Hi-Fi: How Do We Listen? | The Ivory Tower


Pictured (from left) Nan Pincus PTA Contributor, Dave McNair PTA Contributor, photo by Eric Franklin Shook PTA Managing Editor

Recently a happy convergence in my schedule allowed me to spend several days doing lots of listening to my home stereo. Like 6-to-8 hour stretches. Vinyl only. Undisturbed for the most part except by Speedy, our cat. This is rare for me. And incredibly enjoyable.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

During all that listening I also thought about stuff. I’ve found it’s damn near impossible for me to stop thinking even if I’m engrossed in the music. No real surprise there if your mind is like mine—a dash of OCD and a big dollop of ADHD (everything has to be perfect, but not for very long…)

One of the things that popped into my head was some notions about how audiophiles and non-audiophiles (also known as The Sane People) listen to music. I’ll ask the reader a few questions to get the party started.

During an active listening session:

  • Are you listening primarily to the music
  • Are you listening to your system (or a particular component)?
  • Are you listening to some mix of both?
  • If you move between states, what triggers this?

We’ve all heard the time-honored audiophile saying, “A better sounding system really enables me to get into the music more,” or some minor variation of the phrase. That, my friends, is some weak bullshit. Okay, before y’all get your knickers in a twist, hear me out. If I’m in a small tight-knit group of audiophiles and someone makes that comment, as a friend I’ll nod my head in agreement and mumble, “Yeah.” Makes sense, right?

But when I drill down on that idea I come up with something else to consider. Maybe it has something to do with how our brains process the listening experience. I’m not a neuroscientist (yet), but I have read some excellent books on the subject. I’d recommend This Is Your Brain On Music and Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, as both are an excellent insight into the human condition when music is involved.

I submit that the perceptual elements of listening to the gear or listening to the music are each processed differently by our brains. But let’s break it down even more. It doesn’t require a particularly deep knowledge of music or recording to enjoy music, right? It does, however, require a bit of some kind of additional knowledge or experience or context to appreciate a style of music that may not have previously been in our wheelhouse so to speak. Be-bop or fusion for someone only exposed to the American Top-40 hits? Heavy rock or prog-rock to someone who only knows hip-hop? World music for a country music fan? I myself have never taken the time to get into opera recordings although I have enjoyed live opera immensely, so I know it’s possible for me to become an opera lover if I want to properly educate myself.

What about listening to the gear? I’m guessing that folks who have not been exposed to great hifi and the sound of different components don’t do mental check listing about what their speakers are doing (or not doing!) for the sonic presentation. They simply enjoy the music, or not. Then there are those of us who love music but have some inner something that compels us to pursue a more dramatic, detailed, nuanced, realistic, or whatever, element to the presentation. We go on a quest to assemble a system that sounds good (to us).  And that is when the listening-to-the-gear thing rears its ugly head.

But it’s not ugly, you say. It’s fun. It’s what puts the hobby in being an audiophile. Okay. I get it. We’re able to exercise our impressive powers of aural acuity over the difference between this DAC and that DAC. And that is important when assembling or changing some aspects of our playback system. I do think however that we pay a price for this. Listening like that is fun but for me, but it’s not as deeply gratifying as disappearing into the emotional intent of the music. And sometimes this state of bliss can happen when I least expect it. Hearing something outside by a pool or bar on a Sonos system or hearing something found on YouTube on my phone. You feel me?

I used to think that the better my system became, the more I’d get into the music. This has not been the case. In improving my system I have gotten great joy by marveling at the performance of the collective tech achievements contained therein, but have I enjoyed the music more? Not automatically. Part of my own particular brand of neurosis around this is because of the nature of my day job. I am required to listen analytically in a particular way that is very difficult to just turn off if I want to listen for fun. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I can’t blame it ALL on the job cause I know other audio engineers that listen in a detached way more similar to the non-audiophile music fans. I’ve always been jealous of these folks.

By detached–or better yet, non-attached–I’m talking about listening while mixing or mastering music that is closer to a Zen-like state, but with just enough awareness to have a feeling about what to change or manipulate to make things sound better.

Concepts around this-is-your-mind-on-music lead me to sometimes try for a different awareness when I want to listen for fun. Most of the time I will instinctively listen to the gear, but other times I try to clear my mind and simply take in the music with as little mental chatter as I can. It’s hella hard. Any readers who have tried silent meditation know what I’m talking about. Which begs even more questions.

During an active listening session:

  • How does the joy of gear listening compare to the joy of music listening?
  • Is one way more tangible or meaningful than the other?
  • Does the sound of the gear itself influence the pure music listening experience?
  • What are our individual listening biases and how much does our bias inform these questions?

I’ll break down what I mean by bias. Science has proven that we listen with our eyes. Google the McGurk effect then prepare to freak out.

I’ve listened to enough tube gear to think I know what tubes sound like, so my brain won’t let me have a “tube experience” if I see a solid-state amp in the rack. If someone has done lots of phono cartridge demos, their brain will not let them hear the adjectives usually attributed to an MC cart if they know an MM is on the tonearm. If I’m sitting in front of small speakers my brain won’t let me hear the sound as being large. Many times I have been in the studio and turned a knob on an equalizer and heard something definitely change only to find out later the eq was in bypass. Ooops!

I have a deep bias towards vinyl as my preferred listening medium. I can rant for days about how strongly I prefer listening to records vs digital. But ya know what? I’d bet a large sum of money that if I have no clue whether digital or vinyl sources are playing, I can become very engaged in that pure musical kind of way (that I would usually attribute to only happening with vinyl) while listening to a digital source – provided I was into the music.

Another elephant in the reviewer’s listening room is volume matching. This is also a proven scientific thing. When auditioning two different things, whichever is louder always sounds better to us. Even by a fraction of a dB. I will initially listen in a completely subjective, unfettered manner, but at some point, I try and make closely matched volume comparisons. Even better if I can set it up to rapidly switch because of another scientific aspect of hearing: aural memory is very fleeting. We’re talking in the range of 3 -5 seconds by one study.

And what about the notion of having to live with a piece of gear for a long period of time to deeply probe it’s sonic mysteries? Ahhhhh, maybe. But more pesky neuroscience tells us that our brain adapts over time to tell us what we want to hear. That seemingly successful break-in to mellow out a harsh top end is more likely your brain getting used to a different high-frequency presentation from your new DAC.

  • So what does all this mean?
  • Can a serious audiophile also be a music lover in the purest sense?
  • Are these notions about how we listen inherently unanswerable?
  • For the love of God when will he stop with the questions?

I have some thoughts about how I approach all this. When reviewing something of course I’ll concentrate my listening on what effect I hear the component having on the music. Duh. And yes, I think having a better sounding system can sometimes cut down on small sonic distractions that take us out of the Zen Listening State, but for a true music lover, it’s nowhere near a requirement.

When listening for pure pleasure I try to quiet my mind enough to immerse in the music. Most times, I oscillate between these states. It’s also music dependent. If I want to deeply immerse I will reach for the classical. That’s because my mind is not distracted by hearing the “production.” The same goes for jazz, but to a lesser extent. If I’m listening to vocal music, I find it helps to read along with the lyrics.

Recently I was listening to an album of Debussy piano pieces. When I think about that experience, a few things emerge. First, it was an old record, not particularly hi-fi but certainly in the sweet spot of sonically acceptable without having that “listening to the system” kind of distraction. While listening, my mind was blissfully following melody, harmony, dynamics in a relatively no-thought state. Then a passage appeared that reminded me of a chord sequence common to mid-century jazz.  In an instant my mind was off thinking about jazz and did Debussy shine a light to future jazz composers with these kinds of harmonies and voice leading – then I started sonically searching for when this might appear again in the Debussy piece. Bang, now I’m in my thinking mind not my awareness mind.

When the record finally got to Claire De Lune (last song of side 2- make em wait for the hit), the mistracking from inner groove distortion was so bad that I needed to force my mind to ignore it and vibe with one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. I almost cried at the musical beauty. Damn. Sometimes it’s tiring being an audiophile.

And then sometimes I just wanna put on some modern pop recording and marvel at the bangin’ low-frequency extension of my system. I think either type of listening is completely valid but having both modalities available is having your cake and eating it too. Make mine vegan double chocolate coconut.

I invite readers to look inside their own listening habits and mental states and comment. Be honest. I’m curious and I think other audiophiles might be as well. How do you listen?

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About the author, Dave McNair

Dave McNair has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile, and for the last 20 years, a multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer. Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with seeing The Beatles live on Ed Sullivan to studying classical guitar from age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music, sound, and tech, lead him to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC. After years of residence in NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston-Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his free time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out hi-fi gear in search of a better sound.