I recently read an article on an audiophile web site asking what was important when listening to music. For instance, do we listen for the beat, for the bass, the quality of sonics or, even perhaps, none of the above - choosing instead to just listen? I found that question curious because when I queried myself, a definitive answer was really, to a certain point, hard to ascertain.
One reader's response made things more interesting because, according to the comment, the actual playback medium wasn't all that important. For him, music could be enjoyed by whatever means - an AM / FM transistor radio, iPod, car radio, cheap mid fi system or even an audiophile level system. In fact, according to the comment, the audiophile system presented the most listening problems because of the constant practice of making sure the system was performing up to its design standard. Is that what we audiophiles do?
When I consider my own listening habits over the last, say, five years (that should be far enough in the past), most of my listening has taken place on my high performance system. Secondarily to that would be the satellite radio in my car, and then only sparingly. When I travel by car for business, I am frequently on the phone and personal trips are predominantly around the city so time behind the wheel is minimal. Yes, I mostly listen to music on my audio system. So the question seems to become - is that what it takes to enjoy music? Is my absence of other primary forms of listening the result of an abandonment of lesser levels of quality or a learned habit?
I'd say it's pretty likely that the average audiophile who listens to music on their car radio, or some low reproduction level portable device, is not especially concerned about sonics on that device. Music in those environments may be as much about background music as anything else. There's also the fact that many music lovers are perfectly happy with a lower level of quality than an audiophile so an iPod is perfectly fine. That said, does an audiophile attach a differing frame of reference to their listening habits?
According to the comment on the web site, listening to a high performance system is primarily spent in an evaluation of the sound, not the simple task of enjoying the music. True enough, there are times when I am listening to specific auditory references, like the decay of a cymbal or the clarity of a low bass note. There are other times when I turn down the lights and just enjoy.
I would think the circumstances that surround our lives at the time may also matter. If I have had a hard week of working, relaxing to some smooth jazz at week's end might be the perfect prescription. In that scenario, it's all about the song. If I am listening to my "five star" songs, or the ones I use to evaluate performance, and typically my favorites, assuring myself the system is performing as expected is also part of the process.
Yet at the same time, during those evaluation periods, I also am frequently amazed at the song itself because of the capabilities of my audio system. In fact, is that very condition not the reason we go through all of this, not to mention spending whatever sum of money, all in the pursuit of hearing the song as it was recorded, or at least as closely as possible?
I suspect for some audiophiles, it may be a difficult thing to draw a straight line between enjoying the song and being sure you are enjoying the song - the latter succinctly accomplished by better equipment and sonic evaluations. Maybe for some the gear becomes, as the comment noted, "a distraction, not a conduit." But is that necessarily wrong?
It cannot be overlooked that for the practice of the audiophile arts the gear is also part of the process. It is part "A" to parts "A & B" - part "A" being the reproduction system and "B" the music itself. Remove either part and the historical definition of the audiophile hobby no longer applies. Replace a reference system with an iPod and one no longer is about sonic quality. And quite obviously, without the music, through and by whatever format, the system itself is simply something that sits on a rack and lights up at night.
The reader's comment also made the closing assessment that if your only means to enjoying music is through a high end system then you've missed the point. Music can and should be enjoyed in and of itself regardless of the delivery method. Sort of nullifies our hobby completely, does it not?
I look at this closing position from the reverse. High performance audio has conditioned me, and it might be argued spoiled me, to listen to music in a certain way. I want to hear the decay of that cymbal and the clarity of that low bass note. In the absence of those, and the other audiophile cues to which we all attach some measure of importance, music is just not as enjoyable for me. It then becomes the salient difference between genuinely listening and simple background music. This is not to say that one is wrong or right, or one has more importance or relevance than the other, hardly that. It is, however, a certainty that my listening habits have been changed because I have developed an interest in the audiophile hobby. And if I elect to use that medium for the predominance of my listening, it is no more incorrect than the person who loves the driving experience of sports cars and sees sedans as a way to simply travel from place to place.
Happy Listening to whatever type of system you prefer.