Listen up, people. The subject in question today is how we listen. More specifically, how do audiophiles and music lovers listen to music in the home?
I ask the question because I don't believe that most people listen to music while sitting in the "sweet spot" between their two main stereo speakers or in the absolute center of their surround-sound system, as the case may be. I had always taken the assumption for granted that audiophiles and music listeners did, indeed, sit and listen to their music from the optimum listening position. But if that's not true, just how do people listen seriously to music and why do they listen that way?
OK, iPods, earbuds, portable players, car stereos, and the like we can eliminate from the discussion at the start. I'm talking here serious music listening in your living room, listening room, music room, media room, or home theater, with most audiophiles probably still listening to a pair of well-placed stereo speakers. I started to think of the various music systems I had encountered over the years, and the way their owners listened to them.
I remembered one system I saw in a home not far from my own. The system featured a pair of Martin Logan electrostatic speakers and Audio Research electronics; pretty impressive from a monetary standpoint--probably twenty grand, at least. Appropriately, the owner had positioned the two speakers well away from any potentially reflective walls; so far, so good. But then I noticed they were no more than four feet apart, and there was no furniture whatever in front of them, just a couch and chairs along the side walls and a large hallway entrance in the wall opposite. The only listening position that could possibly provide any stereo realism would have the listener sitting on the floor, four or five feet in front of the speakers. And then most the sound would be blowing over the listener's head. What was going on here? How do people listen?
I have also found two-channel stereo systems with the two speakers literally sitting on top of one another. Now, I remember in the Sixties the fad of stacking Advents on top of one another; but at least this was a pair of stacked speakers on each side of the room, not one stacked pair in the middle. One fellow a few years ago asked me over to listen to a new chamber piece he had just bought. When I arrived, I was slightly taken aback to find he had placed one of his small bookshelf speakers on the top right of his fireplace mantel and the other to the left of the fireplace and on the floor. When I asked him, as diplomatically as possible, if he had ever considered putting both speakers on the mantel, or both on the floor, he stared at me for moment, almost in disbelief, and said no, he'd never thought of it. What was going on here?
Some time back I was at a friend's house, and he invited me into his living room to listen to some music. He was proud of a new stereo setup he had just bought, and he was anxious to show it off to me. The equipment was quite good. But one speaker was on the floor behind his favorite chair and the other was across the room behind a couch. He said he liked the surround-type sound these positions provided. I said I guessed he didn't care much for sonic realism. He didn't seem to know what I meant. Then he said something I found a bit odd. He said to me, "You're one of those guys who sits and listens to music without doing anything else, aren't you?" I had to admit I was. He went on to say, "That's a little like meditation, isn't it?" I supposed it was.
So, why do so many people spend so much time, energy, and money on high-quality sound equipment if they only listen to the music in the background or while visiting with friends? Seems a waste. A couple of hundred dollars at Radio Shack would suffice for me if I were interested only in playing music while I was doing something else. What's the point of having a good playback system if you can't actually hear the stereo spread, and what's the point of "high fidelity" if you are not focusing on the quality of the sound? Is it extreme to think that serious listeners really concentrate on music alone? Would most people consider this akin to meditation?
More ramblings to follow in Part 2.
About the Author
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to email@example.com.