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KIH #39 – Listening modes

  • MO. Modus operandi. It not only applies to secret agents but listeners too. There are different modes of listening. Saying something to the effect of “I let the amps warm up for half an hour before doing any serious listening” suggests at least two: casual and serious. I think there are rather more but let’s start with those two. What’s the difference? We can probably agree that it’s primarily a function of attention. In casual mode, we may be doing something coincident with listening; like folding the laundry, cooking, entertaining, playing chess, working out, making love, checking email or any number of other things. Multi-tasking is the new normal after all. Now music becomes part of the emotional ambiance in which we do that other thing. It sets a mood which could be dreamy, invigorating, melancholy, celebratory or alternate between various flavours particularly if a playlist is well curated. The primary effect or expectation for the music now is to act as an enveloping blanket. Our main attention is reserved for whatever it is we do inside that blanket.

    Serious listening is exclusive. Our entire attention is (should be) devoted to it. We do nothing else. Routinely, we even close our eyes to increase the focus of our nervous system on just the ears. That in such serious mode we should notice more comes as no surprise. In fact, that very expectation is at the heart of why most audiophiles pursue fancy hifi systems. We want to hear more. How is that possible? Does a costly hifi add data? Certainly not. It can’t. Does an inferior hifi then delete data? Not really though most of us would argue that lesser resolution obscures the small print and possibly renders it illegible. But noticing or hearing more isn’t simply about raw data or counting pixels. It’s also about making connections. It’s here where I think serious mode subdivides into different modalities relative to what connections we hope to make.

    Say that we mean to follow a complex Bach fugue architecturally. We hope to see each recurring motif as it stacks up, delayed in time and shifted in pitch, one atop the other to build into that art form’s complex geometrical structure. Without getting esoteric, we might call that a higher mind perspective. That’s because our intent is to recognize structural principles as they unfold over time. We wish to see and, in that act of direct seeing, understand how Bach did it. There’s an aspect of higher math and sacred geometry to it. Seeing that isn’t a function of thinking about it. Rather, the chatty mind stops and another deeper layer of perception opens up.

    If instead we mean to get turned on by the hip-swaying seductive rhythms of a samba or bossa nova, our focus is on the first chakra of sexuality and vitality. We want to be bodily engaged and animated. It’s a juicy vital mode. If we listen to a slow Indian raga, the most likely centre of attention triggered in us is again somewhere in the higher mind, i.e. not its thinking but contemplative part. If we listen to devotional Bhajan music, authentic Qawwali, a touching love song or turn-on-the-tears movie score, our hearts may be triggered in unexpected ways. A Bruckner adagio might also tug on our heart strings but do it in a less personal more universal or ‘religious’ fashion. Rock’n’Roll could primarily affect our vital centre in the solar plexus or below. And so forth. One really needn’t believe in the Eastern chakra system or its glandular Western equivalent to acknowledge that different music hits us in different spots; and that each of those spots comes with a certain focus or flavour which—not surprisingly—can reflect in our preferences relative to a hifi’s qualities.

    Mounting the same horse from the other side, our primary choice of music style/s likely reflects our primary listening MO which then leads us quite naturally to a system that excels at that style of musical qualities. That’s back at the connections we hope to make. Which of our many trigger spots do we most cherish? What does a system have to do really well to make us connect with that level of our being most easily and often? I think it’s quite clear that the answer has nothing to do with frequency response and distortion measurements even though all of it flows into it. The most important thing to feel out is where we habitually listen from. Do we listen with our gut, heart, head, a combination thereof or from somewhere else altogether? What gives us the most pleasure? Do we have two or three primary modes which our system should accommodate?

    Playback loudness too factors into this equation. A system which mostly gets used loudly or very quietly must clearly be built around different sets of priorities. Breaking it down into audiophile terms is up to each user. Whether our trigger points require lower bass, more presence zone insight, an airier more illuminated treble, grander soundstaging, juicier tone, denser images, bigger dynamics, snappier transients or longer decays is for us to discover. Translating that into THD, IMD, response deviations, power response, dispersion traits, filter slopes and such is for the technically inclined. The focus of this 39th KIH isn’t pat answers. It’s an invitation to consider our connection to music and playback in a different way. In its most basic form, the question must begin with “What do I really want from my hifi?”. That’s followed by a candid assessment of our listening habits; and an inspection of our most treasured moments. True, it can be very difficult to separate the external from the internal. What, really, did the hifi have to do with a particularly satisfying session versus was it all my own state of mind or emotional availability? Just so, it’s just as likely that deeper observation notices certain patterns.

    That’s when we can begin to map out our very own peculiar trigger map which, when attended to, gives us the highest hit rate of truly memorable listening experiences. Here looking for answers from others, from presumed or actual experts, doesn’t work. In some ways, this actually isn’t so different from buying a car. Aside from setting a budget, the main questions to answer are, how will it be mostly used? In rush hour traffic? On bumpy country roads? With one or four passengers? In good or bad weather? Are ice and snow a factor? High or low speeds? Is luggage space or tow capacity important? Do I want to sit high off the road or low? Will a lot of very tight parking require parking assist? And so forth. Once such an assessment has narrowed down our valid choices, we get to factors like looks, comfort, reliability, reputation, trade-in value and such.

    If we determine that we listen primarily in seeing not feeling mode, soundstage size and separation precision could be most important. If we insist first on an emotional connection, we may prioritize tone density and powerful bass. My choices of ‘could’ and ‘may’ remind us how very personal this is. Your emotional or seeing connection could depend on a very different set of triggers. Perhaps you don’t even distinguish between the two. There is no right or wrong, just a curiosity-driven inquiry into how we relate to playback; how many key modes or perspectives this includes; and what qualitative features best accommodate that. Such thinking about hifi disavows an absolute sound because it is too subjective and personal. It acknowledges that a properly selected and set up hifi can act as a time machine, emotional transformer, experience creator, legalized mood alterant, inner journey guide or simple diversion from the daily grind. Or, it may be nothing but a simple electrical appliance, no different from a washing machine or refrigerator which do their allotted job without our supervision or concern. On one level, that’s actually all a hifi is; an appliance. On another level—which has all to do with us—it can be a lot more. That part simply can’t be covered by standard review vocabulary or attendant graphs which must talk in generalities. The more—as in, hearing more from/with a hifi to get more out of it–is about the attitude of our approach and the expectation we apply; and then the attention we pay to our own psychology and to the actual experience of listening to music itself. It’s not complicated. It just falls outside usual reviewer commentary by being too personal. That shouldn’t prevent us from talking about it. It simply belongs into a different format than formal equipment reviews.

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    Written by Srajan

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Chai the Bengal cat in a tiny village overlooking the estuary of Ireland’s Shannon river at County Clare’s border with County Kerry. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.

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