It's All in Your Head

I commented in an earlier thread that the emphasis on components, cables and room treatments obscures the fact that the music all happens in your head.

This is from John Atkinson at RMAF 2012 reported on Stereophile:

"Stereophile editor John Atkinson used everything from a drumstick to a cowbell, both sounded “live” and played back on the seminar room’s stereo system, to convey the message: “Nothing is real. How the recording art affects what you think you hear!” As John proceeded to point out that the brain combines information from separate left and right loudspeakers into a single stereo image..."

"I showed that it is a fallacy to assume that “the absolute sound of live music in a real acoustic space” resides in the bits, pits, or grooves, even when such a live event existed. Making recordings is an art, not a science and there may only be a coincidental resemblance between what is presented to the listener and the sound of musicians playing live, even when all concerned with making the recording were trying to be as honest as possible. Even the fundamental decision of what microphone to use moves the recorded sound a long way from reality..."

What we aim for when we put an audio system together is a pleasing facsimile of the original musical performance that happened in a studio or at a live venue. But, ultimately, the music's all in your head. It sounds like it's in the room because that's the way our brain makes it seem. Music is essentially a spiritual experience mediated by the brain.
Systems that are not in the "best" category may reproduce music in a way that moves us but the "best" systems have the ability to involve us on even deeper emotional and spiritual levels.

Getting really close to the essence of the performance means we need "special" gear. That's what "gear chasing" is all about -- trying to get closer to the essence of the performance on deeper and more satisfying levels. "Gear chasing" that involves trying to reproduce the actual performance is an illusory pursuit. Many audiophiles have observed that the "best" systems are not necessarily the most expensive ones. This has also been my experience. But it will still take quite a bit of cash to put together a system that enters the realm of the "best".

All of the above is IMO, of course.
I tend to disagree that recording isn't a science. It is science AND art.
I am not exactly sure what the spirtual experience is in audio other than the expectation that watever you pray to will make everything OK in the end. I do agree that recording has its limits and problem but some systems seem to do a better job at making a good recorded musical event sound pretty much a facsimile of the original. Not all that is for sure, but gear does play a critical role in the recoreded sound. We all want our sound playback to sound like WE like it,, Many call their preference neutral and very precisely accurate to me this view is a little over the top,
A reproduction of a recorded musical event can evoke the gamut of human emotion.
I would agree with Marakenetz. It isn't artful when the recorded vocals sound like actual people and instruments sound like real instruments. It's just accurate. A utilitarian baseline brush from which a picture can then be painted. To not include all the other aspects of system performance in this category is skewing the definition of art, imo.
whatever happened to HIGH FIDELITY?? That used to be the goal.
This notion that you get more emotional response on a good system always comes up against this fact:

I have had many (I mean very many) deep reactions to music heard above lots of distracting and masking road and engine noise on a junky car radio.
I also have a $25K system at home. When I listen to the same music on it as I had heard in the car, I by no means experience any greater or even different feelings.
Although it is apparent that I am hearing a much more realistic, lively, undistorted, and physically satisfying rendition at home, the joy or the sadness the music elicits in me IS NOT GREATER than what I feel with my hands on the wheel.
When I was 17 years old and had a Webcor portable record player ($39 at Macy's) some nights I would lie in bed and weep over Mahler's Ninth Symphony. You think I would have wept better if I'd had my current system?

People were screaming in the streets after hearing "Hound Dog" in the family Chevy. Most of the folks who made Elvis and the Beatles rich were responding with emotions both profound and powerful to songs they never heard very well.

Yes, I get excited with the sounds coming from my beloved stereo but the thrill is much more of the senses than of the emotions. I would guess that the system-related emotional charge is the exhilaration of hearing so excellent a system in my own house.

I have a musician friend who says, "As long as I can hear the notes, the sound is good enough."
Reading all of this conjured an image in my mind of listening to music through our systems as a 'spiritual' experience, without the robes and artifacts.

If this were to be seen as a spiritual experience, then yes, it's all in your head. All the auditory clues would be just another part of the ritual, along with the equipment (taking the place of chalices, altars, mats, missiles, etc.), with the end result being the reward you contrive in your head.

Can it be said that one feeling better, spiritually, in a richer, better adorned church, temple, synagogue or mosque is akin to having better equipment to 'hear' your music? Does driving a better, higher class of car make the trip more enjoyable? Or maybe taking a photo with a Leica or Hasselblad over that of a Canon or Sony?

Maybe it can all be judged as to when one's audio nirvana is achieved and buying something better and costlier is no longer needed. But this would be pertinent only to the one who is spiritually sated and cannot be a bright line to judge others.

Atkinsin's take on this is just one of many ways to interpret it and it does make one think.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not denigrating religion or spiritual enlightenment, just seeing the similarities. And if I remember correctly, there has been many a discussion here, on the rewards of listening and how we interpret it.

I must also state that all of this is art and science. Everything on the hardware side of the equation could only be attained by science. Else, we'd be all listening live to achieve our spiritual goals. To negate the science (and mechanics) and relegate all of this to just interpretation would be a great leap of faith, so the speak.

All the best,
Interesting. I believe that recording is both an art and a science...that both highly elevated emotion AND gear-chasing, for instance, are essential for the BEST-sounding recordings.

Csontos: "It isn't artful when the recorded vocals sound like actual people and instruments sound like real instruments. It's just accurate." Well, yes I suppose, but what's 'accurate'? If the mic is a foot from the singer's mouth and the speakers reproducing that sound are 6 feet from your ears, how can the reproduced sound be 'accurate'? If a recording made by, for example, Channel Classics reproduces reasonably the sound of the orchestra in its hall and I LOVE that sound, the lover of in-your-face pop music probably will HATE the sound. 'Where's the presence?', he/she may say. What is 'accurate' here? What the conductor hears? What the tympanist hears in the back of the orchestral shell? What someone sitting in the middle of row 8 hears?

Jared Sacks, owner (I believe) and (variously) recording producer, balance engineer, editor, etc. of Channel Classics wrote recently about a new mic-preamp/analog-to-DSD DAC that CC is now using, along with new VandenHul cables, to help explain a higher degree of transparency achieved in a new release of Mahler's Symphony #1. See specifically and for the entire thread.

Art? Yes.

Science? Yes.

In your head? Absolutely, just as the original sound is perceived in your brain.
I am a troglodyte. All I do is listen to music. And like it.
Gee... how disgustingly primitive.
I plan on going and soaking my head after tonight's session.


Sublime experiences seem to be personal. Trying to trade in them is disgusting.
I never looked at it as a spiritual quest. Before I realized I'd become an audiophile, I resented the term because I felt it pigeonholed me into an elitist group outside of mainstream music enthusiasts. Most of my friends and acquaintances had very modest systems back then but loved music as most of us did. Crossing the line into audiophiledom I think profoundly changes your perspective. All of a sudden, how you hear the music is just as important, or even more so in the beginning, as just hearing it. So if there's a spiritual side, I'd say it's more like a cult. Some kind of need to prove something. To ourselves and then having it confirmed by others. I think I loved music more as a child. I remember getting up early at age 12 to make sure I heard the upcoming new tune announced the day before on the radio by Five Man Electrical Band entitled "Signs". I also remember singing top 40's hits on my way to school. Music back then was certainly a spiritual experience.
If it's all in your head why don't you just train your mind to respond to a crappy system the same way it would respond to a great system? A beautiful woman standing naked before you can make a man sexually aroused, but so can pornographic images. It's a learned response. Why even have a physical stimulus at all? Just think about the music and transport yourself to a higher plane.
I think you're on to something! However I think the training took place in reverse.
The spiritual experience is that music touches the spirit -- evoking "the gamut of human emotion", as you have observed.

When I use the word "spiritual" it is in the wider context, of course, having nothing to do with ritual.

I agree with you that "both highly elevated emotion AND gear-chasing, for instance, are essential for the BEST-sounding recordings."

I agree. You can be deeply touched my music that is reproduced on a car radio. My transistor radio used to do the trick for me. But turning on the transistor radio does not cut the mustard anymore when I'm at home in the evening relaxing in my easy chair. We have come too far -- and there is no going back.
Human beings are easily fooled. You can sit in one of those "flight simulator" rides at Disney - the seat tilts, you see a picture of a racetrack, you hear some noise and you swear to god you're moving when you aren't. Also, not to give offense, but look at the respone someone may have to pornography. It may only be a picture, but the person has the same reaction as if it were real. The body's physiology acts as if it were real, but it isn't. I think the idea of building a good system is to capture as many of the tricks of fooling the brain to make our senses react as if it were real.
Musica delenit bestiam feram, or something like that !!!!
I think the idea of building a good system is to capture as many of the tricks of fooling the brain to make our senses react as if it were real.
If true, then it's possible for some people to have a very low threshold to be fooled, hence the stereotype of the professional musician with the not very good system. On the other hand some audiophiles need massive amounts of stimulation provided by state of the art components in dedicated acoustically treated rooms with numerous tweaks in order to, so to speak, get it up.
For me at least, I don't enjoy a fat base.

Good discussion and analogy, but can we make bad sound, sound good? An unattractive girl attractive? More to this once you get past the surface.

Real to me, with all it's warts ;), has been better than the illusion in music and women.

Art, science, spirituality .......LIFE
As an aside, does anyone remember the Outer Limits episode where the Dr. spent the whole show trying to help a horribly disfigured women, with her face in bandages, only to find she was a pretty girl at the end, and they were the ones, to our thinking, who were disfigured.

Another way the analogy works is that most of what we, as audiophiles do, is just, sorry ladies, mental sex.
I've known a number of professional Jazz and Blues musicians, none of which had an "audiophile" system. John Lee Hooker could certainly afford one before he died. However, I've been told that Classical musicians have audiophile systems; you can make whatever you like out of that.

Personally, I've discovered it's either in, or out of my wallet, meaning; "The good stuff costs".
Yes, that was a great episode. All you could see was here face in bandages and the rest of the hospital staff always had their faces in the shadows, of off camera.

In the end, with the reconstructive surgery a failure, she was given to another of her kind, a representative, to live in a remote colony where they all looked like her.

I guess we audiophools presently live in that colony, separated from the rest of society, who are the ones who are truly out of step with all things audio.

All the best,
As an aside, does anyone remember the Outer Limits episode where the Dr. spent the whole show trying to help a horribly disfigured women, with her face in bandages, only to find she was a pretty girl at the end, and they were the ones, to our thinking, who were disfigured.

Another way the analogy works is that most of what we, as audiophiles do, is just, sorry ladies, mental sex.
Sorry about the double post.
I remember that episode too. What a fabulously insightful revelation it was. An introspective epiphany. Perfect analogy to this thread.
A quote from NRCHY 04-02-2005 from this forum,
"Perfect sound is not attainable. Many have written long posts on whether live music is a good objective standard. In my opinion it is not.
The only time a system will sound great is when the owner/listener has determined to be content. The concept of contenment is a little esoteric or nebulous to many people.Contentment is a choice and not the result of a great system. People may choose an ideal they can never obtain while ignoring contentment which everyone can possess.
The same concept also applies to many facets of life...choosing an ideal not obtainable while ignoring contentment."
Music can touch our hearts/souls/emotional centers whether it be from a live performance or car stereo or bad radio or good/great system. The system needs to be good enough to remove the distractions of the sound such as thumpy bass or bright treble and allow the music to touch the heart. After that, its about the law of diminishing returns... and determining to be content.
That was the Twilight Zone - Eye of the Beholder. Unless the Outer Limits did the same thing, which they probably did.
I have to remind myself to proofread my posts before posting. My spelling was really off on that last one.
You're right, Chayro. It was the Twilight Zone. I never did watch The Outer Limits. You've got a good memory!
Does any of this pontification matter. In the end we will most likely continue to chase the perfect system. If we could be content like most of the country does with car radios and earphones, we would do the same
I lived with a Musician and entertained her musician friends and none except my EX was listening to anything worth mentioning I found this strange, of all people to essentially abandon fine music reproduction. So I asked why, and they said that they did indeed hear the fuller symphony concerto etc, in their heads. I can not do that they started their careers when their brains were still developing. If I here a piece that sounds crappy I know it and it annoys the crap out of me.

*( my living room system Jadis DA-60, MMF5, a Refurbished Sherwood tuner,a Sansui AU7 tuner Conconance CD120 linear CDP. VSA VR2s various cables)
Sabai, Understood. It's just that when I read 'spirtiual' it conjured many aspects of the word and I just simply knocked them down to just a comparison.

I tend to go off on tangents and then circle back, sometimes losing myself and others on the way. :-)

All the best,
Of course it is the brain.

when two people listen to the same stereo system, and one thinks it sounds wonderful, but the other disagrees, what other explanation is there.

in addition, the placebo effect is alive and well, and some people are more suggestible than others.

you could change the phrase "it's all in the head" to "it's all psychological".
You stated, "If I here a piece that sounds crappy I know it and it annoys the crap out of me." As I said, there's no going back.


What I meant is that the perception of the musical event is mediated by the brain. Part of that is indeed psychological -- how the music moves us -- but this is preceded by and is based on the actual physiology of the brain perceiving the musical events. The brain reconstructs what appears to be happening "out there" in the room. The musical events are actually happening "in here" -- between our two ears. Music appreciation is actually an inner event that we perceive as an outer event. Audiophiles pursue "the outer" in the form of the best possible gear that we can afford in order to make the inner event as pleasing as possible.
10-21-12: Sabai
The brain reconstructs what appears to be happening "out there" in the room. The musical events are actually happening "in here" -- between our two ears. Music appreciation is actually an inner event that we perceive as an outer event.
You are a philosopher at heart, Sabai.

You may already be aware of this, but the distinction you are drawing between what is "out there" and what is "in here" has been a subject of controversy among philosophers since ancient Greece. In the parlance of modern philosophy, it's the distinction between Realism and Idealism. Roughly put, it's the difference between things that are features of *the world* and things that are features of *the mind.*

The distinction between Realism and Idealism defines a great many debates in the history of both philosophy and science, including debates about categories, logic, mathematics, properties like color, and morality.

By standard philosophical conventions, you are an Idealist with respect to music. I agree with you up to a point, which is to say, I believe that SOME musical phenomena are in the mind. But I also believe that some musical phenomena are in the world.

It's an interesting question, IMO.

This is indeed a very interesting question. And, yes, I am a philosopher at heart and I am aware if this age-old debate. Of course, the room also mediates what happens in the brain. If you are using headphones, for example, you take the room out of the equation and your room -- or your listening space, if you will -- is the room that your brain creates. Which is exactly what happens with the room in the equation. The brain is recreating everything from the "outer" reality. If you are truly one with the music you will note that there is no room at all. It disappears completely. Something like the proverbial "disappearing" speakers -- but not quite the same thing.
Most of us were not in the recording session/room and therefore, have no idea what the original recording session sounded like. Also, others have posted correctly that recording is indeed an art and science and the best recording engineers earn their big bucks because they really do know what they are doing. you have to not only have the best microphones, but you also have to know how to correctly place them. You have to have the best cables, mixing equipment (I know, I know), amplification equipment, etc. This goes way beyond the ability of the average recording engineer, if they really want to get it right. Also, then you need the artist and recording personnel to sit in the room and listen to the playback to see/hear if they got it right. and guess what? most times, they are listening to the recording through equipment that isn't close to what you have a home and continuing to mix based on what they hear using that equipment. Unless you were there during the recording session and also hear the recording afterwards, we have no idea what it really sounded like in the first place. So we approximate based on what our "experience" tells us it should have sounded like. I would be interested to hear the accounts of people that actually were at a concert or recording session and then heard the actual recording afterwards to see if they got it right or even close.

I have not been myself but I've talked with musicians who are typically amazed at how much is "lost" in the final product.
I like the quote from the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Menagerie" something to the effect of:

"She has an illusion, and you have reality. May your way be as pleasant."

May our audio illusions as we perceive them also be as pleasant ......

No doubt enjoyment of music is largely due to emotional responses to what we hear, that may also invoke a spiritual response as well. These can only be attributed to the listener. The source/system/recording is merely a representation or reproduction of the actual product produced by the artists + engineers. If the end response is a pleasant one, all is good. If it becomes unpleasant for any reason known only to the listener, then the value proposition is not there. THat's pretty much it. All the rest are just various means to the end. In the end its, all in the mind.
"I have not been myself but I've talked with musicians who are typically amazed at how much is "lost" in the final product."

Few recordings are designed to capture what the musicians hear at ground zero when playing. Part of this is the intent of the producers and part of this is technical limitations in many cases.

Its not nearly as hard to produce a reasonable reproduction of what a listener might have heard were they present say in the audience during a similar live performance.

Whether one hears exactly what one would hear if live or not is a moot point for most, save perhaps professional musicians who are regularly immersed in what is happening at ground zero when playing live. Dynamics will be the greatest there and hardest to reproduce. Other aspects of the sound will vary as well due to the unique sonic perspective of an artist playing at ground zero compared to that of most any actual listener.
I think it's safe to say (for me) that yes, this is a spiritual experience, at least in the level and measure of satisfaction we derive. The hardware aspect is what we fiddle with in order to activate/stimulate the process. We become connoisseurs as we refine the process.

The origin of the recording is merely the starting point, though the better, the better. Once we have it, we use our systems, carefully assembled, refined, and tuned, to start the process.

Occasionally, we become aware of inconsistencies or aspects that are lacking, that need to be addressed. Such is the nature and joy of this hobby. This continuing refinement is part and parcel of the spiritual nature of all of this and cannot be separated. At least, not for me. I actually feel some kind of reward, satisfaction, attainment as I hone my system's ability to take me to that level which gives me my daily dose of audio nirvana.

All the best,
You stated, "This continuing refinement is part and parcel of the spiritual nature of all of this and cannot be separated." And I agree completely.
Is it possible that rather than becoming connoisseurs that audiophile behavior is more like a drug addict who needs more and more drugs in order to feel high? You make an upgrade/tweak to your system and when it works everything sounds so much better and it's exciting. Your system has been transformed! A few weeks/months later the excitement wears off and you start the equipment upgrade/tweak process again. Chasing the excitement of transformation is classic junkie behavior.
That may be true in some cases.
The continuing refinement on the road to spirituality is little more than a justification for consumerism. What else can you buy that will make you happy? The upgrades and the tweaking never ends and you're always at least slightly unsatisfied. Once again, symptoms of junkie behavior. "Every junkie's like a setting sun..."
" "This continuing refinement is part and parcel of the spiritual nature of all of this and cannot be separated."

Not for me.

The equipment is a means to the end...the music. I am much happier when I feel no need to change or upgrade a thing and can spend all my audio time just listening and enjoying the music.

Not to say even then I am not still at least investigating new options that might be worthwhile as time permits. But that is a separate and secondary enjoyment. Not sure I get any spiritual satisfaction out of that alone. IF I am getting that from the music currently, I am good.

Getting good sound is not as hard or complicated as some might make it out to be. THere is however an almost infinite number of possible sounds one might seek or achieve since no two setups sound exactly the same. I do enjoy experiencing different sounds, but seek to achieve the one that works best for me at any particular time. My solution is to run my systems into multiple rooms in order to be able to experience alternate sounds when desired. I have 7 different rooms "wired" for sound running off two core systems and a single music server to accomplish that.
I sense a bit of the cynic and the pragmatic here.

Yes, getting lost in the weeds and constantly trying to upgrade can be an end to itself, one of the defining characteristics of addiction. That is not the case here, as I see it.

Not of deep pockets, my refining is of a more subtle nature: a tweak here, a minor purchase there, and never at a constant pace. I can go well over a year before tinkering. If I had large enough disposable income, I'd have several systems and be content that I've covered most of the bases.

Just now, it occurred to me that even with a few different set ups, it's still the same path, as you now have several options to attainment, depending on your mood. I envy that.

All the best,
This may be true in many cases but it is difficult to generalize this to the entire audiophile community, IMO.
Bottom line is, it's all "good". It was from the start. There's no spirituality in refining the system. That's science. If you're able to maintain the spiritual nature of the music at the same time, it's always success. If you're attempting to find the spiritual nature of it in tweaking, you're going to lose. It already has to be there. No one's a more serious tweaker than I am. But I deal with internals. When I used to frequent hi end audio shops, there was never any contention, only consensus when we'd gather round and have a listen to something new that just arrived. There seemed to be no problem finding absolutes.
Onhwy61; I think what you are describing are members of the amp of the month club. Whereby when something newer and "better" comes out they absolutely must have it. And you know what? If that person can afford it and is enjoying life, more power to him/her. However, continuing refinement is okay to the extent that some really love music and accurate music reproduction and realize that they aren't "there" yet. Again, more power to them. Some people are that way with cars. Others with watches, and others have their different things. It is ever moving for them. For me, while my hearing is okay, I love good music and the best reproduction of such music (that I can afford). I know what I would do/buy if I won the lottery. I know it would be an improvement. Not a jaw dropping improvement, but an improvement non-the-less. and with the time I have left (hopefully a long time), it would be an enjoyment, not an addiction.

I could not agree more.
There are needs and there are wants. Modern marketing has made a science out of transforming peoples' wants into needs and that is the bedrock of consumerist culture. Most audiophiles already have fairly nice systems and as such their needs have be met. The want of a better and better system is pure want primarily driven by magazines, on-line forums and a keepin' up with the Joneses mentality. It's no different than a fashionista buying her 61st pair of designer shoes. But then again maybe she's on a spiritual quest?

If I were to rank the evil behaviors that human do, genocide would be #1. Consumerism would come in somewhere behind telling small children there's no Santa Claus but ahead of letting your husband go to work with "ring around the collar".

If you object to the addiction language then feel free to substitute the lexicon of OCD, or better yet "blame it on the ADD" and just sail.
Onhwy61: I think the only thing you said in your latest post that I may disagree with is that just because a person has a fairly nice system does not necessary mean that their needs have been met. I started out with a fairly nice system a long time ago, but it wasn't quite "there" yet for me. had nothing to do with being in the amp of the month club where I absolutely had to have the latest and greatest. It had to do with the sound wan't quite there, my budget at the time, kids in school, mortgage, etc. Also, one thinks that when you purchase something and take it home that it will be right. most times, unless you take it home and demo it first, you really have no idea if it is right. so, you are correct to an extent, consumerism, amp of the month club, etc. drives many people. But, some of us just want to sit and listen and enjoy without listener's fatique, the empty feeling that something is just not right with the sound.

I agree with you here. We have to make a distinction between the music lovers who feel things are not where they want them to be regarding the sonic attributes of their system, and those who chase after novelty for novelty sake.