We all like to imagine our products are completely neutral, transparent, and without sonic colorations.
Yet, we know that’s simply not true.
Like it or not (and I tend to like it) the designer’s essence, soul, tastes, and biases towards music are a part of the final product. Their tastes influence musical performance in the same way a recording or mix engineer’s decisions determine what’s going to get your stereo, foot tapping.
People, recordings, audio equipment, and even room furnishings imprint their personalities on the music we choose to listen to.
The challenge then is to make sure you like the personalities of what you choose to surround yourself with.
Headphones vs. speakers
I’ve never understood the rift between headphone and loudspeaker advocates.
Chat rooms, forums, and blog posts by the hundreds are rife with strong opinions why one’s superior to the other. It is constantly pointed out that headphones are more full range, lower distortion, generally have only one driver, are easy to drive, and so on. Defenders and provocateurs of loudspeakers point out that headphones miss out on any visceral feel, they cannot recreate a true sense of room, and they do not encourage sharing.
The arguments and battles seem rather endless.
I take a different, more moderate view. I like both.
Instead of pointing out the flaws inherent in each, I prefer to instead focus on the positives afforded by these very different methods of playing music.
Each is high-end and each provides an entirely different and unique listening experience.
It’s not that one’s better than the other.
We could safely suggest that both bring us closer to the music in ways the other misses.
When we listen to music we’re hoping for a connection.
Does it touch our soul?
We all have experienced that connection to music. Sometimes it happens at a concert, other times it’s totally random: in the car, somebody whistling a tune, or on your high-end audio system.
The better my stereo system sounds the closer I get to connecting the inner me with the music.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow measure that level of connection?
Alas, we need to rely upon our emotions both for connection and measurement.
In light of recent events, I think it may be helpful to turn to the one thing we can all agree upon.
As some of you know, Octave Records is going to be launching an amazing work in May: the entire Bach Cello Suites, recorded in the cavernous Mesa Arts center by our friend, world-renowned Cellist, Zuill Bailey. Can’t wait to share this masterpiece with you.
In the meantime, Zuill suggested we share a beautiful and healing piece of music, Song of Birds. This was originally performed, sadly, after the tragic El Paso shootings.
It’s music that can heal wounds and soothe the pain.
Click on the picture of Zuill to watch the YouTube video.
The illusion of sound
There is no such thing as sound or color. These are just imaginary representations crafted by our brains as a way of hearing and seeing our world.
There is no green to the grass, yellow to the sun, or blue to the ocean: No A flat, G sharp, or C major in music—just different wavelengths of light and frequencies of moving air.
In the physical world, light and sound are not grouped as colors and tones. It is only in our mind’s construct to help us make sense of the world we see and hear these poetic representations of wavelengths and frequencies.
It should be of no surprise then that changes in wavelength or vibrational patterns—even the smallest of changes—present themselves as differing colors or sound patterns when our brains reassemble various external inputs and stimuli.
Just knowing that everything we see and hear is a mental construct unique to each of us should be food for thought when it comes to suggesting there’s an absolute sound or vision.
It is, after all, just a personalized illusion.
And the music, room and listening tastes!!
Best place to set volume
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a simple set of rules and guidelines for audiophiles to follow?
Do this and get that?
I’ve tried my best, in the Audiophile’s Guide, to get as close as possible to that standard. Do this and get that works in the Guide because you’re part of a process that involves feedback. Your ears tell you if you’re getting close and then the Guide explains what to do if you’re not.
What we don’t have is a simple set of “switches”. Do this and get that instructions that work without feedback and tweaks are rare.
For example, where’s the best place to set the volume level in a digital audio system? DAC at 100%? Computer at 100%. Preamp in the mix or not?
The problem with saying one way or the other is the right way is that it depends. Yes, it depends. It depends on what kind of equipment you have. It depends on the synergy of the system.
A preamp in the chain is the right way to go but only if the preamp is of a certain quality.
How do you know if it has the right quality?
The right place to set the volume or the best cable to use is dependent on a set of variables and without identifying the proper variables it’s difficult to answer.
The best place to set the volume depends on the system.
The new norm
I was just ruminating on the date. February 23, 2021. Two months into the second year of a pandemic lockdown.
Who’d have guessed?
As audiophiles, we’re thankful our passions are inside our homes. I mean, if you have to be trapped inside better with great music and sound than without.
Thank goodness for music.
Thank goodness for Copper Magazine.
Thank goodness for our HiFi Family.
We’ll get through this together as families do.
Do you remember mixtapes? Cassette tape copies of curated LP tracks.
Today we call them playlists.
Only, something’s lost. With mixtapes, one shared with a friend what was, in essence, a one of a kind handmade LP. That was pretty special.
Compare that to a modern playlist that can be shared via email, posted on the net, listened to by hundreds. Somehow, it doesn’t feel as personal.
As we move forward in time things change, often not always for the better. Different, yes.
Playlists are awesome and allow people all over the world to enjoy hand-curated music, but they are rarely one-of-a-kind and they can live forever.
Not so with physical media.
Over time, your copy of a cassette tape or a vinyl LP will become unique depending on the number of plays, how it is handled, how it was first created.
I am fine with the new but sometimes get a bit nostalgic for one-of-a-kind hand-crafted treasures.
They were personal.
I’m almost always listening to the entire whole, but every so often, something startles me and I then go micro. Either way, it is fun.
Our feelings towards music often depend in part on our view. Micro, or macro. Are we listening closely or from afar?
When we listen intently to our stereos we’re focused on the minutiae. Details are more important than the overall presentation: the scrape of a bow, the strike of a drum, or the sweetness of a reed.
Stepping back and broadening our view we can more easily hear the proverbial big picture. Instead of the sonic details, we might find ourselves engaged with the conductor’s performance or the orchestra’s overall tonal color.
I generally move from macro to micro, though I know plenty of people who do the opposite.
For me, if the big picture presentation fits, it’s valuable to dig deeper into the details. Others may want to have a closer look before zooming out.
Regardless of your listening style, it’s helpful to know you even have a style and then to be comfortable with it.
For the times we’re lucky enough to enjoy new musical treasures, it might be beneficial to note whether you’re in the micro or macro mode at the very point where enjoyment is at its peak.
That’s a good place to return to when the next opportunity arises.
What happened in our country to music and art?
How is it that in the wealthiest country in the world we cannot afford to include music and art education? Our schools are suffering massive budget cuts and the first expenses to be trimmed are arts and music. After all, it is reasoned, we don’t require knowledge of music to earn a living.
And while I am at it, how is it that as a nation we’re alright paying for 12 years of public education but add on another four and funding is off-limits?
Who drew that line?
100 years ago we were an agrarian society moving into the age of cities and factory jobs. 12 years of education was more than sufficient. One didn’t require a college education to drive a tractor or sit on an assembly line.
The society of 2020 is a far cry from that of 1920.
Perhaps it’s worth considering that as we move deeper into our technologically demanding society art and music become increasingly important as a means of maintaining our humanity.
As a country, we need 16 years of public education just to stay up with the rest of the world, but in the affording of that, we shouldn’t exclude the arts.
Music and art feed our humanity.