael Lavorgna

Critical listening

Editor: It's interesting that Michael Lavorgna's "As We See It" appears in the same issue as "Recommended Components." He begins by stating that the ultimate goal of the hi-fi enthusiast is the enjoyment of prerecorded music in the home, then goes on to question the mindset of the hi-fi hobbyist, as follows. They "embroil themselves in endless debate over the finer points of this enjoyment: Do cables matter? Do all amplifiers sound the same?" He then says, "Objective criteria are meaningless in determining personal enjoyment." He derides the phrase critical listening, and makes the point that "Hi-fi's value is not its ability to create a convincing, objective and measurable illusion; its value is the ability to let us listen to whatever we want, whenever we choose, and as often as we like."

After reading his article, I turned to p.56 and was told that here are the 500 top-rated products that will surely turn me on, and that these products have been found to be among the best available in each of four or five quality classes. I realize that "Recommended Components" is just a starting point, but that begs the question: Without critical listening and objective criteria, how are these 500 components selected and agreed on by the reviewers at Stereophile?—Al Chasin, Forest Hills, NY, al.chasin@gmail.com

This is an excellent observation, Mr. Chasin. I would clarify, however, that I did not deride the phrase critical listening; rather, I derided its use by audiophiles. I'd go as far as to suggest that Stereophile should come with a warning label: "DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME." Confusion, unhappiness, and many needless "upgrades" can occur if not used properly. We are trained professionals.

I would add just this critical piece to your paraphrase: "Let's redefine high fidelity as being faithful to the passion for and discovery of music. This means that the best hi-fi is the one that perpetually fans the flame of this passion."—Michael Lavorgna


Mr. Lavorgna, I would like to elaborate on my previous reply to your e-mail. The subject of when to upgrade is an interesting one. Your suggestion that "Confusion, unhappiness, and many needless 'upgrades' can occur if not used properly" might serve as the foundation of a future article. In this article I would like to see you address the following points: What types of upgrades are musically significant? What types of upgrades are audiophile neurosis? If I have had a musically satisfying system for the past 10 or 15 years, does that mean I never need to upgrade, or is there a path to higher levels of musical satisfaction? And if so, what is your prescription for taking a system to the next level?—Al Chasin, Forest Hills, NY, al.chasin@gmail.com

Thanks for your elaboration, Al; I will keep your questions in mind. Regarding the last, "what is your prescription for taking a system to the next level?," off the top of my head, I'd say start with buying 10 or 20 records you normally wouldn't consider and see where they lead. And I believe Art Dudley has left an interesting clue in his October 2010 "Listening" column: "Some day, listeners who respond to the sound of Shindo gear may help reclaim the art of critical listening from the ninnies who think it has something to do with 'locating objects in space.'"—Michael Lavorgna

JBLMVBC's picture

"Objective criteria are meaningless in determining personal enjoyment. If the point of listening to music on a hi-fi is enjoyment (and if it isn't, you and I have nothing to discuss), and if music is art, the more meaningful experience comes about through our increased knowledge and enjoyment of music, not our increased knowledge of and fascination with hi-fi's ability to fool the ear. Trompe l'oreille?"



That's why professional studios do not care at all about the speakers they mix their products with... /sarc