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Why Music Matters Most
Enjoyment, Illusion and the Audiophile
Hifi's ultimate goal is the enjoyment of prerecorded music in our homes. As unlikely as it may seem, hifi hobbyists are embroiled in endless debates over the finer points of this enjoyment. Some of the most popular and ongoing include: do cables matter, do all amplifiers sound the same and are LPs better than CDs. And there are hundreds more. Just read any hifi forum on any day of any week. With such a seemingly simple purpose -- musical enjoyment -- why so much discord and disagreement over the means to that end?

The term hifi itself may contain a few clues. High Fidelity. The "fidelity" part refers to a faithful reproduction of the recorded event. Further, this ideal original event has been defined in the audio press and is generally accepted to be a live acoustic performance. So when we say hifi, we are talking about a collection of equipment and media in the service of a faithful reproduction of a live acoustic event. The pinnacle of achievement being one of illusion - the reproduction sounds so close to the original that it makes you suspend disbelief and imagine you're listening to the original event right there in your home. With your eyes and common sense necessarily closed.

Of course, any form of reproduction is flawed from the get-go as the closest you can come to an original event is the original event itself. But we seem to have grabbed onto this idea of illusion as the holy grail of hifi even though it is doomed to failure. Lately I've wondered and ruminated and have begun to question this very basic hifi foundation. After all, why strive to fool ourselves - especially when the illusion is so illusory?

Born to be bad
I can think of 10 reasons why this illusory approach is ill-considered:
  • 1. Music is Art.
  • 2. A work of Art is a thing in itself.
  • 3. The appreciation of a work of Art is a highly personal experience.
  • 4. Art appreciation is a perpetually present-tense activity.
  • 5. Meaning exists between the work of art and the perceiver.
  • 6. Understanding the historic context of the work of art can inform interpretation.
  • 7. Interpretation is a necessary ingredient of experience.
  • 8. Listening to music on a hifi is a highly personal experience whose meaning is informed by one's interpretation of music.
  • 9. Objective criteria are meaningless when determining personal enjoyment.
  • 10. Music is Art.
                    "Listening Room" by Magritte

                    While we can argue whether or not all music -- or even which music -- is Art, it's irrelevant to our discussion as long as we agree that music can be Art. When we say a work of Art is a thing unto itself, the simplest explanation I have is that looking at a painting of an apple is not the same kind of experience as looking at an apple. For one, you can't eat the former and the latter isn't flat. The relevance of this distinction for hifi being: since the experience of a live acoustic event is not the same kind of experience as listening to a recording of one in our homes, why use one to judge the other?

                    Listening to music on a hifi is an event in and of itself and its success or failure lies in its ability to engage us over time. Or more simply, it lies in the listening. But wait, haven't we just thrown out all objective measure? Aren't we left adrift in a sea of sound anarchy with a bunch of people simply buying whatever they like to listen to, with no way of determining who has the good, better or best hifi? How can we justify how much to spend? How can we compete? How can we decide?

                    Objective criteria are meaningless when determining personal enjoyment. If the point of listening to music on a hifi is enjoyment (and if it isn't, you and I have nothing to discuss); and music is art; the more meaningful experience comes about through our increased knowledge and experience of music. Not hifi. Think about your last visit to an Art museum. While everything within those walls has been preselected and determined to be Art, I'd bet you responded to some works more than others. And I'd also bet that everyone who visits that museum has their own favorites. If we're talking about our experience, what matters most is our experience. If anything, the relevant and interesting question to pursue is - why did you like what you liked?

                    Art appreciation is not a competitive sport
                    Which brings us to the audiophile, the lover of hearing. Audiophiles put the "high" in high fidelity. We're not only interested in a faithful reproduction of the recorded event but it also has to be an objectively better one than just any old one. Here's where most of our arguing finds its roots. Here's where I think we've gone astray. If our purpose in buying a hifi is ultimately the appreciation of art, the selection process becomes one of finding which you like to listen to most. Just as it's really silly to walk through a museum with the sole objective of finding the painting that looks least like a painting, when listening to hifis, we need to look for the experience that makes us want to listen more. Not only in terms of time spent, but more importantly in terms of what we want to listen to.

                    Let's redefine fidelity as being faithful to the passion for and discovery of music. This means high-fidelity becomes the hifi that ignites this passion within us most.

                    And let's face facts. Listening to music on a hifi is one of the most luxurious uses of time going. It's completely and totally unproductive unless we want to count enjoyment as an ingredient in GDP. I think one reason people want to -- maybe even need to -- believe hifi has some objective measurable value is to alleviate their guilt over the fact that we're feeding what begins as a sensual pleasure. Whenever I hear an audiophile use the term critical listening, I'm reminded of the discrete packaging for adult mail-order products. We're not talking about an illusion. We're talking delusion.

                    Listen more
                    Don't listen to anyone who suggests something they know means more than your experience when it comes to Art appreciation. Even if that means you find enjoyment in Art which so deviates from a measured illusion that it flies in the face of reason (how do you go about measuring an illusion anyway?). It's okay! People have been doing it forever. If you want a convincing illusion, look at the moon on the horizon through your legs. When it comes to listening to music on a hifi, I prefer to do that with all my senses and imagination wide open to revel in the passion that music demands.