November
2021

A natter on the listening matter

For readers who didn't know, Kevin Scott and his wife Lynn operate the Living Voice speaker brand and the Definitive Audio retail boutique out of an old textile mill in the UK's Midlands. Here he and I chatted on various things hifi for 2½ hours from which I excerpted a few interesting tidbits.

Before we get there, here's an intro Kevin penned for this occasion. "First I would like to say thank you for the opportunity to share some miscellaneous thoughts and feelings about audio and music with you and your readers. I've only recently realized that one of my blessings is to have come to this through the love and enjoyment of music rather than the love of hifi. This outsider's perspective has been an enduring asset, allowing me to see the wood for the trees and find my own path.

"When I first started reading hifi magazines, it was to find a way to advance my musical experiences, hiif being the means to this end. But rather than light the way, the magazines' language was abstract, self referential and arcane, with musical appreciation and revelation taking a back seat to aspects of hifi sound. This trait has become more pronounced over the years to the point where there are some people who are deeply into hifi but have no love or any interest in music. It's as odd as enjoying a poem by counting its syllables.

"There is now a leaning amongst designers towards equipment that sounds 'pristine' and overtly 'detailed' which alienates a lot of music lovers who hear their music rendered sterile, anodyne and dismembered. There is a significant constituency of music lovers who have reacted against this by reverting to vintage equipment which, for any shortcomings, provides them with the connection, the fun and the love from music they crave. Who is to say they are wrong? Music is a feeling as much as it is a sound.

"Living Voice and Definitive Audio occupy a middle ground in this regard. We want everything that modern technology can bring to the party but with the musical values firmly in the driving seat. Faithfully capturing 'feeling' through microphones is a challenge and processing this through the recording chain and passing it down the birth canal of a hifi system inevitably results in degradation. And it is not just the 'sound' that suffers from these effects but it is also the character, mood and feeling of the musical language and the integrity of its artistic narrative. We all want a hifi system that ticks all the boxes on the hifi check list but these must also be able to connect with the soul or weave spells and paint the beguiling pictures that the performers originally created. Systems that can do this take us to places no other art form can. This is where things get exciting and it is what makes me bounce out of bed in the morning. Tantalizingly, it's virtually impossible to measure and quantify these things, the differences between a system that delivers in these human terms and those which don't. It's the delta between these two that intrigues me the most."

Now we get to the other bits.

"A lot of hifi customers long to have big rooms but I have often said, be careful what you wish for. Big rooms have long reverberation times and those can be problematic and hard to overcome. Good sound in a big room can be marvelous if it's right but it also is elusive. The room is about 50% of what we hear if not more so we need to have adjustability built into our system and be flexible with how we 'dress' the room. This would include soft and hard furnishings judiciously placed to control the reverberant field. I always think it's nice to do this with normal domestic stuff: rugs, tables, CD and LP storage, bookcases, seating blinds, curtains, pictures etc. rather than professional acoustic devices. You can use these items very creatively without making the room look like a shrine to technology. All bow down to the altar of hifi? No thanks. Sounds can be absorbed, diffused and reflected. These elements need to be implemented in the right balance to achieve a benign room response. It's better to start with an overly reverberant than overly damped room. This is best achieved with somebody who has experience doing this. The same system in ten different rooms will sound ten different ways.

"The musical experience is like a drug and like all drugs, it's addictive. When you're in the zone on your magic carpet, the rest of the world ceases to exist. It's just you in your state of musical bliss. If you're still admiring the performance of your hifi system, you're not there. Personally, what's doubly magical is when you have a common experience with a fellow music lover. If it can be a shared experience, it's even more wonderful. We want total transcendence from the here and now. Obviously to some degree it can depend on your mood but when the planets align, it is good to know that you can select your cosmic journey at the flick of a switch.

"And it's, as we all know, also true that we can get there with something really quite modest, like on holiday with a pair of headphones or on the car radio driving to the hotel. Maybe that connects to expectations. If you sat in front of a system which promised to be extraordinary due to the hardware and setup on hand but delivered less, it's very hard to lose yourself in that disappointment. In the car, you know perfectly well stepping in how far removed it is from what's possible. And, a lot of your attention is focused on the act of driving and avoiding accidents. That's a fabulous advantage. It means that the amount of free attention you actually have to give to the music may be ideally served by what the car stereo has to offer. The gonzo system would be wasted on this occasion and actually disappoint due to the discrepancy between expectation and our inability to let go fully. Driving with your eyes closed isn't a good idea after all. But I recently really got enraptured on the motorway with a Caroline Shaw Orange reading."

"The color, elasticity, rubato and dynamic expression of this string quartet with its abstracted elements conjoined with Baroque motifs all in a very modern language are extremely evocative. Even if you were only a lover of sounds, of the pornography of sound, this is still a 10 out of 10 and a truly magical sound sculpture. It has a spiritual subtext, moves from disposition to disposition and takes you on a real journey of different moods. So of course it's possible and intriguing to get that quality of experience from rather modest equipment but the completeness of absorption still won't equal that of a serious system expertly set up."

"I'm not dogmatic or religious about technology, be it valves or transistors, horns or box speakers, vinyl or digital. I'm not precious about push-pull or single-ended topologies or cathode followers or negative feedback. For me it's always the way the system works as a whole and there are many pathways to heaven. One thing is for sure, each system seems to have an ideal volume level that corresponds to the scale and dynamic range of the music program. When these things dovetail in proportion, we realize a plausible facsimile of a captured musical event. Even if it isn't life-size in scale, it at least has a perfect balance of proportions, height, width, depth, scale, dynamic range and volume level."

"I've always wanted a sound that's beautiful. Here I don't mean artifice but beautiful tone like musicians work very hard to achieve for their instruments. It's about texture, color and timbre across the bandwidth. I want those as fully saturated as possible. Of course different music shifts emphasis on other virtues. If a piece of music is about rhythmic drive and articulation, a system that does a pretty good job on tone might fall woefully short on rhythmic articulation; and vice versa. That's how the world divides. We've got pretty inadequate valve amps that do lovely color and a sense of dynamics but exhibit quite poor control in the low end. That utterly spoils such music and its sense of propulsion and timing. As we get ever more musically omnivorous, complete mastery over all the various aspects of the playback becomes important. If our musical bandwidth remains narrow, we can get away with more specialized systems because we won't expose their shortcomings with the 'wrong' type of music. Now we point at music appreciation as the arbiter behind the scenes which determines what and how a system must deliver. Here it's true to say that over the years, music has become more important to me. I listen to an awful lot of classical music though not exclusively so. Good music is good music, period. I tend to pursue music as a performance within a particular context that becomes a personal audition back in time of that happening. I don't want to be distracted from that by the hifi. As my tastes in more complex sophisticated music have matured, so have the demands this makes on the virtual removal of the playback means from the experience. I listen to richer deeper more artful music now which asks a lot from our hifi. There's no room for problems."

"I haven't had any issue getting there with digital for a very long time now. When I started with CDs, it's because the music I wanted to hear was only available on that carrier. It showed up vinyl's poor pitch stability on string tone and of course its short playtime. If you're into listening as a journey to altered reality, being kicked out every 15-20 minutes equates to coitus interruptus. When I first listened to 70 minutes of uninterrupted music on a CD, I thought it extraordinary. From an immersive standpoint, it was almost too much but for certain music, going back to LP's limited playtime absolutely ruined it. CD also had that top-to-bottom sense of time coherence which record players find very hard to do well. My general problem with solid state is that I find it a bit colorless and monochrome, the midrange usually a bit recessed and dynamic range and ease of gush or freedom restrained. It's as though music was contained inside a solid lattice. I'm more inclined to admire the music and sound than fall in love with it and breach the goose-bump zone. But I have found solid state which I enjoy greatly and here Jeff Rowland is very interesting. I don't find that gear colorless at all. It's gorgeously saturated and has the articulation and precision you expect from transistors. It's also got real beauty and supreme resolution in the low end. We're now dealers for their range and very happy with it. In fact, you should hear their Aeris DAC with super-cap power supply. It's not a modern design and has been around for years yet is a real peach. I'll send you one for review if you want."

"Very few people understand that they mostly listen to 5 watts and probably never eclipse 25 even on 87dB speakers."

"I appreciate that having played in an orchestra which surrounded you as a younger man where you contributed actively to the whole was an experience no hifi could ever replicate. Hence your current preference to admire the music like a watcher on the hill who notices everything rather than one who seeks the transcendent immersion I'm after. And it also makes sense that your autoformer passive preamp with zero noise and low-power transistor amp would serve that perspective well; and that you prefer not to listen that loud since it's not the operatic drama you chase. Witnessing relies on a somewhat expanded state that's not about emotionality. It's more Zen. And it's of course immaterial what technology is involved to enable our experience. The point is that we can have it whenever we want."

"Personally I fancy the front-row experience of facing the performance in my time-travel illusion. And yes, I also want the level of structural insight you talk about, not just beauty of color and tone and textural pliancy. I keep coming back at a very basic thing. If our hifi distracts us in any way whatsoever from having the experience we want by somehow keeping us at bay with reminders of artifice or some form of energetic reluctance, it's really not doing the job we ought to demand from it. As to becoming better listeners, it's only about doing it to the exclusion of all else. Once that's in place, it's about noticing ever more. That takes time. Time accumulates to experience. That becomes cultivation then expansion of our musical tastes to maintain the chances of us still noticing new things. Some people have a very narrowly defined taste in music. To me that seems like it would seriously limit one's scope of what remains discoverable. Fundamentally, becoming a better listener is about doing a lot of it, doing it totally and doing it because we care to and are genuinely passionate about it. Without that natural motivation, we might assemble very impressive hardware which could even sound very good but we'll not have really good reason for owning. It's like being on an exotic vacation yet never leaving the hotel. The only one winning is the travel agent and hotel. I really think that it's that simple. There are intellectual aspects to listening but what motivates me are the inner spaces it takes me to. That has an actual psycho-physical effect on me. If you like that effect, you'll pursue it like a hungry man pursues his next meal. It's an easy perfectly natural thing to do, no instruction manual required.

Some favorite books whose dog-eared copies Kevin has found useful on his deepening classical music appreciation journey.

"Nowadays I don't read any hifi journals or blogs. When I absolutely must because a customer inquires about something I need to read up on, I'm appalled by the language of hifi criticism. It's extraordinary how removed it is from music and any intimacy with it. I find that absolutely bizarre. Of course we do need a language to describe sonic criticisms or observations with but it ought to be far more anchored in music appreciation and comprehension than it presently is."

"What are the biggest mistakes I see people make? Well, first and most importantly, people make up hifi systems out of a lucky dip of well-reviewed and -regarded components without ever hearing them as a complete system. So we have the nouns of Shakespeare and the verbs of Chaucer all wrapped up with Jack Kerouac's punctuation. It'll never make sense. A gastronomic experience worthy of a Michelin star would not necessarily consist of ‘king' ingredients but an artfully selected carefully blended combination of ingredients that create something greater than the sum of the parts. The other common mistake I see a lot is not viewing the equipment supports as performance items; and having a miscellaneous bag of indifferent cables. These Cinderella items can make or break an otherwise great system. After all, you would never put cross-ply tyres on an F1 car nor would you run it on paraffin."

"I think that the love of music is something very important to a great many people on an emotional and spiritual level. It is a privilege to be able to spend my working days enhancing peoples' pursuit of this passion, sharing my love of music with them and hopefully advancing their quality of experience, too."

That concludes today's natter about the listening matter. The two links below allow you to follow up especially if you live in the UK. Cheers.