What are we listening to...for...with?

As a long time audio enthusiast and former professional musician (double reeds) I'm interested in hearing opinions on a couple of related observations.

First obbo: A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting with the principal conductor of one of the major US symphonies--one of the biggest of the biggies. I was doubly blessed that among the guests was the music director of another orchestra in the same league. Between them, these guys probably account for a hundred or more recordings. I found my host relaxing by listening to his home equipment--an Aiwa all-in-one-box system that sounded to me like a miniature car crusher hard at work. When I questioned him, his offhand reply was, "Oh, I know what it is supposed to sound like." I pressed further: "So then are you listening for performance practice or interpretation or what?" "Nah," he replied, "I'm just enjoying the music." At which point the other internationally famous conductor chimed in to say that his home system was 30 year old HH Scott....

Second obbo: A few nights ago, I went to a friend's for an evening of listening. His system is primarily Krell electronics and a pair of Vienna Mahlers. Among other things, we heard the Slatkin/St. Louis/Telarc recording of the Vaughn Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis, Barber Adagio for Strings, etc. Conversation ranged over several topics including Telarc engineering, "Krell sound," cables (what else?), and the suitability of the Mahlers for orchestral music. Finally I said, "Isn't anybody bothered by the crappy playing and conducting on this disc?" Blank looks all around. Finally, one friend, an oratorio singer, ventured, "Well, the strings WERE a bit out of tune on the Barber." Out of tune? They sounded like cats screwing on a tin roof! Slatkin failed to totally realize Grainger's luscious harmonies on the Tune from County Derry, and the playing throughout was tentative, almost hesitant.

My question for you folks: Are these observations two sides of a common coin? Do some of us listen only to the sound and others only to the music? Are these common phenomena? What's going on?
I have been to the home of Tom Hall, music director of the Balitmore Choral Arts Society and he just has a similar Circuit City type all-in-one box system. When talking with him (at other times), he will comment on various choral recording he likes or dislikes and specifically why. His comments are always technical from a performance perspective (interpretation, tempo, chorus blend, balance, etc) I think they are listening to these things (ie, the music) and the quality of the actual sound does not matter.
I find it fascinating that I have spoken to dozens of individuals that own some type of company (in audio) for example that produces speaker cables, interconnects, amps, preamps, cd players etc. When we discuss personal equipment they own and use, many times I’m surprised and shocked at the low level of equipment. I would have thought it would be high end. I realize that others have extremely high end. Just an interesting observation!
Given the choice of two CDs, one with better sound and one with a better performance I always choose the better performance. This in one reason while it will be a very long time before I get a SACD player. I review the list of available recordings every once in a while and there is still only one CD I would buy. Except for the redbook one of this recording also sounds great as is. So maybe buy none.
An excellent observation, Sugarbrie. Between the recordings that I don't listen to because my revealing system makes the engineering sound so bad and the ones I don't listen to because the playing/conducting is so bad, my list of favorites is getting shorter and shorter.
Bishop: I recently removed a Nordost Quattro Fil (a $1600 per meter) interconnect in favor of a $250 Blue Circle BC95 between my preamp and power amp. The Quattro is much better than the BC95 technically from an audiophile's perspective (top to bottom detail, etc). It is hard to explain, but my musician side of the brain tells me that the BC95 simple just "sounds right".
I've been listening to sound and music since I was a kid (still am and still do). Since it's principally about taste, both aspects play a role in listening to recorded music. I listen, nearly exclusively, to Bach and 20th/21st century 'classical' music. My system is a laid back tube approach that presents this material suitably to my taste. I turn to particular works and particular performances when my focus is on the music. I have five sets of the Bach cello suites, for example. I can easily list them in order of preference and describe what I like and dislike about each. I also listen to all of them over time but play some more than others. I've always assumed that others do a theme and variation of the same, but it's interesting to run into professionals who have never gotten into the sound part of the music.

Having worked professionally in studios and sound reinforcement venues, I have worked on recordings and live sound systems where I didn't care at all about the music.
You're talking about two different hobbies here: high-end audio, and music appreciation. One can pursue either, or both. I'm always amazed at audiophiles who insist that they needed some gold-plated component to fully realize the emotional impact of the music. Geez, Mahler's emotionalism would come through on a tin whistle!
My answer to your question is yes.
I knew of an "audiophile" who only listened to recordings of gun shots.(weird eh?) Don't ask me where he got these. I knew another guy who viewed his system as a serious science project and didn't really like listening to music per say. I must say that his system sounded amazing. Hopefuly you can strike a balance and do both(sound and music). I listen to things that sound bad on my system because I love the music(an example would be,Keith Jarret "The Melody At Night With You" CD,I love this disc but there are some nasty problems with some of the tracks where the thing just breaks up, some sort of mic overload I assume). I just try not to pay attention to the sound, maybe read while it's playing. Then there are things that sound great, and I love the music. I find that I can get more envolved in the experience of just listening with this sort of material. Then there are some things I have that just sound good, they don't get any real play time at all. More of a novelty than anything else.
I think some people may go a direction away from musicality in there systems and lean perhaps too far to what they might think is "accuracy" that unfortunatly may them to frustration. Sure to some my CD player may be "Dark" sounding, my turntable light in the bottom, and my speakers might be "rolled off" and my cables just plain "suck",.....well, you get the picture but I can still enjoy a wider range of what's out there and be happy doing it than with a system that may be slightly more forgiving in some areas of it's performance. I never claim it's "State of the Art" but it just sounds so damn good. I have had some of the most fun listening recently to an old Dynaco PAS2 and a ST70 combo I had in the basement, sure it was a bit soft on both ends and not real specific as far as placement of images, but man it was lush and rich and depth from here to the next county and it made it hard to find anything to put on that sounded bad. Listening to it again was wonderful and put a smile om my face. Try to be careful about what you put together as a system and you just might be able to have it both ways.
Bishopwill: I confess some of us listen more to the sound than to the music.

Maybe some of your conductor friends are in the middle of the real thing every day and, therefore, any system is going to sound well.. puny. In addition, they have plenty of time to hear truly great sound. How much do you need to hear every day? They are listening for a different reason as you note and it is understandable.

I agree that a lot of "audiophiles" get completely caught up in equipment and sound. The music you put on is the most important thing about a system if you ask me.

I think your observations are right on.

By the way, I have a little experience with some of the old Scott and Dynaco equipment and everytime I listen to it, it reminds me how far the industry has not come. Not much advertising hype for 40 year old stuff and it does not look impressive on the shelf, but them lil electrons don't seem to care to much.

PS: Have you found those bottleneck ferrites yet? I have a few extra and I'm willing to share.

Sincerely. I remain
Bishop, I have found the same thing with a friend of mine who owns a recording studio. He's been in the music business for over 25 years, has all the best in the studio, gold records on the wall, has had alot of the big stars cut tracks there and is very picky about what he produces. When the day is done however, he listens to a $150. sony mini system at home. I always thought he was just to busy and has enough sound at work ( he's not home much). He knows good sound, however he does enjoy his little sony . To each his own.........
I'm sure we've all read those interviews in Stereophile w/great recording artists or recording engineers whose home systems are little mini-boxes. I always get such a kick out of that! Of course, you can listen to music in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. I attend several live concerts a year, some in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (orchestral or chamber music), occasionally a rock concert in a basketball or football arena, but most in local folk-type clubs. The sound in the Kennedy Center hits you in the chest and can hurt the ears in its dynamic range. A true orchestral experience, and one I can't duplicate at home. The sound in the rock arenas is shrill and blurred, and the lyrics of everyone are unintelligible. Rock recordings sound FAR better on any of my home systems. The sound in the folk clubs varies. The club that has the very best performers and greatest shows, the Birchmere, has kind of crappy amplification, and a long array of really huge, old, battered JBL speakers above and across the stage. Yet the concerts there are amazing, because I can sit literally a few feet from the performers I love, as if they're in my living room. Because they're all miked, I probably would prefer the sound through my own amp and speakers at home instead of out of the huge JBL's. But the performance and shared experience in that venue beat the much better reproduction of these musicians at home. There is one club, Iota, that is so tiny that you can really hear the acoustic instruments and singers' voices for themselves without mikes. That to me is the best sound of all, better than at home. I've heard people like Alejandro Escovedo, Richard Buckner, Freakwater, and Sally Timms of the Mekons there, up close and personal--incredible. Obviously you can listen to music in all kinds of ways and w/all kinds of fidelity, high and low, and still have an unforgettable experience. I guess even the suggestion of a tune from a boombox is enough to evoke the whole emotional experience for some. Which would be a LOT cheaper if that worked for me.
An interesting thread. I must confess that I listen a little bit for both in my system; I might get a new recording for the sound (for example, an SACD), but if I don't like the performance or interpretation I won't listen to it much after the first time. For example, the Reference Recordings Rutter Requiem is beautifully recorded, but I cannot get over the slight intonation and pitch problems with some of the voices in the chorus enough to listen to it anymore, preferring the less glorious sound of Rutter's Cambridge Singers (I'll also admit to liking smaller choral settings of that piece). Sometimes bad sound will cause me to wince at even an excellent performance, but I'm more likely to come back to that recording than the well-recorded poor performance (or performance that is not to my tastes, more accurately). My musician friends who listen to music on the system invariably listen to the performance and interpretation first, and may only occasionally remark on the sound.
1. These are very common phenomena. All audiophiles go through the "am I listening to the music, or the equipment" self doubts every so often. I wouldn't worry about which you're listening to so long as you enjoy it.
2. I'd suggest that there are actually 3 sides to this coin, since enjoying the music and analyzing the music (what musicians tend to do) are not always one and the same. Being a musician myself (though only an amateur) I find that the analysis sometimes increases my enjoyment of the music, and sometimes detracts from it, but I just can't turn it off.
3. The ratio of postings and threads in the different subject areas suggest that the majority of the visitors to this board are into the sound quality before the music.
Of course the trick is to put together a high quality sound system that is also truly musical. I'm too damned old to tolerate just listening to good "sound". I'm in it for the music and have built my system acordingly-- well, IMO. Cheers. Craig
I'd suggest that there are actually 4 sides to this coin:
-Enjoying music -Analyzing music
-Enjoying sound -Analyzing sound
But, its one coin. While I'm writing music I'm also thinking about what sound I want to create with it. Sound and music can not be separated. In order to build we analyze and experiment. Once we build one thing it become tool for the next creation. Building audio system is a creative activity. I'm very happy that we have so much used building block available to us via internet.
Bishopwell, IMO you are going to be a very good addition to Audiogon. Great thread. I hope I have not offended you with my previous posts. I look forward hearing from you often. Again, I apologize if i have offended you in my previous posts. My best to you.
Thanks, Brulee, but no need to apologize, you haven't offended me at all. This is a great community, mixing equal parts of good humor, bad humor, genuine expertise, and very high quality bullshit. I'm delighted to be a part of it. Doesn't take too long to figure out who to put on the ignore list....
This coin (no matter how many sided) has many perspectives. On occasion one might be drawn to a specific aspect of a given recording that one might not have focused on previously. I’d suggest that aside from personality (i.e. the audiophile ‘sound’ perspective vs. the ‘performance’ perspective of the musician) that analytical nature is heavily mood-influenced. Sometimes we hear the whole, other times not.

I have to admit that I believe I prefer the sound of well-recorded/engineered music (from a purely analytical perspective). In my system some discs/tracks sound marvelously 3 dimensional with body, while others may sound flat or as though they're coming out of a funnel. Almost all are enjoyable. My only real beef is with ‘modern’ recordings which sound worse than those recorded 30 years earlier – IMO have no right to do so.

IMO it’s a positive that some (often older) recordings have an identifiably ‘lesser’ sound quality. Even if I could get these recordings to sound more ‘tactile’, I don't know if I’d opt for it. For example the sound character of vintage Jazz gives me a connection to the era of the music… I associate it immediately and distinctly by feel. This character lends a ‘rightness’ and emotion to the music that without IT could place the music anywhere in time, and lessen some of its meaning.

A question to you… What is your motivation for this hobby?

As audiophiles/enthusiasts we are into audio but we collect music. …We change our gear – maybe even frequently. …But once we find a great recording we keep it. Music IS the soundtrack to our lives. If I really think about it I believe THIS is why I started to buy music & audio - to keep good memories and enjoy the sound & moment over again. Audio grew and took on its own obsessive nature - to hear everything that IS there. I believe that this in itself makes a point (for me anyway) …that the root of this hobby is all about feel and emotion. If yes, then there is no question – love of music wins over sound quality & analytical nature.

People just love music. Listen to a Beatles tune over an old transister radio. Even if the signal goes in and out your brain fills in the gaps. My daughter says she cant hear any difference between my stereo and her little Walmart thing. My wife says "I could never go back". They both listen to music and not sound. I listen to the sound sometimes, when comparing stuff. Its fun, but its really so I can enjoy the music more. If I didnt love the music I would find some other interest to obsess over.
bishopwill: nice thread. no matter why we first get involved in this hobby, eventually i think all who commit enough time to it come to appreciate the "quality" of sound, tho few may ever gain the experience of symphonic musicians and conductors that might allow us to appreciate, at least to the degree they do, the "quality" of the music we choose to play through our audio equipment. this has been brought to my recent attention when our "primary" public radio station split into two stations, one on fm playing classical music 24/7, and the other on am broadcasting news and other talking heads programming all day, every day. before this disastrous division, my car radio and home tuner were dialed almost exclusively to the single public radio fm band, where i could enjoy both music and the news programs i cherished on my morning and evening commutes. now, i am utterly deprived of "all things considered" and its morning cousin because i can not physically (or is it mentally) stand the sound of am radio. it really does hurt my ears. -cfb
Well, cfb, I'm not at the point of having to give up All Things Considered but I stopped listening to car radio music a while back.

Awdeeofyle frames the real question, of course: what is our motivation? What motivates a person to have, as I and many others do, two (or more!) complete systems with different purposes. I have one for HT and another for music. Neither satisfies in the other's role. My music system is for listening to music...my gear choices yield a sound which is analytical, reserved, even a bit dry. I want to be able to reach down and hear the second-desk flutes. My HT system is big, ballsy, intended for visceral experience.

I suspect some conductors and players hear the music so accurately in their heads (think of the deaf Beethoven composing whole symphonies) that all they need is a sort of external cue.

I read the many thoughtful responses to Bishopwill’s intelligent question with interest. I agree with Bomarc’s comment that sound and music are two different hobbies, high-end audio and music appreciation. But the two are related.

An analogy in my experience is bird watching. I go bird watching with a friend who is far more knowledgeable than I about birds. His appreciation of the experience is in some respects greater. I bring a pair of Swarovski EL 8x42 binoculars and a TeleVue 85 mm spotting scope, while my friend has a pair of Bushnell binoculars. In audio terms, that is like comparing the absolute best tube preamp and SET amp (I will not venture to guess what that is) with an inexpensive receiver. With greater knowledge of the birds, my appreciation of the experience grows. However, I also appreciate the instrument though which I observe the birds, and the optical clarity of the image. The instrument itself is to me also a thing of beauty. It enables me better to experience the beauty and awe of what I am observing, and contributes to the overall experience.

I have a love of acoustic jazz. Much of the music I listen to was recorded between 1926 and 1959. I can appreciate a poorly recorded Charlie Parker session, because of the innovation and creativity of the music, its historical context, and the unique excellence of his art. However, the experience is much more enjoyable if the recording is of high quality, and the stereo system produces a more engaging natural sound. Part of the experience also is an appreciation of the instrument, in this case the stereo system, and of the assemblage of the system, which itself can be considered an art form. All of this contributes to the overall experience.

The sound and the music complement each other. In my view, a greater appreciation of each enhances the appreciation of both.

Best regards,
Great thread, and I think the best sentence was the last one - that "a greater appreciation of each enhances the appreciation of both". I'm not a musician - never have been, probably never will be. I've always loved music (that's my second favorite line from this thread - "music is the soundtrack of our lives"). As the sound quality of my system has gone up and my ability to engage with it has gone up (ie, more time), my pursuit of and experimentation with various genres and artists has grown as well. Each feeds the other in a positive way.

It may be that I'm not a musician, that I don't "know what it's supposed to sound like", or that my tastes have not "matured", but each feeding the other has not led me to a point where I fret (or even care all that much) about small differences of similar CD players, cables, etc. In other words, I don't think my pursuit of and enjoyment of the sound, rather than the music, has become a pursuit in and of itself. Rather, it remains intertwined. I would guess that although a large percentage of the postings on this board revolve around the pursuit of sound through equipment, and despite the fact that there are undoubtedly people for whom the technical purity is THE goal, that the vast majority of posters here have intertwined goals and, in fact, the pursuit of sound is secondary to the pursuit of music. -Kirk

While I have been listening to "classical" music for thirty odd years, I still am not bold enough to state that one performance is better than another, unless, of course, one is supremely good and the other supremely bad. I must confess that I do look to record reviews in various magazines for what I still consider to be a more enlightened and broader viewpoint than mine. I can't afford multiple purchases of the same piece just for the sake of comparing and I would get bored with such comparisons, as I am normally bored by comparing equipment and tweaks. My purchases are not solely based on what I read, but often enough. The salient point in Bishopwill's posts, to me at least, is that, somehow, emotion or more emotion can be wrought from a piece of music by dint of the fact it is being reproduced by a tweaked-up, mega audiophile system. As I have mentioned before, I can be moved to tears by something playing on my kitchen radio, and bored to death by audiophile level recordings on incredible systems. The performance is the thing, the system can only enhance it, but it certainly does not start with the system. The local French audio press has also remarked on occasion that the bulk of musicians in l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal have some of the worst equipment imaginable. I can't corroborate any of this, as I don't frequent any of these people, for no obvious reason. I do frequent some local blues men though, and I remember how stunned I was when a drummer who, after dinner at my house, said without hesitation that he just hated people who listened to their stereo so loud. I was just playing it at what I consider realistic level for electric blues. Elmore James, Muddy Waters et al played LOUD. My conclusion, a lot of musicians simply see recorded music as a very distant experience from the real thing and couldn't care less if the gap is closed. They listen to the music itself, often enough to technical aspects or simply the feel of the piece, both of which come through to the knowledgeable listener on the worst of equipment. Krell wasn't around when Robert Johnson performed; I can still be moved by his music. There has to be a good compromise between the "performance" aspect and the "reproduction" aspect. I, for one, have been very consistent in my favouring the "performance" side of the spectrum. The majority on this site seems to be so heavy on the music system side of things, I wonder where they find the time to actually listen to music. Dif'rent strokes...