auditioning sessions vs. listening sessions

By "auditioning" sessions I mean those times when your attention is directed, first and foremost, to how the system and/or CD/LP/etc. *sounds*, as a result of the combination of hardware and software being used; during such sessions you might get up from the listening chair to tweak the toe-in of the speakers by 1/2 an inch, or you might be swapping some new interconnects in and out of the system.

By "listening" sessions I mean those times when your attention is directed, first and foremost, to the music, in and of itself (particularly if the composition is new to you), and/or the performance of the music.

So my questions are: can one make this kind of a distinction? Is it desirable to keep these two kinds of sessions separate? If so, how successful are you in doing so? Do you have any specific strategies for achieving this? For you, does the one tend to seep involuntarily into the other? Would this seepage be a good or a bad thing?
A professional musician has a similar problem - we must make these kinds of distinctions all of the time. If I am listening to a recording of myself in particular, it becomes nearly impossible to keep these two kinds of listening separate. The term most of us use for the first kind of session you describe would be "criticial" listening. For those of us who are always performing, we must learn to do both kinds of listening simultaneously, but this is no easy task. Generally speaking, the first time I hear something, it is almost impossible not to listen critically. But it is certainly possible, and even essential to maintain sanity to be able to turn off the critical listening and just enjoy the music. Those of us who play full-time in symphony orchestras all have certain pieces that we find very hard to enjoy listening to because we have to play them so often at work - the Nutcracker springs to mind for me immediately, the Pachelbel Canon would be another one for many, as would the Messiah. What I do to try to keep these pieces of music somewhat fresh is never listen to them outside of work. You certainly won't find a recording of the Nutcracker in my record collection.

That said, I always encourage non-musicians (I hate that term, actually) to develop their ears, as this kind of understanding will always enhance their enjoyment of all types of music, and this definitely involves critical listening. So it is not necessarily desirable to always keep both kinds of sessions separate. The more you listen critically, the more you will learn about the music you are listening to, and the more enjoyment you will receive from it when not listening critically. I have trained many people's ears, and not once has any of them come back to me and complained that they didn't enjoy listening as much anymore. To be more specific for audiophiles, I would say that doing more critical listening in general will also increase your ability to determine what kinds of traits you like in the equipment you are auditioning. One shouldn't become obsessive about it and forget to enjoy the music at all, but it is great fun to listen to the same recording on different pieces of equipment, or different pressings of the same recording on the same piece of equipment, and many of us who are professionals do this all the time, both for study and for pleasure. The more you know about what is going on, the more things you have to take enjoyment from.
Listening to music I love always quickly turns into a 'listening' session.

Listening to music that doesn't really move me most always turns into an 'audition' experience. I find myself listening more to the sonics than musical content.

For that reason I never use music I love for auditioning equipment. I rarely use 'audiophile recordings' either because I have a tendency to attribute the 'recording technique's excellence to the reproductive qualities of the equipment.
So my questions are: can one make this kind of a distinction? Is it desirable to keep these two kinds of sessions separate?

Nearly impossible to separate except if you listen to just a one or two instruments alone or concentrate on lead guitar lead vocalist. If you read up on "masking" then you will realize that what we hear is highly dependent on the balance of the frequencies heard and their precise timing.

Once you have a complex orchestral piece or an 11 piece jazz band then the quality of the system will often affect the presentation to such a degree that you cannot separate the two. Lead guitar and often lead vocalist is easy enough to evaluate on any system. However, at a deeper level, even simple things like decent bass response (very expensive to get accurate bass) may affect your ability to clearly distinguish bass guitar notes from kick drum.

Basically anywhere that two instruments interplay and share a fair amount of frequencies then it becomes system dependent - tuba/baritone sax, bassoon, double fact many instruments that form the rhythmical foundation of music require a system with good accurate bass. IMHO, the typical one note ported speaker with oodles of harmonic distortion coupled with typical room modal issues can make the critical listening task very difficult - right up to the lower mid range.

Midrange can also be a problem if it is "scooped" or laid back - as most 'accents' in music require a good forward midrange in order to correctly hear the emphasis from the musician. For example David Garibaldi is very well known for playing at several levels - this complex method of accenting drums (different from your rock n' roll back beat) is all too easily lost on a "scooped" mid range speaker.

Another issue is driver integration across a crossover - often a problem with speakers that have a crossover close to 1000 Hz (a critical listening frequency). Finally, impulse response is absolutely critical too...a speaker or amplifier that has odd ringing or resonance will cause masking too (in the same way a poor bass response does)
Yes, they are completely separate things. I call one listening to the stereo, the other listening to music. I find it best to decide beforehand which I am going to do. I try not to use favorite music for listening to the stereo, so I don't get sick of it. I am trying to select a variety of auditioning songs that have different qualities (i.e deep punchy bass, spaciousness, male & female vocals, symphonies, etc) that I like enough to listen to repeatedly, but not so much that when I get sick of them, I'll have lost a source of great musical enjoyment.
TwoLeftEars - great username!!
Thanks to all for these thoughtful responses!

Learsfool--perhaps I need to introduce more categories, adding the qualifiers critical and non-critical to both "auditioning" (listening to the stereo) and "listening" (listening to the music). But I doubt that non-critical auditioning ever occurs, so perhaps we're down to three.

(1) Auditioning for me is when you're listening to the equipment, or the purely technical aspects of the music software (e.g. tape hiss, dynamic range, etc.). The music in this case is merely the vehicle that allows you to make judgements about the hardware.

(Wine analogy: if you're drinking wine then the wine is the main point of interest and the goal, but to test a new glass and see how it works, you need to put some wine in it, at which point the focus shifts to the size of the opening, the shape and how well it swirls round the liquid, etc.)

(2) Critical listening for me would be when one's particularly attentive to the shape / form / structure / style / etc. of the musical composition and/or of the performance. One might listen critically to a new composition (to see if it's any good), and certainly to different performances of the same work, or to soloists, etc., to home in on aspects of their playing: timing, phrasing, bowing, intonation, etc.

(3) Emphathetic listening (non-critical listening, but not "background" listening) would be more when one's trying more to enter into the spirit of the music, enjoy it for what it is, to connect with it more, well..., emphathetically.

Obviously these aren't hard-and-fast categories, and they certainly aren't mutually exclusive. I'm just trying to pin down tendencies or emphases. I would say that (2) and (3) are equally "attentive", but (2) is more "critical" than (3), in the sense that different sets of faculties are emphasized in each case (intellec vs. emotion). Again, I recognize the limitations of this description (as in what happens, say, when one listens to a Bach fugue). Anyway, this FWIW.
Some of your threads suggest a sense of angst.Try going a week without thinking about cables or a lack of transparency in the upper range.Select a stack of wax that inspired you in days gone by.Play it concentrating only on the music.If necessary handcuff yourself to the chair so you can't get up to tweak.If the sound is so imperfect you can't stand it,kick it to the curb and get something else.Remember always that many people in the world are happy with a Bose Wave.Just listen to the music.
Practical case in point:
It is difficult to drive my beloved MA-2 Mk.III Atmas into clipping on my U-1PX Sound Labs with normal listening levels. But they do, when I try to listen to a Steinway at more or less normal concert levels. They clip very politely, however they do and it takes away from the enjoyment and I slip, without wanting to, for a short moment from the listening to the auditioning level but snap out of it once that moment has passed, especially with Martha Argerich playing Liszt's sonata in B minor on LP, DG 2530193, a wonderfully recorded piece of piano music, which has tremendous dynamic swings and covers the entire range the grand piano is capable of. I love Argerich and I love Liszt, and for once this is a splendid DG recording.
Today I had the chance to listen to the same music with VTL Siegfrieds in my rig for the first time. Naturally I started in the "auditioning mode", but then when in the "allegro energico" at the first fortissimo no clipping occurred, but contrary to before the full pure sound of the lower registers of the Steinway filled my room, I blissfully slipped into "listening mode" until the end. I sat in the dark and just listened.

Generally I try to keep both modes strictly separated, tweaking, testing apart from listening enjoyment and if the rig is more or less stable and doing what it is supposed to, this is not too difficult. There are software changes of course, but if you leave it be, I find, that the ear adapts fairly quickly and you accept how it sounds, if it is NOT the rig. For me the rig has to serve the music, not vice versa, so I try to keep auditioning sessions short but intense. 90% of the time I listen, but will snap out of it, if something goes wrong. If that is the case I'll audition until the problem is identified and I have do decide if I must live with it or can solve it within the range of my possibilities. I have a benchmark which I compare the sound of my rig to and that is the "gestalt" of all sorts of live music, which I carry within me. I've listened to Martha Argerich a lot within live events, when we both were young and until now, as we are much older and I believe I know how a pianoforte should sound when she has her hands on it and her feet on the pedals. Today, as I came a tad closer to the real thing, I stopped auditioning and the rest was just bliss. The rig served the music and that, as far as I am concerned, is how it should be.
An interesting thing happens to me that really differentiates an audiophile music session vs a musicophile session. I would never fall asleep in the former. Even if that were induced by boredom. :-(

But in the latter I can become so relaxed by the flow that I can close my eyes and just drift. When I also happened to be tired I've been known to just drift off. Not such a bad thing I think! :-)
Hi Newbee,
How right you are. No flow if you audition, not even that of the grape, however the latter helps in flowing and drifting when just enjoying the music....(:
Detlof, You are so right,

God bless the grape! Off topic, sort of, my first real experience with wine tasting occurred on Thanksgiving day 10 years or so ago. My brother-in-law entrusted us with keeping 45 cases of California Cabs, 10 year old stuff he took delivery of from some wine futures. We didn't touch it til he came to Calif for a visit. We opened one of each brand and did a 'wine tasting'. I really gained appreciation for; 1)the small but important differences in wine, and 2) how an appreciation for the subtlies could eclipse any memories of the rest of the day! Wish I could say as much about some audio experiences. I still have 2 bottles left. My brother in law never took delivery from me! :-)
The two often mix for me. When adding something new I start in the auditioning mode, if its a good change I just sort of drift into the music mode. Bad changes usually get tossed out pretty quickly so I don't have to stay in the analytical mode for any length of time.

The most difficult changes are the very subtle ones. I can change my listening modes quite often over the evaluation period. These evaluation periods are generally long listening sessions (five to eight hours) over several weeks or even months. Sometimes everything can seem perfect, than some recording I put on brings out something I don't quite like, suddenly I've gone from listening to auditioning.

Often, these subtle changes require other subtle changes, and on and on.... I can be constantly switching between the listening mode or audition mode through all these changes. Actually, I suppose I'm perpetually doomed to be in this mixed mode. Isn't this forever cycling of the auditioning/listening mode the very essence of audiophilia? The non-audiophile can simply stop making changes and be in listening mode forever.
Ha Newbee,
still off topic but much to the point, your tale, though much more civilized than mine to follow, reminds me of a wedding I was invited to many years ago, where I drifted into a room full of different wines waiting to be served during the day of festivities. I was alone and settled down to taste. When they found me, their mood was different to mine. I was gloriously happy, they were not. I woke up next morning in my own bed. I don't remember how I got home. When I looked, my car was parked properly where it always was. I was about 21 at that time. Long, long ago. Wasn't always that lucky as I had been on that day...No, it wasn't my own wedding....
I think Detlof hits the nail on the head when he says that equipment must serve the music, not the other way around. Musicians often talk about their techniques being the slave of the music, and not the other way around.
I would say that critical listening should also be in the service of musical enjoyment. So to take Twoleftears second and third categories, the more one listens in the second category, the more one will learn, and this new understanding furthers the enjoyment of the third category listening. And the two categories do not necessarily need to be separated, either. If critical listening is approached in this way, then the "cycling" Sns speaks of will become a positive thing, and not a negative one.
Mostly, I’m with Sns
on this one.

It seems I’m always ‘on guard’ when I first begin listening.. at home or elsewhere. Checking for errors, incongruities, something a miss, or being intrigued by or excited from what I’m hearing straight away. I can’t help it. Until I can find no abhorrent issues in the musical presentation, OR until I can satisfactorily amend the anomalies, or ascertain their cause, and remedy them if possible, I’m seldom at ease. However, this isn’t an omnipresent ongoing affair. Just initially. A few minutes or so following changes or upon finding myself hearing new gear.. usually.

I can’t even allow a thing to run in entirely without peeking. A lot. Only those items which I’ve found unbearable to listen to during that period, can be left ‘more’ alone until it’s finished being cooked.

Until and unless errant items can be fixed or justified, I’m likely not going to be at rest and listen simply for the sake of listening. I believe this has more to do with my expectation level than anything else. Neither does it occur all the time or at every opportunity.

It is also in part due to the fact I’ve become quite aurally oriented in my latter years. It’s very easy for me to ‘notice’ or hear very quickly things others do not, as a rule. Consequently, some aspects of recordings and/or their playback systems for me, can be and at times are, quite irritating.

As you can’t expect honey from the butt of a beetle, . If the audio system playing the ‘whatever’ music, is nondescript, or of a less resolving variety, I’m usually very OK with the sound I’m hearing. As long as it doesn’t suck a lot. If it’s a truly poor sounding system or recording, I’ll as easily just move on or try to ignore it or try to turn it off or down at least..

With my lesser resolving systems, I run my mental checks for a balanced sound field let it go at that pretty much, and enjoy.

Naturally as others have said here, when undergoing changes in my main system from integrating another piece, or just tweaking some existing parameter in it, I’m all ears… for at least a little while.

The little while is that time I need to adjust to it, or improve upon it, or remove it.

This latter described state is why I hate to change things. But it’s getting easier and less fatiguing lately. The only caveat to my auditioning/listening sessions is due to my love hate relationship with tubes.

I’m always either expecting failure, or presuming one is about to occur. Sorry, that is just me… In fact it has happened only a time or two, but I keep expecting it each time I turn on the system… after a moment or two, finding out it hasn’t occurred, I’m ok again. It’s weird funny, to me… I just can’t get past that part. But it takes only a minute or so for my reassurance to be regained.

Oddly though… from time to time while listening… I’ll still make a quick mental note as to how things are going… Good? Not good? Wrong? No, it’s ok, just relax. Dig the tunes… and then I do.
Blindjim - I know exactly what you mean about the tubes. I'm the same way. I never know how much hum I'm going to get when I turn on my system. Even worse is vinyl. I've had ground problems with my old TT that send a very loud 60Hz through the system that can easily destroy a woofer if you don't jump for the volume / source selector. It usually takes a couple seconds to build, so I sit with my finger on the mute button. I imagine it's the same feeling people get eating puffer fish, enjoying something coupled with the thrill of knowing disaster could stike at any time.

I'm not experiencing issues such as yours, mine are more mental than anything else. I don't see the glow of the tubes so I have no way to determine if any of the lot are uh, 'making plans' towards extra ciricular activities... or just not on the same page.... and I've been very lucky thus far. No explosions, flame outs, etc.

It's just me. I'm prone to worrying about the tubes. That's all. it might be I'm not as confident in tube topology as I am in Ss. it's weird. Luckily my gear is in the other room from where I listen. Once biased.... it's "out of sight and out of mind".

Most of the time... lol