A U D I O... P A P E R


Good sound / Bad Sound

 Feb 2006
by Steve Deckert

 

During a recent interview with Srajan Ebaen of 6-Moons, he made the observation that many accomplished musicians have rather mediocre stereo gear. Gear that by most audiophiles standards would be considered mid-fi at best.  His explanation was basically that musicians play a participatory role in the experience of music.  They only need a guideline or sketch of the music to recreate it in their minds which explains why when offered hi-end stereo gear to replace their mid-fi components most showed little if any interest.  

The point of all this is that during a human beings shift from discovering music as a child to becoming a seasoned audiophile, the participatory or imaginative process employed when enjoying music when you were young (regardless of sound quality) is gradually replaced with expensive audiophile gear.  Srajan accurately points out that this attempt at substitution does not work.  What it does do is create restlessness in audiophiles while they passively wait for their wonder gear to get them off on command.  This is the reason why audiophiles constantly go through different gear in that never ending search for something that they used to have as a child, or can only find at a live concert hall.

These comments help to define the active role of enjoying music to draw a clear contrast with the way a reviewer must listen while writing a review.  Two different things that were never meant to overlap but often audiophiles who are supposed to be enjoying music are instead trying to hear all of the adjectives they read in the reviews.

I believe some of us in the industry can wear both hats because experience has thought us generally not to wear both hats at the same time. After many years of A/B testing components and cables you develop new networks in your brain to process and or hunt for anomalies that do not correspond with the way you imagine it should sound.  It doesnít take a golden ear to become good at it.  This analytical subroutine that now runs constantly in restless audiophiles did not exist when they were children. Instead it crept up gradually as years of subliminal programming from exposure to audio hype took its toll.    I suspect that these restless audiophiles have not even realized these subroutines now exist in their brains nor would they realize they are counterproductive to experiencing music nor would they know how to turn it on and off.

On of the reasons music is an experience is because you physically go to it.  It typically doesnít come to you without out at least being actively invited.   If stereo gear is intended to recreate the audio portion of a musical event then listening to it should be approached in a similar way.   Think of a combination of planned and anticipated listening sessions with some spontaneous encounters, never forced.

How well we master the ability to use the correct side of our brain when listening to music on our stereos depends on experience and personality.  It can be hard to turn off the subroutine so that you can have one of those WOW experiences that justify all the money youíve spent while you listen.    The techniques used will no doubt differ from person to person and are not as important as awareness of where to focus your attention when you listen to music.

The ritual aspect of listening to high fi gear was in part lost when CD players replaced the more precarious hands-on turn table and then when remote controls were invented.   I bring up the key word ďritualĒ to point out that preparation and anticipation, two fundamental parts of any ritual, are components needed to enjoy music as opposed to finding yourself listening to gear trying to get it to sound better / which is often what happens when you expect a quick fix.

 

Hereís a few ideas for getting the door of musical ecstasy to open for you:

 

STEP ONE - Approach each listening session with respect in the knowledge that you donít know yet if you will have wonderful sound or unexplainably disappointing sound.  

 

STEP TWO - Warm up your gear for 10 to 20 minutes before pushing play, or starting the record.  This lets your mind and your ears still and creates anticipation.  Not to mention lets your amps warm up.

 

STEP THREE - Tease yourself into it by selecting less aggressive music and playing it at a low volume.  Stay here for at least 5 or 10 minutes minimum.  You can stay here the entire time, there is no pressure to move on.

 

STEP FOUR - Ask the moment in time your in if itís okay to proceed.  You really donít have to ask.  At this point you  either have developed a lust for more or your expecting it to become what it presently is not.   This is where you either get on or step off.   Never force it, it will not happen forced.  Good sound is like a basset hound, you canít force it to do anything, only ask and wait.

 

STEP FIVE - If step four failed but youíre not willing to give up (a dangerous bridge over disappointment) you can visualize your situation as a person standing in front of a door.  You can hear the music behind the door and the door is locked.  

 

KEY ONE - To unlock the door you need keys.  The first bunch of keys on your ring can be simply different recordings.  Try them all if you have the patients.   

 

KEY TWO - These are master keys, which are basically components, cables, speakers and room/system layout.  Selecting a key from this group could be something like switching the amplifier or preamplifier.  These are pretty potent keys for unlocking the door because of a little thing called perspective.  If you replace the amplifier with another one you have laying around, one of two things is going to happen.  Either you will like it better than the previous one or you will not.  Regardless of the outcome make sure you listen to it for at least 10 minutes minimum.  If you like the sound better than this 10 minutes could easily turn into an open door.  If you think the sound of the amp is worse, then re-install the original amp and listen to it again.   Now your mind is focused on the things about the amp that are better than the one you just tried and this is usually the point where you suddenly decide you like the way itís sounding and the door begins to open.

 

KEY THREE - Retire and try it again some other time.  If you consistently have this problem and are constantly buying and selling gear stop for awhile and quit reading about stereo stuff.  Look at the similarities in the equipment you buy.   Consider trying something ( or everything) completely different to break the pattern.  For some this can be moving from high power systems to low power/high efficiency while for others it could be moving all their present stereo gear into a different room.

 

LISTENING

Listening to music with the wrong side of your brain is just liking buying gear with your eyes.  Itís something everyone including myself must wrestle with from time to time, itís what makes us human.  As a professional I have developed the ability to listen to gear or music but I can only experience music as good as any other human being. Hearing the subtle phase cues that construct a palpable image and the texture or speed of a given capacitor in a circuit against what I want to be hearing at a given time is highly developed skill. This is a requirement for artistry in equipment design and in equipment review.  However, the less of it you develop the easier it is to enjoy the experience of music on a given stereo system.  

Naturally with the jarring shift from left to right brain during a listening experience, itís logical that you would become distracted and have difficulty re-entering the experience.  Just as it is logical that the better your gear actually sounds against the grand scale of perfection, the less likely it is to do something distracting to the music. That makes it easier for those inflicted audiophiles to reach step 4.

In my work, my mind is the canvas and the amplifiers or speakers (whichever Iím developing at the time) are the paint.  I have to be able to discern the difference between what I have (presently hearing) and what I think it could be at itís potential. I started out doing this by simply building two of everything and then making small changes to only one and listening for what changed.  20 years later it has developed into the ability to multitask in real time during an evaluation.  When I listen to a component I hear how it sounds and while listening also hear how I think it could sound almost like a parallel sound track running right next to it.  Then I a few bars at a time I compare the two in my minds ear and define the differences.   As a musician I find similar processes are active when composing music.   I have also noticed that after a few drinks this process becomes modified to leave out what I hear - leaving only the perception of what I think it should sound like.  Not terribly unlike the natural ability we were all born with and lost somewhere in the process of becoming audiophiles.


 

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