When music fails to agree to the ear, to soothe the ear and the heart and the senses, then it has missed the point. —Maria Callas
How to Judge a System
Something we're asked about nearly every day. Perfectly understandable question. We think this might help.
We often don’t automatically appreciate the difference between listening and hearing any more than we do the difference between looking and seeing. A fighter pilot, sailor or artist is taught how to look, just like a musician or an audio engineer has to learn how to listen.
Most people are unaware of how to make qualitative judgments about hi-fi equipment performance because they don’t know the difference between actively listening as opposed to hearing passively. They tend to make quantitative assessments, e.g. prefer more treble, more bass, more openness, more space, stronger image, more guitar. Of course the question is not whether you get more of something, but whether all the elements of the music are in the right place and maybe more important, at the right time.
This is not a matter of opinion or personal taste. There is such a thing as real music. It has indisputable characteristics and undeniable universal relevance.
Step one: Relax and listen to the tunes going by. Immerse yourself in it. Listen and follow.
Silent repetition is what you do when you are listening to someone speaking and you are intent on gaining a complete understanding. You silently repeat everything the speaker says in your own head. This of course is done naturally and effortlessly if you are truly interested, but requires deliberate effort if you are not or if the content is difficult. With live music it is easy to reproduce the music simultaneously in your own head and happens unconsciously. This is the mechanism that allows music to communicate the message of the composer or songwriter, and allows you, the listener, to assess the merit of the performance as you are transported by its communicative power.
No hi-fi system can perfectly reproduce the original. The best system is simply more accurate and true to the original recording, making it easier to follow the music.
It is important to understand that when listening actively you are not meant to try to hum or sing the sound out loud because you would merely be working from your internal musical reference rather than what you are hearing. What you should be trying to do is see if you can reproduce simultaneously and silently inside your own head the actual sounds that are coming from the speakers.
With a poor system it is impossible or time-consuming to locate the actual or approximate pitch of any melodic element, and before you have had time to locate one part of the music and silently reproduce its pitch in your head, things have moved on. This becomes irritating and ruins the musical experience. The more accurate the system, the easier it becomes to locate each individual sound and this provides the time necessary to track, follow and simultaneously silently repeat more elements in the melody. In this way you can make consistent and quick judgments that will stand the test of time.
Active listening as opposed to passive hearing involves tracking the sound constantly and performing the work necessary to make an accurate observation. The system that is easiest to follow along with when you are trying to listen actively, will have the most communicative power and impact when you are simply relaxed and hearing and responding without making this effort.