Sound Practices Magazine Online!
More Than Meets The EYE
In principle, everybody seems to agree that live music should be the reference by which reproduction is judged. However, one of the great dilemmas which confronts the audiophile is that you get so good at listening, so perceptive of nuance and aware of the characteristics of the media, that you can't easily be fooled into believing there is live music in your room. Paradoxically, the better we learn to hear the farther we stray from oneness with "the music."
Our real break with the audio past is in the ways we listen, not in the new technologies we use. Through methodical self-reflection and meticulous training, the modern audiophile has learned to listen in new ways and for new things. In the 20 or 30 years we have been developing these novel uses for our ears, we have gotten very good at listening analytically and describing what we hear in a bizarre and specialized jargon which only makes sense to those of us in the club.
Because of the studious disbelief the audiophile brings to his or her armchair perception laboratory, critically listening to reproducing systems and critically listening to music have become two very different experiences with divergent criteria, procedures, and assumptions. In pursuing our analytical agenda, we impose templates on the listening experience which are alien to the experience of live music.
Audiophile phenomena irrelevant to live music are central in the evaluative frameworks we use to assess our systems' performance. Even the most crazed audiophile wouldn't describe an actual live performance as musical." Did anyone ever say "Yeah, that concert had a great soundstage"? When we talk about music, even reproduced music, we talk about different things in different language than we use to assess reproduction. Relative positioning of sounds, image size, and intra-ensemble "air" are not a big part of what gives musical events meaning.
So when we praise our systems excellence at reproduction, we do so in language that highlights precisely those aspects where audio systems fail to pass for the real thing. In both appreciation and criticism, we focus on artifacts of reproduction rather than the musical or performance content of the reproduced material. With "real" music, many of the things we're searching for in our systems either don't matter or are taken for granted. It is only when we suspend "critical" listening that we can really lose ourselves in music. Music is about how well sounds blend together. Too often, we well-schooled audiophiles only focus on how well sounds can be isolated and differentiated. Strange business.
Since it's so important, some designers have optimized imaging capabilities to the detriment of "musicality" — a hotter buzz word than "imaging" these days and one worthy of serious discussion. Some music lovers feel that there's too little musicality in many 1993 state-of-the-art systems. Are we finally ready to admit it?
The direction finding/localization function of hearing is not an important component of my enjoyment of most music. Pinpointing images with our ears creates an unnatural division of sensory labor. Ears should be listening to music not localizing sounds. Ears aren't even that good at direction finding — that's why blind people carry sticks. At performances, I can use my eyes to tell where the performers are located, if I care. Good music often makes me want to close my eyes. An even more unnatural act is listening for the many ways in which space is distorted in reproduction — and it is always GROSSLY distorted. Usually not even close.
Visual perception is not an adequate model for musical perception. We don't really go to "see" a concert. Perhaps, all those allusions to photography and optics (focus, transparency, veiling, etc.) provided a convenient metaphorical framework to get a serious reassessment of reproduction moving, but they don't get us too far in our "search for musical ecstasy." Music is more than meets the eye.