“If I don’t practice for three months, the crowds notice. If I don’t practice for three weeks, my students notice. If I don’t practice for three days, the cognoscenti notice. If I don’t practice for three hours, I notice.” – Indian master teacher’s proverb
In all art forms, there are levels of appreciation which require great involvement and intense intimacy to acquire. If we define audiophilia as the love of music playback, not mere gear fetish, the same holds for our hobby. At its most rudimentary level, any hi-fi is a mere appliance. As long as sound comes out when turned on, it works just fine. Mono or squashed stereo, marginal bandwidth, dubious linearity or anything else are of no concern.
As user participation evolves, one begins to demand more realistic tonal balance, better linearity, lower bass. When one evolves further, qualities like three-dimensional soundstaging and imaging get noticed then groomed.
And for most, it stops at that student level. Which is perfectly fine. Not everyone has the inclination, perseverance or native gifts to attain mastery in a given endeavour. It’s like driving a car. As long as it gets us safely from point A to B, for most of us that’s the breadth and depth of it. It simply doesn’t mean there isn’t more to it. To delve deeper into any practice demands more vigorous engagement, noticing, subtlety, skill and perfecting.
This is what Louis Motek of LessLoss references in his introduction to their new Blackbody v2. There he explains how one can equate the need for this esoteric product to a musician’s need for a choice instrument. Only the insider is truly interested in nuance. The level of musicianship presently achieved determines the ultimate level of need for a better, more nuanced and capable instrument.
When we hear an experienced luthier talk about how an antique master’s instrument seems to have acquired some qualities of all the musicians who played it over the ages, we have no personal experience with such subtleties ourselves. We will be inevitably bewildered by how this is possible. We will write it off as imaginary, fanciful or bogus. Our world view is limited, so closed to this depth of discussion. Without direct experience, it has no meaning to us.
It simply doesn’t follow that those for whom it does hold meaning are insane. Their sanity is merely grounded in a deeper direct experience. For them, the conversation is esoteric only in the sense that it’s comprehensible merely to other true insiders who share their depth of experience.
When audiophiles agree with or dispute the audibility of certain phenomena or discuss their respective magnitude and importance, it’s really these disparate levels of engagement that either overlap or clash. Someone on the student level lacks the experience and trained subtlety of perception to acknowledge and appreciate refinements which have begun to matter to someone on the cognoscenti level. This could include an entire class of ‘voodoo’ solutions which to the student make no sense and have no effects whatsoever whilst many cognoscenti exploit them effectively to cultivate their art.
Part of deeper intimacy with the playback experience includes the ongoing changes and shifts in the performance of our system. It all begins with first noticing these strange changes. If there’s sufficient curiosity and desire, that noticing is followed by inquiring into cause, by engaging countless very personal experiments to stabilize, diminish or enhance these effects. In the process, one may develop new words, concepts or theories to share one’s journey into these new deeper realms with others who are similarly engaged and interested whilst bystanders shake their heads in ridicule.
This can quickly lead to the common situation of the hospital patient who finds his bed surrounded by a white-smocked physician and flock of rapt student groupies who discuss his ailment and healing process in a language utterly alien to him. “In English, please” exhorts the poor man. “Explain it to me as though I was a 5-year old.” When students and masters mingle, they do not speak the same language!
All this by way of suggesting that just because we can’t hear something—or if we can, don’t really give a toss—doesn’t mean somebody else cannot or doesn’t place true value on it. Let’s return to our opening proverb to repeat this point:
“If I don’t practice for three months, the crowds notice. If I don’t practice for three weeks, my students notice. If I don’t practice for three days, the cognoscenti notice. If I don’t practice for three hours, I notice.”
Listening to music happens on many levels. All are equally valid. All begin and end with someone’s personal experience. That needn’t match anyone else’s to be real and meaningful. Remembering that basic fact disarms discord and undermines cruel dispute. The proverb reminds us that like an onion, engagement with music playback has many layers. There’s nothing wrong with stopping at the periphery. Neither is there anything wrong if one keeps digging. It’s simply not very fruitful when outsiders and advanced insiders attempt meaningful discussions…