It’s not for everyone. Maybe it shouldn’t be for just anyone. But face the fact, there are geeks among us who dig into every aspect of the experience of music. What does it take — a deep pocketbook? A golden ear? Hell, even taste in good music?
None of those things have to be necessary, though they all certainly help. If you’re into music — and I mean into music! — then these things do help. You should know straight away that audio gear follows laws of diminishing returns: premiums are paid for smaller and smaller differences as you move up into the highest of high end.
But there are a few fundamental things to keep in mind. Learning what to listen for can enhance your enjoyment of whatever music you’re into. The best gauge for me is live acoustic music. The goal is largely to produce the sound that one would hear in the ideal live setting. True to the performance.
Also evidence is emerging in brain science that tells us that your brain is probably capable of becoming audiophilic. Finally, don’t listen to all of the audio weenies who tell you what new fangled product to buy. Trust your own ears, above all!
I do not really consider myself an audiophile, because there’s a negative connotation associated with a term that should be reserved for people who drop some serious coin on this stuff. We’re talking $20k amplifiers and $10k CD players here. Thousands on cable interconnects. Futuristic air damped turntables. Or maybe those folks are just nuts!
So with that in mind, here are a few things I’ve come to learn how to listen for.
1. Silence – the absence of sound can be very revealing. We talk about blackness of a source, how much depth there is, and the noise floor. The blacker, the better.
2. Space around notes, decay – there is a term coined PRaT for this. That is: pace, rhythm, and timing. Great transducers will be able to keep up with the quickest sticks of Tony Williams and Max Roach, capturing the resolution and speed of quickly moving notes.
3. Natural tones – the timbre of the instruments are vital, and while most reasonably nice stuff will do just fine with this, exceptions do exist. (Sennheiser HD555, I’m callin’ you out!)
4. Drums and pianos – I’ve found that these two particular instruments are great metrics by which to judge the accuracy and ability of various audio components. In a recording, poorly reproduced, recorded, or encoded drums sound like garbage. All that blur, the impossible separation of high hats from ride cymbals and snares, that’s what I call trash. It’s incredibly audible in even some of the best encoding schemes, so stick to the CD source or lossless.
Regarding the pianos, again it’s the timbre that counts the most for me. Accuracy in the pianos is so difficult because of the wide frequency range that it covers. More often than not, the problem with pianos seems to be a boomy quality that is due to too much midbass or bass presence. On the other end of the spectrum, the higher octaves have to be clear and crisp.
Hopefully this is a reasonable start to a quest towards learning how to hear a bit closer. I’ve found that these explorations have really given me an entirely new appreciation for the music, as I am able to detect subtleties and nuances that I was not even aware of before.