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Journeys In Audio Subjectivism, Part One

07-24-2015 | By Robert Schryer | Issue 80

My Hot Tub Epiphany, or: "Where the heck did my ice cubes go?"

A funny thing happened to me a couple of weeks into writing this article. While relaxing one cool evening in my hot tub thinking-spot, I had an epiphany. About audio. Specifically, about how we internalize the sound of recorded music. And I say epiphany with some reservation: I still have no idea how much of it I can take to the bank. But I can say this about the moment it hit me: it felt big.

Imagine an ‘On the Road' style stream of consciousness rolling in from a high distance and smacking into your cerebrum. Now imagine that each scene coming at you is actually a blossom of possibility that sprouted from where the last one left off, and you're getting warmer to my meaning of ‘felt big.' Not only that, but it struck me as the type of overriding idea whose potential would only get bigger as time went on. It fundamentally changed the direction of this article, which had been, until then, a pretty pedestrian affair. No longer. I scrapped most of what I'd written to take a closer look at those blossoms of possibility.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. For your sake as much as mine, I want to start at the root cause of my epiphany, where this all begins, and work from there.

I'm an addict, sort of. I crave listening to playback equipment that can tap into the humanity in a musical recording and sync it with mine. Regularly. Sometimes at crazy hours of the night. It might not be an addiction that destroys my health or has me stealing to feed it, but heaven forbid I go too long without indulging; I once came this close to screaming at the drive-thru speaker for a cleaner midband.

Being an audiophile—the title brims with single-minded purpose—means that, compared to regular folk, I'm predisposed to extreme tendencies when it comes to hi-fi.

Reassuringly, I'm not alone, although it can feel that way when I'm out in the real world. The Internet has shown me that there's a small but enduring contingent of us around, skulking in the shadows of our listening rooms, or shuffling anonymously through the corridors at audio shows. The cold, lonely fact is we exist on society's fringes. But just because we do doesn't mean we don't deserve to be musically content.

Now here is where, at the outset, I'd begun to expound on the notion of musical contentment with the introduction of the Noontec Zoro 2 headphones, when, after I'd spent two pages writing about it, my epiphany intervened and I was given a new mission in life, which included rewriting this article practically from scratch. It doesn't mean that the Zoro 2 doesn't play a role in my epiphany; it will, in due course.

But for now, more backstory: I used to be a chronic sound-chaser, chasing sound per se—those peaks of perfect highs and a perfect midrange and the perfect soundstage which I was sure were within grasp if I could just figure out the combination. So busy was I grasping for perfection that I forgot why I became an audiophile in the first place: To get closer to my music. Instead, I started resenting our hobby for taking me further away.

But all was not lost; through a two-tiered system of self-reform, I managed to break through my musical impasse and become less technical and more Zen in my relationship with sound reproduction.

The first thing I had to do was repeatedly exhort myself, whenever all sense of fun threatened to leave the listening room, to focus on the music's greater whole rather than on its sonic parts. The second required shunning, to the extent it was possible to do so, any equipment whose performance failed to consistently make me forget that I was in the act of listening to music.

Eventually, it clicked; my audio expectations shifted from the impossibly perfect to the musically essential. There on in, I would seek out only audio equipment that could, above any other performance consideration, nail down two objectives, simultaneously or interchangeably: 1) involve me emotionally, i.e. yank at my heartstrings or turn me into a dancing idiot, and, 2) involve me intellectually, i.e. make me notice new things in the meaning and compositional structure of the music.

Which still means, of course, that I have to care about sound per se, inasmuch as I expect honesty from the playback gear I'm listening to. I am also, as a card-carrying audiophile, not above coveting high-end audio gear for the sake of the gear itself, in the same way I find such equipment infinitely more enticing to look at and touch than sports cars or Swiss watches or any other similar embodiment of fancy machinery. But for the same reason I started resenting our hobby, I've tired of chasing my tail after things, be they sonically or gear-related, which is all that those different parts are: things, as vital as they may seem, and as hung up on them as we risk becoming in our descent into resentment.

And as grateful as I am for the audiophile lexicon as it is currently etched into our collective consciousness, having read the same recycled batch of descriptors for nearly 30 years, and I mean no disrespect to anyone dead or alive by saying this, I also find them repetitive to the point of homogenizing the reported performance of equipment, a bit like a Stereo Review ‘all-amps-sound-the-same' phenomenon, but in reverse sound-quality-wise.

But who knows. Maybe that's what happens naturally after 30 years of doing anything; a prevailing sense of sameness sets in, quickly followed by cynicism. All I know is that, as an outsider trying to live vicariously through the heart and mind of the reviewer, I am rarely left, by review's end, with a tangible impression of how the product appealed to the heart and mind, which is what I want to know most of all.

Simmering in my hot tub that fateful evening, I was thinking how cool it would be if we could simultaneously feel and think what the reviewer was feeling and thinking during a listening session.

Then I wondered: "When we're listening to a recording, how much of our perception of what is or isn't musical due to our hearing, and how much of it is actually due to our emotional and intellectual experience of it?"

And as my mind reached out toward the speckled moon and that Kerouac-style stream poured down toward me from the other end… Bang! Epiphany.

My wife wouldn't know what hit her.

To be continued...