During the last four years, my thoughts about all things HiFi have changed enough that I decided I should tell you about it so you would know what you're getting into when you read my scribblings here at 6moons. My perceptions of what is important in the hifi reproduction of music have changed substantially, primarily as a result of studying music with John La Chapelle over the same time frame. John is a legend in the Pacific Northwest for his jazz guitar playing and teaching. Now 86 years of age, John has been playing the guitar for over seventy years! He's my guitar hero!

One of John's better known students is Larry Coryell who went on to guitar super stardom and is credited as one of the pioneers of jazz fusion. Larry went on to perform with fellow musical luminaries like Eric Clapton, Chick Corea, Jimi Hendrix, Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Al Di Meola, Biréli Lagrène, Emily Remler and Pat Metheny. Kind and encouraging in his teaching, wise about music, John La Chapelle has a way of infecting people with the essence of music-making in a transformative way, something his many thousands of students can attest to.

Learning to play music has changed the way I think about hifi. Most musicians aren't interested in hifi because most hifi just doesn't cut it musically. It just doesn't feel all that much like real music-making. Most high-end HiFi just doesn't capture the essence of music-making effectively. It's an irony that more of the essence of music often comes through more intact over a table radio than it does through a mega-thousand dollar high-end rig. Why is that? I believe it is because audiophiles have taken the hobby in largely the wrong direction, by emphasizing performance related to the non-musical sonic artifacts of the recording process like soundstaging, transparency, imaging and extreme detail recovery in their listening over the fundamental aspects of music-making itself.

This focus on developing gear that emphasizes or exaggerates the non-musical artifacts of the recording process has resulted in a lot of very expensive equipment that can sound spectacular during short-term auditions but ironically doesn't play music very well over the long haul. This lack of musical ability isn't immediately obvious because as listeners, we're distracted and impressed by the sonically spectacular aspects of that brief audition. Over a longer period, it becomes obvious that the gear that impressed us so much during that brief audition transformed into something downright annoying as the realization dawned that it doesn't play music very well. After all, our whole reason for buying it to begin with was to enjoy our music collection. Being thwarted in that goal is frustrating, not to mention costly. While many audiophiles cherish the equipment merry-go-round and the sonic thrills that each different piece of changing equipment can provide, that same selling and buying by music lovers is an expression of frustration and desperation to find something that simply plays music well for the long haul.

I started the Music Lovers series at 6moons in order to discuss those rather rare pieces of gear I run across that have exceptional musical merit rather than just being of the usual audiophile whiz-bang kind. The Music Lovers series is intended to chronicle equipment that music lovers can settle down with for the long haul to enjoy their music and forget about the gear. A couple of examples of hifi kit of exceptional musical merit that have earned my stamp of approval are the Harbeth Super HL5 loudspeakers from the UK and the Leben CS600 integrated vacuum tube amplifier from Japan. Both of these products are likely to delight music lovers because of their sheer musical prowess. While both of these products sound very good, their natural and musical presentation may disappoint hard-core audiophiles whose delight is associated with gear that emphasizes the non-musical artifacts of recordings. Yet the questions remain: Why is the Leben CS600 able to express the essence of the music so well? Why is the Harbeth Super HL5 so unfailingly musical? What is it that makes some equipment like the Leben and Harbeths so musical that it is distinguished from other run-of-the-mill high performance audiophile fare? In a word: musicality.

Let's talk about that. What the heck is musicality in hifi equipment? A piece of gear that possesses musicality is simply one that emphasizes the musical aspects of a recorded performance more than the non-musical artifacts of the recording process such as soundstaging, transparency, imaging and extreme detail recovery that have become the standard reference of audiophilia. That doesn't mean that equipment possessed of musicality can't perform well sonically. In fact, both the Leben CS600 and Harbeth Super HL5 do. It just means that sonic artifacts of the recording process are not exaggerated in comparison to the musical elements of the same process such that the latter are diminished. If you frequently and consciously notice the non-musical aspects during listening sessions, it's drawing your attention away from the musical aspects of the recording and thereby diminishes the music.

Have you ever noticed that when you are out and about in the world doing the ordinary things of life, how you'll catch a snippet of LoFi music that allows you to identify a band immediately? What is it about the playback of that LoFi that
allows you to do that? That's an important hint as to what's really important in the musical reproduction for gear. The first thing I notice is the signature timbre or voice of the band. There's no confusing the Beatles or the Grateful Dead's unique voice with Jimi Hendrix regardless of what song is playing. The same goes for classical orchestras or solo folk performers. The next thing I notice is the melody of the song. At the song level, the melody is the most memorable attribute for me and the one I 'whistle while I work'.

When I notice a piece of music while out in the world, I never ever think "Oh that's Bob Dylan, I recognize the soundstaging and imaging". Even the most ardent audiophile who values those non-musical attributes would find that completely ridiculous but the truth is that the same thing applies to home listening. Most of us have been trained by the HiFi press to listen for the non-musical aspects like soundstaging and imaging and to think that by excelling at reproducing those non-musical artifacts of the recording process, it makes that gear better. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone in particular because as part of the press, I've been guilty too. But we can learn, grow and hopefully become wiser. I certainly hope so.

So I'm here to tell you that considering a system's ability to emphasize the non-musical elements of recordings as the measure of its performance has taken our hobby in largely the wrong direction. If the point of what we're doing is listening to music, shouldn't the emphasis be on a hifi rig's ability to present the musical rather than non-musical artifacts of the recording process?

Let's talk for a moment about those things that a hifi needs to be able to do to excel at reproducing the musical aspects of a recording. The first and most important thing is that it must convey the sense of the voice or overall timbre of the band, orchestra or solo musician. The second is to be able to preserve the natural melodic flow or motion of the music over time. Let's return to these musical concepts by first discussing what's not very important to excel at reproducing them.

To excel, the non-musical attributes of ultimate frequency extension, ultimate dynamics, extreme low-level resolution, extreme imaging or soundstaging are not very important. In fact, they can hinder the ability of a hifi system to excel at reproducing music. Too much emphasis on any one aspect of a recorded performance can destroy its overall timbre and melodic flow. An over-emphasis on beat changes the way melody is perceived. A slower or faster sense of the tempo alters the way melody develops over time and how it makes you feel. Music too clearly resolved into component parts can give a disconnected feel to the music and distort the band's signature timbre. Too much low-level resolution distorts the natural timbre of instruments by introducing non-musical aspects that you really don't hear in real music making.

To excel at playing music, hifi gear must be able to achieve correct pitch and fortunately nearly all gear can do this easily. It's akin to making sure your instrument is in tune before you start playing. To excel at playing music, hifi gear must also be able to reproduce the sense of whether tempo is largo (very slow), moderato (moderately), presto (very fast) or anything in between. This aspect of reproduction is quite a lot more difficult to accomplish. You would think it easy when looking at a metronome
dial to see that all of the tempo terms are associated with speed in beats per minute (bpm).

But it is not only speed that defines the concept of tempo. Tempo also denotes something that can only be felt - the feeling or mood associated with the speed. For example, vivace means lively and fast at about 140 bpm, allegro means fast and bright at 120-168 bpm. Notice how vivace and allegro can be the same speed but provide a different feeling or mood by being either lively or bright. Another example: adagio means slow and stately, in contrast to grave which means slow and solemn. To reproduce tempo in realistic fashion, a hifi rig not only has to get the speed right in bpm but it also has to get the feeling right, that sense of whether it is bright or lively, stately or solemn.

Almost all hifi systems can get the bpm speed of a metronome correct but capturing the feeling of a bright, lively, stately or solemn mood is not so easy because they are not easily defined analytically in the way bpm is. Some gear makes everything feel a little too lively regardless of being able to reproduce the correct speed in bpm. Some gear makes everything feel a little slow regardless of getting the correct speed in bpm. That changes the feel of the music or rather, it changes the way the musicians intended you to feel when you are listening to them.

A basic part of playing music is having your instrument in tune and playing at the correct speed. But music is an art form and as an art form, it is the skill of the musicians that gives music its feeling. Similarly, in HiFi equipment an artistic touch comes into play in voicing the equipment to reliably capture the mood or feeling of the music over a wide range of recordings of varying quality. And it's not only at the level of designing equipment that voicing for musicality is important, but also at the level of assembling equipment into a system that is intended to be used for musical enjoyment.

Unfortunately the principles that govern musicality are not black and white and that makes it more challenging to achieve the desired results. Every guitarist knows their instrument's timbre changes subtly every day due to changes in humidity and string aging. Yet there is an unmistakable essential timbral center point that those changes revolve around that remains intact. It's that way with recordings too as the signals that are put down on tape are affected by many variables, but the reference point of a band's timbre and melodic development don't change. So the challenge arises with designing gear, or putting together a HiFi rig, that is not so high-strung that it can make musical sense of those thousands of recordings and their variable quality. That's the idea behind gear designed for music lovers.

Hifi gear best suited to music lovers allows you to play a wider of selection of music of varying recording quality while still providing the musical goods. In contrast, audiophile-style equipment provides a much narrower band of recordings that can be listened to pleasurably. I think this has a lot to do with how audiophile-style equipment excels at reproducing the non-musical artifacts of the recording process.

Audiophiles find the reproduction of these non-musical artifacts like soundstaging and imaging to be pleasant but the problem is that systems excelling in reproducing non-musical artifacts can't distinguish between the artifacts that audiophiles consider to be pleasurable and those non-musical artifacts of a poor recording that audiophiles consider to be unpleasant. As a result, both are reproduced equally well, thereby limiting the amount of recordings you can enjoy. Really good recordings sound really good, a lot of average recordings are so-so and poor recordings are unlistenable. If you're only interested in how well you can reproduce excellent recordings that's okay but it will greatly limit the amount of recordings you can enjoy - a lot of great music isn't recorded all that well. A hifi rig that emphasizes the musical aspects of a recording while subtly de-emphasizing the non-musical aspects of recordings will open up a whole new world of music to you. This is largely the magic of the Leben CS600 and the Harbeth Super HL5. They both emphasize the musical attributes of recordings more than their non-musical attributes while still managing to sound good in the traditional audiophile sense. That allows them to pleasurably play a broader range of varying quality of recorded music for your musical edification. More music that you can enjoy is a good thing.

That concludes the first installment of my meditation on musicality. I have much more to say on this topic, and you'll hear from me about the importance of things relevant to musicality. So hang around, read the reviews, the thought pieces and do your best to build a system that will allow you to sit down and lose yourself in the music. We're all in this voyage of musicality together - happy sailing!