[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
August 1998

Listening More? Enjoying it Less?

For 30 years, high end magazines of various types have promoted more careful listening to evaluate potential new equipment purchases as a means to getting more enjoyment from your music and better music from your equipment. They have developed a whole pantheon of verbal descriptions for audible characteristics of audio systems. As far as it goes, this is helpful and useful. We have learned to evaluate components by their transparency, detail, harmonic content, dynamics, soundstage size, tonality, image size, background silence, flatness of frequency response, and a whole host of other audiophile performance parameters. These parameters all tell you something about the component you are evaluating. The printed specifications for the component also tell you something about it. But together "audiophile listening" and published specifications still don’t tell you everything about a product. There are 2 things missing. Let’s dispense with one of them quickly.

The importance of being set up

Proper set up of audio components is critical if you are ever going to get to the "truth" about the performance of an audio component. I am often very surprised by what happens when you treat a budget component like it was an expensive component. Admittedly, a fair portion of budget components just sound worse and worse as their "problems" become more audible. But there are a surprising number of budget components that take very well to being treated like they are something grander. The more you treat these special budget components to "high-end" accessories and tweaks, the more like expensive components they sound. If you happen to own one of these special budget components, you have worthwhile sonic improvements you can unlock by using commercial products or do-it-yourself projects. You’ve read about many of these products and DIY projects right here on SoundStage! If you missed them, head back into our archives and have a look. I’m referring specifically to isolation platforms, damping platforms, tuning products (sand baggies, wood blocks, etc), power cords, power conditioners, feet (cones, pucks, blocks, bearings, etc), CD mats, equipment racks, amp platforms, interconnects, speaker cables, etc. Look for the columns written by Greg Smith and Greg Weaver too. All of these hold keys to releasing better sound from budget components. Of course using tweaks and accessories effectively in more ambitious systems is also highly beneficial. So for purposes of this article, let’s consider all the set-up issues covered.

So you think you’re a good music listener?

We covered the audiophile aspects of components, printed specifications and set-up. The 4th and last thing that’s important in selecting and evaluating components has to do with how you listen. The art of listening is more complex than I ever realized. I thought the way a person listens was a constant… whatever it was when you were 25, it is the same when you are 35 and the same when you reach 45. Well, it may be so for a small percentage of people. But for most of us, how we listen is something that changes over time, usually for the worse. If you are an "audiophile" it’s nearly inevitable that you are becoming a progressively worse music listener. But it’s not your fault. It’s a matter of focus, emphasis and practice. By learning to be a good audiophile listener, you actually condition yourself to be a worse music listener. In fact, the better you are as an audiophile, the more of your total music listening skills you’ve very likely lost. I lost my way for many years myself without even realizing it was happening. Hence a homily:

It is circa 1974. You are listening to 2-way $350 loudspeakers which were well reviewed in Stereo Review. The loudspeakers are being driven by a $200 receiver and a $200 turntable/cartridge combo. All of this equipment is connected with free interconnects and zip cord. You come home from work, sit down in front of this unlikely "system" and become completely and totally engrossed in the music to the point you easily ignore significant events going on around you. It is as if you are oblivious to the real world and only the music matters. In spite of having to get up every 20 minutes to flip or change LPs, you listen blissfully for an hour or two every night, longer on weekends. This listening is so unbelievably relaxing, it’s hard to put into words. Imagine the best possible meditation, out-of-body travel, relaxation, mental therapy, etc. that you could ever imagine. This is what listening to music used to for you back then – before you were an audiophile.

Paradise lost – very slowly

Over time, something happened. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s you lost the ability to get emotionally immersed in the music. Why did this ability to "deep listen" slip away over the years?. There are 2 things that cause us to lose the ability to get completely emotionally immersed in the music: 1) increasing stress and responsibility as you get older 2) being an audiophile. #1 is outside the scope of this article. It happens but you can learn to "get over it" through any number of processes from yoga to meditation to just plain re-learning how to relax.

Being an audiophile usually means constantly reading the magazines that describe nuances and setup differences. You learn how to listen for them then start listening critically to improve the sound of your own system. The more time you spent doing the "audiophile" thing, the less time you spent lost in the music. Over time the ability to get completely lost in the music will slip away gradually. First for a few days at a time, then for weeks, months… you might have even gone a whole year once or twice without having that wonderful all-enveloping listening experience.

When improving your system becomes your sole focus, you forget about what’s really important… the music. This is wrong, completely wrong. I feel an evangelistic call to reach out and save you… to reach out and pull you back from the pit of musical despair. Listen to me now and believe me later, SoundStage! readers… Yea, though you follow the path of audio righteousness, you should fear plenty of evils! Pleasure-robbing audiophile listening habits will bring you nothing and send your loved ones fleeing from your company. They will not be able to bear the unhearing unfeeling lout that you have become.

Paradise regained – The way is mapped

It is not too late to turn to the light. Turn to the music. To every day Turn, Turn, Turn. There is a season Turn, Turn, Turn… and a time for every person to… listen… again. You have to find your audiophile off-switch. No matter what the cost. No matter how hard the struggle. Find your audiophile off-switch! If you are young enough to not have a clue what I’m talking about, we’re dealing with the audiophile equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pit – slowly losing the ability to "deep listen" – to get completely emotionally involved with the music to the point that you do not hear things going on around you. How do you find the audiophile off switch (or keep from forgetting you have one)? This is the pilgrim’s quest! Journey with me to your listening room. Select something appropriately soothing to suit your mood. Put it in or on the ‘table, player or transport and have a seat. Start the music and begin the fight for your right to listen deeply. Whenever your brain tries to listen for detail, squash it. Whenever you try to listen for dynamics, forget it. If you try to listen for soundstage size, stuff it. Whenever you try to listen for midrange bloom, bass extension or the quality of cymbal smashes, fageddabowd it. You don’t want any of that, you want the music.

The amazing two-sided human brain

Being an audiophile can cause you can forget to use major portions of your brain when listening to music. You get stuck only being able to listen as an audiophile. You forget how to listen for the joy of the performance and for the rapture of the music. You need to get back to that time before you were overcome with all things audiophile. You can do it! Audiophile habits once learned are hard to control. Audiophile listening habits, once they get established, want more and more and more of your listening time and pretty soon they have it all and don’t want to give it back! You have to fight, you must fight, When you can resist audiophile listening long enough to listen to 40 minutes of music without once evaluating any audiophile performance parameter, you are ready for the next step.

You have to re-learn how to get into your trance-state or whatever you want to call it when you can totally block out the world hearing only the music. This is the meditative state where you exist on another plane of reality where music is the only thing that matters. This kind of listening takes place within the right side of your miraculous brain. You can still do it, you just have to practice to be able to get back into the "right side". It it’s easy to do when you are in your teens and 20s, may fade in your 30s and disappeared in your 40s. But you can get it back. If you’re young enough to never have experienced, this… stay vigilant! It could be coming your way silently in years to come.

When you listen as an audiophile, the analytical left brain makes it possible to evaluate and quantify all the small audible differences… transparency, harmonic content, tonality, detail, soundstage size, etc. The left side of your brain can sort out the nuances in the sound of several CD players or interconnects. However, when all this analytical power is brought to bear, the creative/artistic/emotional right brain pretty much abdicates, giving the listening process over to the left side exclusively. This is fine when you are evaluating components or accessories. But if you can’t make it stop later when you are listening only for pleasure and relaxation, you have a problem.

HELP! I’m listening with my left brain and can’t make it stop!

Some of you may need assistance to recapture "right side" listening because your ability to listen into the music has been gone for too many years. Here are some things I’ve been told might be helpful to some audiophiles who need a boost back into their right brain. Neither myself nor SoundStage! encourages the use of mood altering legal or prescription substances – I am only repeating things I’ve been told by others. Heck, I’m not even sure what some of these things are, so don’t ask! I was told that some of these may only be legally available to those living in San Francisco or Oakland CA who have a doctor’s prescription. These same people said that there are plenty of doctors in SF/Oakland who would be concerned enough about losing function in the right side of your brain that a prescription should be easy to get.

  • aged bourbon
  • head massage
  • puff
  • fine single malt scotch
  • foot massage
  • okey tokey
  • valium[TM]
  • neck massage
  • a doobie
  • prozac[TM]
  • a steam
  • "oregano"
  • tequila añejo
  • hot sex
  • hemp
  • fine port
  • trip to a spa
  • da’ buzz
  • Napoleon brandy
  • "smokestack lightnin’"
  • one of those roller-ball seat covers taxi drivers like
  • hand massage

What am I sayin’ here anyway… heck, I don’t know – I can’t help feeling like 99% of you can recapture lost right-side listening abilities without assistance… relying on your innate ability to shut down the audiophile syndrome with a little practice. But that list is so long because there are a heck of a lot of audiophiles who have confessed their loss of capacity and how they got it back. One of them is a neuro-biologist and he swears that within 3 years he’ll have blue right brain pills and yellow left brain pills that will restore brain function in whichever side you need it restored in. Working names for these pills are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Watch for them at your local pharmacy… Pfizer has expressed interest.

Right-side listening – How do you know you’re doing it?

Right-side listening is completely different because you don’t think, you don’t rationalize, you don’t compare. You just listen. You evaluate your emotional connection to the music… how easily it makes you feel happy, sad or anywhere in between. You evaluate how readily the music sucks you in to the performance. Some of the performance parameters of your audio system directly relate to how easily and completely you can achieve a completely emotional, non-analytical, listening state. Right-side deep listening is completely outside of traditional subjective audiophile observations. It is a dimension almost completely ignored by high-end audio publications. But it is very real and very powerful once you understand it. Get more into right brain listening and you’ll understand.

Your left brain uses music as a complex test tone for performing audiophile evaluations to find better electronic components, accessories or loudspeakers. To your right brain, music is an art form with the ability to touch you in highly personal ways. The people who make the music we most enjoy are exercising God-given gifts… putting their gift(s) out there for our pleasure. If we are only listening for ever-improving sound quality, we are missing the whole point of having an audio system. I’m going to say something radical that may not make an immediate impression because it isn’t "normal", but I guarantee that this is a true statement. Using the emotional right side of your brain to evaluate high-end audio components is more important than using the rational, logical left side of your brain to perform detailed "audiophile analyses" of each component.

Should you ever buy components for your system without doing the usual "audiophile evaluation"? There are sound reasons for not entirely letting go of the audiophile parameters. For example… certain kinds of amplifiers are respected for their outrageously seductive midrange. But when you listen to these amplifiers critically, you hear a haze of distortion all around the sound they produce. You listen to other amplifiers and you don’t hear the hazy sounding cloud around everything, but the seductive midrange is not there. Perhaps the best amplifier would be the one that satisfies both sides of the brain… an amp that possesses transparency and a seductive midrange. For now, I feel most comfortable recommending that for evaluating components you use the right and left sides of your brain. If you come to an impasse on a decision, go with what your emotional/creative right brain tells you.

Time’s up, Lefty!

So now you know there is something different going on in the 2 sides of your brain that makes this high-end audio and audiophile thing rather tricky. In fact there is some overlap in left-brain right-brain activity during listening. Your left brain analyzes and comprehends lyrics. Simultaneously, your right brain is absorbing the music and the performance. Some people may find it helpful to begin their journey back to right-side listening by using instrumental music. Promise yourself you’ll re-capture the rapturous listening you experienced years ago. If you aren’t old enough to have lost anything yet, be vigilant, stay in the emotional right side as much as you can… watch for right-brain warning signals. Being too much an audiophile and not enough a music lover will eventually suck the life out of your music listening. Since the whole point of our obsession with our systems is enjoying music -- let’s get our right-brain doing what it does best.

...Doug Blackburn

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