John Donne notwithstanding, I sometimes feel that I AM an island.
I am alone. Like Joe Heller's Yossarian, I get the feeling I'm the only sane music listener left in a "Catch-22" musical world gone bonkers. Here's my point: Maybe I'm the only living human on the planet who still considers that both the recorded performance of a work and the sound of the recorded work should be kept in some kind of proper perspective.
What's more, I think my island is sinking.
It seems like about ninety percent of the people in this world simply don't consider music important. Fair enough. In fact, most of the time they probably don't consider music at all. Where do I get these statistics? Don't be impertinent. I write for the Internet; I'm an expert. (I make stuff up like everybody else.) If people do listen to music (and most people in affluent countries have stereos, surround-sound systems, iPods, and the like), it seems to be as a background while they're doing something else; the music is no more than wallpaper while doing the dishes, dusting the furniture, or reading the paper.
For the few people who do take music seriously (making up, what, nine and nine-tenths percent of the population?), the actual sound of the music seems of little importance. These folks may even be the music lovers I described in Part 1, who hide their speakers under a couch or behind a tree; or the people who carefully position their audio gear for optimum stereo effect and then listen from a favorite chair two feet to the outside of the left speaker. Finally, there are the members of the one-tenth of one percent of listeners who constitute the loopy rim of audiophiledom, the people who spend all their time diddling with the audio and never listening to the music. That's the same small group, by the way, who have been buying the same expensive, high-end components for the past forty years, recirculating each piece of gear among themselves like that solitary fruitcake that gets passed around through twenty million people at Christmas time.
So, why should people sit in the "sweet spot" to listen in front of and between their two or three main speakers at all? For me, I find that I can only do an unbiased music evaluation if I'm listening to sounds that have some basis for comparison in reality. I need to be able to simulate a live musical event from the best seat in the house. And said realistic sounds must be unamplified in real life for the comparison to be fair. This would seem to me to limit serious listening comparisons to human voice, classical, acoustic music, and jazz. Pop and rock are out as serious contenders for comparison tests, as are listening through earbuds, headphones, iPods, portable devices, car radios, and the like.
Narrowing it further, the good folk who listen using the criteria I described must also have good audio equipment, well positioned, and well tuned. Then, such listeners must be willing to sit in front of their speakers in a one-and-only listening position, the so-called "sweet spot" I mentioned earlier, while concentrating on musical works in their entirety. As I've said, this leaves out almost everybody but yours truly, since I am the only musically-meditating Norwegian-Italian monastical mystic I know of who sits and listens for hours from the best spot in the house. Yeah, I fell asleep for a twenty-minute stretch recently while listening to the complete tone poems of Franz Liszt. But I try.
I have a friend who once owned a hi-fi shop. I asked him at the time what kind of speakers he used at home. He said the cheapest possible. Why? Because he never listened at home. After eight hours a day listening in the shop, do you think he wanted to come home and listen some more?
A few years ago I visited another friend, an opera lover, to hear his system. I noticed immediately that his speakers were out of phase. Being presumptuously rude, I told him so and asked him if he wanted me to correct them, which I did. He had probably been listening to these speakers out of phase for years, with sounds coming out of everywhere. Worse, when he heard his speakers properly phased and precisely imaged, he didn't particularly like the new sound. Yet another friend, a non-audiophile, recently bought a pair of new speakers, and I had the chance to see and hear the setup. You guessed it. The speakers were lying sideways, one inch off the floor in a corner bookshelf and facing each other at a 90-degree angle about three feet apart. Behind a chair.
Everyone I know owns a two-channel stereo or a surround-sound system. But, to the person, they do not listen to complete pieces of music while sitting in front of and between the main speakers. OK, one person. He has a huge music collection, a great stereo system, and listens carefully. One other person.
Wait a minute. If I multiple each of us by that one person we all know who listens sensibly, maybe I'm not alone. Thanks, Doc. I'm cured. But I'm still rowing for Sweden as fast as I can.
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.
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