The apparently opposing or contradictory forces that would separate 'audiophile' and 'music lover' are as old as our hobby. As caricatures to press a point, the audiophile is obsessed with hardware. He listens to the same few CDs over and over to assess technical performance merits against a mental check list. The music lover spends all her money on software, often enjoying music over a system an audiophile would consider insufficient. There are many more ways to make the implied distinctions. I trust this one is as good as any other. Here it simply sets the stage.

Instead of opposite polarities, one could of course also regard these two terms as complementaries. Indeed, deeper musical enjoyment can very much be served by keen appreciation for quality hardware and good sensitivity in setting it all up. Perhaps the real point of contention comes alive when we add to the word 'listening' four little letters and a question mark: with?

It's a simple question. What do we listen with? Naturally, we listen through the ears. But what's at the other end? Who is behind the ears to register what they perceive? For this consideration, I propose that if we answer head or brain or mind, we arrive at the audiophile. If we say heart or feeling, we mean the music lover. In short, listening with feeling describes why a music lover cues up an album. Critical listening... well, need I say more? We're at a music competition, judges with their pesky little note pads at the ready.

So, let's call our heart the feeling muscle. It's the bit of biological hardware with which we have feelings. Like any other muscle, it could be fit or flabby, healthy or necrotic. Our brain is the thinking muscle. It's where thinking happens. Purely based on activity, the brain is far fitter than the heart in most of us. During our waking hours, we think constantly. In fact, we can't turn thinking off at will. The kinds of good feelings music lovers pursue? Now they are far rarer. In fact, we can't turn those on at will. Turning them off occurs to no one lucky enough to have them.

So our brain is over-developed, our heart under-developed. A natural-born music lover is simply someone in whom the feeling muscle is well developed and instinctively responsive to music. It takes very little to have pleasurable feelings. Any old hifi will do. While a better one will sound better, the quality of feelings isn't necessarily better. A 'true' audiophile then would be someone who approaches music through the brain. The trouble is, such true
audiophiles don't exist. They all wish to have feelings too. They're not happy just listening from the head. Their mistake is simply expecting the equipment to trigger their heart. What's necessary is for them to make the heart responsive first.

With no money to spend on 'serious' hardware but a powerful purse of passion for music, anyone can start out as music lover and be blissful with a low-grade hifi. If in the name of progress, such a person eventually acquires the habit of critical listening to presumably 'improve' listening skills, they could end up as an audiophile. That would be someone who places the burden of having emotional responses entirely on the equipment. It's asking a machine to stimulate the heart. Remember, we don't need a mechanical pace maker. We simply forget that the 'thing behind our ears' could be either the brain or the heart. Or both! If the heart is desired because only the heart can give the feeling response, we must contribute something on our end; something that's got nothing to do with audio equipment.

Only listening with feeling can satisfy a music lover. But as it turns out, that's true also for audiophiles. Otherwise they wouldn't be chasing equipment like skirts. It's easy to have contact highs. Even an under-developed heart can generate a short-lived infatuation. That's the 'whoa' experience of the new component. It fades quickly. To sustain a deep relationship -- with a person or a hifi -- requires more. It needs a strong heart and a disciplined head. The head learns about synergy and setup and room interactions. The heart remembers to take precedence whenever listening commences. Naturally even with a fit heart, we cannot generate good feelings at will. Keeping our heart in good shape, we simply make ourselves more accident-prone to have good feelings more often. It's like love. It comes and goes as it pleases. Still, with proper husbanding and devotion, love lingers and returns often.

The division of audiophile and music lover is inaccurate. While true music lovers do exist (they never have nor ever will care about equipment and get their kicks from whatever they have), true audiophiles don't. They'd exist as true if they were content to only listen with the brain. But they aren't. Critical listeners are as hungry for the emotional response as pleasure listeners. Their error is simply forgetting that to feel, you must connect your heart to your ears. You'll get sound without it but no feelings. For feelings, you need to wire up the right organ, preferably with good clean contacts and a lot of current on the line. It's the first thing you're told as a musician once you've got sufficient skills to play a simple tune: "You're playing all the right notes. Great. Now play them with feeling."

High fidelity is about truthfulness to the signal. If the signal contains feelings, doesn't it make sense to use the proper equipment which can decode those feelings? Asking a machine to do that -- any machine, even the most expensive hifi machine -- is ludicrous. By virtue of being a human, you already have the necessary piece of equipment right there in the middle of your chest. But that's not the same as having it in proper working order. That takes training. While some are natural-born music lovers -- many of whom become musicians in their lives -- others need to practice a bit more before they become 'fully functioning' music lovers (and musicians too must practice endlessly).

As should be clear, such practice does not come from reading hifi magazines! How we wire up our ears (how much heart, how much brain) is entirely at our discretion. There are many different ways to respond to music. There are many different kinds of feelings to pursue. Some are even mixed with mental perceptions, causing no disturbance or conflict at all but rather, a deepening and enrichment. In the end, it's about becoming aware who is behind our ears; what that 'someone' or 'something' desires; and how to connect that desire to the proper sense perception.

Squaring the circle: Perhaps true audiophiles do exist? In my 15+ years in this hobby, I have simply never met one yet who was happy not to have feelings. In fact, my secret definition of an audiophile is he who suffers his own incapacity to listen with feelings and compensates by externalizing the search with the endless hunt for 'better' equipment.

Digital art by Ivette Ebaen
As far as our readers go, the conclusion is obvious. None of you are true (pure) music lovers or you wouldn't be logged onto this site. You'd be happy with a Bose radio. To my way of thinking, none of you are pure audiophiles either. Our lot is a mix of both. The differences between us are merely a matter of degree. The question to ask is, to what degree has your adoption of the critical listening habit placed the burden on the equipment before you allow yourself satisfaction? Listeners with a high percentage of music loving are easy to please. Play good music on a simple system and they're perfectly happy. On the other hand, critical listeners, by their very definition, are very hard to please. In fact, they take a strange pride in that fact - as though it meant being special and advanced. Naturally, If having pleasure more often is what you're really after, to deliberately model yourself into a hard-to-please person is most counter productive indeed.

The sonic illusion of a concert performance in your house is impossible to achieve. Even the full-blown emotional illusion is. The two events are simply too different. However, if you don't insist on having the feeling of the concert experience but a feeling (which is particular to the more intimate, smaller-scale playback experience), then your 'satisfaction threshold' is reasonable. It is easily crossed. It means that you can enjoy a system which you know and hear to have audiophile limitations or faults. Those sonics need not intrude on your emotional responsiveness. In fact, you may have deliberately skewed them to trigger your particular emotional personality most often. In that sense, audiophiles are simply those who have set themselves from very hard to impossible-to-achieve sonic standards before they allow themselves a satisfying emotional response. These two aspects need not be locked and clutched. They can be separated. Locking them together is a deliberate choice; one that tends to have been buried under the learned habit of critical listening. This choice is also locked up by the aforementioned pride whereby the audiophile has invested himself in being hard to please. Only having satisfying listening sessions once in a blue moon is a strange expression of advancement, isn't it?

PS: Incidentally, I also think that a machine would do a far better job of 'critical' than any human nervous system. Our perceptions are always subject to personality distortions we can't eliminate; and our constant thinking interferes with the purity of our other perceptions like a constant background noise. That's why meditation can be good practice to become a more emotional listener. And in turn, emotional listening sessions can become active meditations which calm the mind, relax the nervous system, deepen the heart space and induce pleasurable altered states...