“What’s a good ____ for $300?” (amp/receiver/whatever)
I’ve been asked this question countless times, by people from outside our hobby. Many times I’ve answered with, “You really don’t want my advice”. It’s not that I didn’t want to help, but I thought most folks didn’t want to hear what usually came next; “When do you listen to music?” I didn’t want to know the hour of the day, but whether they listened to music as an activity unto itself or as background to something else.
I’m sure you’ve seen it or have done it yourself. Cranking up the stereo to wash the dishes, clean the house, read the paper, or God forbid, surf the net. I’ve done it, you’ve done it. It’s something we all do, but, do you ever just listen to music, period? It’s seems like such an obvious question if you’ve been in this enthusiast position where you try to get as much performance as possible from your hi-fi rig.
There is no cultural divide here. There’s no singular type of music that suits this purpose (although there are recordings aimed more at this, that I’ll talk about later). You don’t have to be rich,…….but it does make things easier. They have names for us, but I prefer enthusiast or hobbyist. The other titles can be derisive. Most enthusiasts of hi-fi gear are music lovers, but the opposite is not true. There are many music lovers who have the most basic of equipment. They might sit and listen for hours and maintain that, more expensive gear is not needed for their enjoyment. Maybe, but also maybe not.
To the casual listener, the arrival of CD was a godsend. And not just the casual listeners, but probably anyone without a good quality, well set-up turntable. Most, never hearing what the turntable was capable of, were happy to let go of Snap, Crackle and Pop. Not to digress into “analog versus digital”, but with analog, it takes a little more effort. That’s where the enthusiast shines. A well set-up system takes a little effort and time, to coax the most from it. There are some that take the position, “it’s all the same” or “only the speakers matter” and “that stuff is expensive”. My position is “does it matter to you?” If you are doing something else while the music is playing, you can save yourself some time and money. On the other hand. If you sit and listen to music and the only other thing you’re doing is tapping your foot or nodding your head (air guitar or drumming is optional if inoffensive to others), then this does matter to you. If you’ve never tried just listening to music, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.
I would hazard a guess that as mobile electronics and social media have grown, the singular activity of listening has shrunk. Younger people today have many devices to keep them doing ‘something’ always. Actually, they’re usually doing two things, because they’re always texting! Just kidding. Singular listening is usually the first way kids start their musical appreciation. Whether it’s trying to find out just what the lyrics are. It just might be, because you like the song, you keep playing it over and over. Even in movies the sullen teen slams the door to his room, turns up the stereo and flops on the bed. He’s not reading or (God forbid) cleaning, it’s just plain listening.
Listening as a singular activity can greatly heighten the emotional connection to music. This emotional or visceral aspect can be further enhanced by proper set-up with good quality equipment. This doesn’t have to mean expensive (but it sure can be). We all know that music can be quite the emotional experience. Sure, you can connect with the radio turned up in the car, or dancing at a club, but those times have never equaled the experience of when it’s “just me and the music”. Perhaps it’s the ‘letting go’ of the cognitive functions, when you’re not doing something else. When your faculties are faced only with, “what should I play next?”, rather than cleaning or reading.
If you’ve read any audio reviews, you’ve likely seen, “the hair on my neck stood up” or “…brought a tear to my eye” many times. This usually happens with only listening. It might be a ‘Strat or a Stradivarius string, when struck, it touches you in a way you can’t explain. Or the trail of vocal cords at the end of a wistful lyric. Sure, it can happen from remembering a lost relationship when “our song” comes on the radio, but that’s different; what I’m getting at here is the connection to a new experience, not merely the reviving of an old memory.
Music is on everywhere, it seems, but nobody is listening. Have you walked down the aisle at any shopping mall and heard the blaring music coming from most stores? Even the ones without their own source will use the piped-in music that the mall uses. Has this endless cacophony contributed to the decline of “just listening”? Ask the clerks or employees of these shops how they stand the aural assault, and you’ll usually get the same reply: “I don’t even hear it anymore’. That’s a sad statement. Although it’s usually not my kind of music, it’s got to be somebody’s, doesn’t it? That said, this “background music” is then grouped in with the noise of a printing press, or trains passing or the din of the crowd at the beach. Something to be ignored. If music holds a valued place in your life, it is indeed a tragic dilemma. I’m not arguing to save *this* music per se, but to stop devaluing music in general. I’ve heard the reasoning behind its inclusion in public places, but to spread that to every corner of your life is ridiculous. Why is silence so bad? Well, it’s not exactly silence, is it?
I may be a minority voice on this, but if “singular listening” were to grow, so would that minority. I call it singular listening, but I don’t mean that it’s something to be done alone. Some call it “critical listening”, but they’re typically audio/music reviewers, or someone evaluating something. I’ve even read reviewers differentiate between critical listening for a review, and just plain listening. Perhaps “dedicated listening” is a better term?
When I was selling audio gear, I could usually tell if the person was buying to further his appreciation of music, or for some other reason. Please bear with me on my conclusions. I’m not infallible, I can’t read minds or the intentions of others. These are just my observations filtered though the sifter that is me. Anyway, if a customer was in for an audition (usually with their own music), the length of time a song played was a flag of how much singular listening they did. If I was hopping up after ten seconds to change the song, then either they were terrifically endowed with golden ears or ……..?? (ADHD listeners?) Music lovers who listen for listening’s sake, would let the music play. Usually it was me interrupting or asking about the next cut. Sure it was different than listening at home and if I did a follow-up with them at their home, they were true listeners. (Great analogy. How often do we rush to evaluate the sound of a piece of gear, by trying to isolate a particular bass note, or the familiar shimmer of a cymbal? Rather than letting the music play, and waiting to see if there’s a warm connection from the overall experience? Ed.)
If you disagree with the inclusion of “true” listener, then you haven’t been listening, haha! This isn’t an “us vs them” kind of thing. It’s an invitation to try something different. There is no finger to point at the culprit. The reasons are many. If you were around before television, then it’s probably a sure bet that you listened this way. The radio forced you to listen. A lot of programs then, needed you to pay attention to flesh out the details. The dramas and serials needed your imagination to fill in the blanks. When television arrived, this diminished. And with the advent of computers, instant messaging, smartphones and social media, your attention soon divided and subdivided – in fact, with this new thing we call “multitasking”, the possiblity of “just listening” as a sole activity has eroded further still.
To many people, but especially audio enthusiasts, this is as normal as any popular pastime, say for example, hockey. Like hockey, you should be able to find a few hours to devote to musical appreciation, if it’s important to you. There might not be the watercooler discussion the next day, but wouldn’t it be great if there were? There are many things that have changed for people growing up the generation after mine. I’m on the tail end of the baby-boomers. I’ve gone from OTA television (before cable), to the almost limitless media now available. Perhaps sitting and just listening is perceived as old fashioned. Just as black & white films were ignored by many modern folk – until they tried them.
Buying habits are different for most people now. Before, we would go out record shopping (or CD shopping), and when we got home, the first thing to do was play what you bought. Now, with mobile devices and instant downloading, the same anticipation isn’t there. Coupled with that is, if you’re just downloading a song versus an album, it isn’t worth your time to “clear the deck” for one song. I’m sure some will say, “But I don’t need to stop everything else to appreciate my tunes”. Maybe, maybe not? Is it worth 20 minutes or an hour to find out? Try a couple of songs, or the side of an album. We know, people are busy and there are greater demands on our time, but can’t you budget a little time for something you love?