Are "listening to" or "listening with"

Many many years ago, like Steve Gutenberg, I worked in motion picture projection booths. First as a projectionist, then doing industrial and circuit board design for a competitor of Dolby's.

As a projectionist, avoiding film scratches, and dust, ensuring lamps were rotated and offering proper edge to edge lighting, not to mention sound quality were always on my mind.

To the point that I could not watch movies anymore. In a real sense, the age of digital film was a sweet relief to me. I had literally trained my eyes/brain/reward centers to scan for imperfections, identify them and then rush to fix them. I was no better a movie watcher than anyone else. In fact, I was poorer for it, as I lost sight of framing, pacing, arguments and story telling, let alone human interaction on the screen.

The point I wanted to make is too often as audiophiles we do ourselves a disservice. We start listening TO equipment, instead of listening to music WITH equipment.

As with anything, to your own tastes be true, buy what you like, but make these choices about listening TO or WITH conscious ones. Know that if you listen TO you have a tough time listening WITH. Please yourself, but know that you are hacking your brain when you listen TO gear, and that this hacking may or may not be that rewarding in the end.
I strive to always listen to, and not with. It's just when some anomaly rears it's head that's contrary to what I know to be true that I listen with until I can cure it. 

I'll have long moments when everything is fine until I run into a recording that just doesn't sound right. It will be off in one or two aspects which gets me thinking on the matter of what is causing it. It's the audiophile in me. 

All it takes to cure me of this malady is to go back and listen to a great recording to reaffirm that all is well with my system and then it's back to listening to, knowing that it was the recording that was the culprit. 

But in the end, there's that nagging notion that all is not well and then I'm listening with now and again, repeating the cycle. It's the nature of this hobby. 

You're not going to charge by the hour for this, are you?

All the best,
Eric ...

I have a friend who is a really good guitar player. He attended Berklee school of music to study guitar and the music end of film editing. After graduation, he worked in the film industry as an editor. He’s told me that it took years of being absent from the business before he could enjoy movies again. He was always criticizing the editing in his head and losing track of the film’s plot.

In the same vein, I have an audiophile buddy who spent years in the recording business. In spite of loving music, collecting music and listening to music, he always judges the recording first. I keep telling him that he’s missing out on lots of good music, but he says he can’t listen to good music on bad recordings.

Listening to equipment before listening to the music is something that I observe in this hobby. Never understood it. Isn’t the equipment supposed to get us closer to the music? Isn’t the music the end all ... the goal?

I feel the same way. There are times when you need to listen to the equipment but that is not when I'm happy and in truth, don't find it to be much fun at all. I know for others it is part of the fun and I've got no problem with that at all. Whatever floats your boat.

And there are times when I'm totally unaware of the equipment or even the recording. That usually occurs with a good recording and there is no point at which something doesn't sound quite right. That is the best situation of all.

Nonoise, I too find myself pulling out that 'reference' recording for reassurance.

However, being new to this and having jumped in head first I'm going through all the audiophile stages in rapid succession. And there is a little voice in my head telling me that my low end DAC just isn't all it could be or that I need to find a better streaming solution. And that bugs me and I'm having a hard time getting past it.

Wouldn't it be nice if all life's troubles were this bad?
erik, I also sympathize with what you say about doing something professionally spoiling the joy of that subject.

Two of my passions are photography and cooking. A lot of people get into those things and then want to do them as a job. That's the last thing I want from my hobbies. I can't imagine being under the pressure inherent in doing either of those things professionally. 
+1 n80
And thanks erik for the reminder. I enjoy my hobby better when I listen to the music and not the equipment. So much better. Thanks again.
My issue is not the "with" or the "to" but the recording. The best recordings transport me to where I'm in awe of the beauty of the music and an appreciation of the excellence of the reproduction chain. Listening to a great recording is the state of the art.
@noromance I agree. I hear people say that if your equipment is good enough you can accommodate for poor recordings. I’m sure you can to a certain extent but it seems counterintuitive that you can transform a poor recording to the level of a fine recording.

And it seems that for anyone who obsesses about SQ you have to start with a good recording.

So I tend to spend my time and money looking for good recordings now.

Audiogon is a good resource for that.

I love it all! Start to finish I love the profession and hobby, I can't get enough. Tuning is the difference for me. If I had to listen to a "one sound" system I'd be gone. Nothing like exploring a recording for it's uniqueness. Listening to a system for me is just the beginning. Once I make that system flexible that's when the fun of a recording starts.

michael green

Michael :
You touch on a good point. Neutral systems really help you explore a lot of different music and movies in a way in which more tailored systems have trouble with.

Yes, finding a cure for all those underlying things (colorations, mud, hash, noise) was what got my system over the hump. The final breakthrough for me on that happened earlier this year and now I'm a different man. I still don't know how to act after having spent the better part of this decade with ever increasing levels of listening to gear, regardless of music...but that's all in the rear view now. I know with certainty now that if I never bought anything else, I'd be absolutely ok with everything I have.

I may have done some things electronically, but it's like Michael says: in some sense you end up having to "make the system flexible", one way or another (passively or actively), to get control over how the system is delivering the sound to your ears, and in your room.

That’s really cool to read that you were in projection!

I know what you mean about how work can influence how you view a hobby. I’m in to both 2 channel audio and home theater. In my work as a sound designer (that’s the cooler sounding name sound editors began giving themselves at one point) for film and TV, I’m working with movie sound deconstructed all day long, and my job is to construct the sound scape.

Potentially, this could truly undermine my ability to "just watch and enjoy" movies. But for some reason I find it no problem at all. I seem to be able to mostly brick-wall the movie watching experience from being in the business. Often when people find out I do sound for movies they say "you must be thinking of the sound all the time when you watch movies, right?" and I’m like..." really." (Though, of course, when the sound sticks out for good or ill, I notice, or if I choose to be analytical, I can of course do that). So thankfully my work hasn’t ruined my hobby.

The only real conflict, to some degree, comes from the fact I’m essentially sort of "doing home theater" all day long, insofar as I’m watching a movie, creating car chase scenes, shoot-ups, monsters, explosions or whatever. That means by the end of the day the last thing I want is to be bludgeoned by sound, so I don’t have an aggressive sounding HT set up (no overbearing subwoofers to shake the house etc), same for my 2 channel sound.

On another note:

erik wrote:  "The point I wanted to make is too often as audiophiles we do ourselves a disservice. We start listening TO equipment, instead of listening to music WITH equipment."

I understand the caution you want to raise, but there is something about that sentiment with which I would sort of disagree.

It’s so common in the audiophile community to have audiophiles continually reminding one another "Remember, it’s ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC."

But...let’s face it: It ISN’T all about the music. If it was, we’d be satisfied the way any normal Joe is with however we listened to music. There’s the cliche about how meager the audio systems are for most musicians...because...they REALLY ARE all about the music, not the technology. My kids love music, and they don’t have to listen through high end audio to love music. Nor do I for that matter. Some of my favorite music experiences are just driving in my car listening through the system that came with the car. in fact, I can get tons of joy from music just listening through my iPhone speakers!

It’s clearly mostly a male thing because of the geek-tech aspect for most audiophiles. The tech part really matters.

Given that value is subjective, I would never want to tell any other audiophile that his interest in this hobby has been calibrated improperly.Why would I? We are all different. Who am I to say what gives someone else their pleasure? If someone is truly driven by the technical aspects of high end audio, even to the point of "Listening To," then I have no reason to question that. Their pleasure is calibrated that way...good for them! In fact, if we didn’t have people who became almost obsessed with the technical details of systems, we wouldn’t have high end audio at all. That’s were speaker designers, amp designers etc come from, generally. Thank goodness for those tech-obsessed people that I can benefit from the fruit of their particular form of pursuit.

Personally, I’m crazy about music, but I acknowledge I’m fascinated (only on a layman’s level, hence with limits) with the technology. It’s cool knowing the specific design goals of the equipment I purchase.

And though I can get lots of pleasure listening to music on cheap systems, listening "To" and "Through" my high end system is just different. Does it make the music itself that much different? Not necessarily. But it does make the SOUND different, and I really like SOUND. So do musicians of course. Geddy Lee, or any other bass player choosing a bass, pay very close attention not just to musical notes, but to getting the particular sound of a bass they desire.

The difference between the sound of different bass guitars is really significant and satisfying. For the same reason, while I can get the musical message on many lower quality sound systems, my system really gives better SOUND to the entire presentation. And I have no qualms about noticing and luxuriating in that aspect, as if concentrating on "how my system sounds" (which is to say, the difference it brings overall against another system), was somehow a lesser form of pleasure.

A for instance is that I’m buying tons of old LPs. I love the music on the LPs, but part of the pleasure is definitely how absolutely gorgeous they sound on my system - that big, round, lush analog sound.

So, my view is never to remind anyone else what they ought to be concentrating on in their own pursuit of this hobby. There’s people who are more "about the music" (although this is often belied by the emphasis they actually have given to their system over the average joe), and people who are "more about the equipment" and everything in between...and that’s fine. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

BTW, I admit to skepticism when I often hear "I’m just really in to this for the music." When you see the level of obsession many of these people have actually put in to their audio system, I think " speak louder than words and it’s really not all about the music. ’Not that there’s anything wrong with that...’ ;-)

TBC, I summarize my point at the end, to make what you are doing with your ear/brain a conscious choice, and make yourself happy. :)

When upgrading and a while after I certainly am listening to the system using music as an excuse to do so. Sadly these past few months I have been upgrading bits all over, a few at a time. and it has become annoying, Yet I still am buying bits and sticking them in, listening to WHAT THEY SOUND LIKE, and how they changed the sound. Using many of my favorite recordings to do so.
At times marveling how wonderful they sound. Or, worrying why they suck...          
Eventually I stop upgrading and go back to just listening to the music. And do not putz much with the equipment.