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Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
august/september 2003


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Auroville 20
by Srajan Ebaen

Becoming a better listener.

While presumably wrapped somewhere into our audiophile sojourns as a subliminal leit motif, this goal isn't necessarily easily defined. What does it mean?

At first, it simply means that we hear more. Put differently, we become more critical. We hear what's wrong with our system; we notice what seems to be lacking, thus making "it" wrong, limited in some way, or simply undesirable. Thus starts our endless quest for the mythical El Dorado. What's wrong with our system is gleaned from comparisons—some practical, some imaginary. The former are the demonstrations at a dealers, friends, or HiFi show. The latter are surmised from reviews that indicate how something might sound in our own system, though half the stuff the writers are writing about we can't make out. Meaning perhaps that our system doesn't offer enough resolution? Or is our hearing really the limiting factor?

Becoming a better listener, in audiophile parlance, is usually synonymous with becoming a more critical listener. We discern non-linearities in frequency response. We wish for a deeper, more holographic soundstage. The treble is too hot, the bass is too mushy, the midrange is too recessed, the transients are too buffered, the off-axis response is not even enough.

As we get deeper into this thicket, we adopt new ailments—like the famous Wood Effect. Until someone pointed it out at a tradeshow, we never listened for absolute polarity. Didn't know about it, didn't fret about it, and couldn't hear it. But with a bit of training and practice, we realize that just like those experts who enter a room and, within seconds, request the presenter to switch polarity and, within a few more seconds, pronounce everything mo betta; we too can learn to discern these effects.

Except our CD player doesn't have a polarity switch. Drat. Time to upgrade.

Now we make friends with a 1st-order speaker designer. It's all new and exciting theory to us—until our friend points out what he describes as ringing distortions in higher-order crossovers. We never noticed any of this before. But with a bit of effort, we too can learn just what to key in on to hear this new coloration.

We've become better listeners, again.

Except now, the 4th-order speakers we own and love have become intolerable, particularly on piano recordings. Hurray. Time to upgrade again.

Soon we discover Mosfet mist and adopt tubes. Then tube rush becomes audible and we go back to solid-state, except single-ended this time. You get the picture. While all our journeys are unique, they share certain core features—experiences and insights that opened new vistas, new ways of listening for certain things that henceforth have become vital for our enjoyment.

For some it's dynamics. For others it's truth of timbre. It doesn't really matter. It all amounts to, unwittingly, having become conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to experience reproduced music according to a learned pattern. The trouble is, once we've trained ourselves to hear absolute polarity or time-delayed ringingor whatever our particular journey has thrown our waywe cannot not hear it in critical listening mode.

It's like a pain we never had before. Now that we know how and where to locate it, it just won't bloody go away. Without a cure, we've become better listeners. Yet again. Shouldn't we be perfect by now?

Put this way, none of this sounds like such a hot one-way ticket to paradise, does it? Especially when we consider how this pain came at great financial costs. Even worse, it's now imposed a conditional enjoyment on our music, one that demands that certain things be in place just so before we can let go and have fun.

Bliss in ignorance? It certainly might seem that way here. As though our expectations, about what it meant to become a better listener, were misguided. Surely it shouldn't have meant less but more enjoyment?

This dilemma of course is at the heart of what's been called the transformation from music lover to audiophile, from one who listened to music in a relaxed fashion unconcerned with certain parameters, to one who can't fail to notice said parameters telegraphing through the music and becoming grave distractions unless they happen to conform to his learned conditioning.

Can this conundrum be solved? Can the critical habits be unlearned or, at least, put aside like a hat when the rain stops?

What happens in moments of deep immersion, when critical faculties recede to only notice "I just came back from somewhere deep" after the fact—as though entering ‘The Zone' meant leaving the critical observer behind? It's a kind of meditative merger where subject and object blend and we enter into that which we experience. We become empty, something else fills us up. It's the difference between observing and participating to a degree approaching onenesswhere we become that which we experience, where we're longer different or outside from it.

Both are valid ways to approach music. More importantly, nothing says they have to be exclusionary. Alas, the automatic audiophile training we receive by way of acquaintances, reviews, and critical listening sessions don't seem to enjoy a natural counterbalance, a parallel training that went the other way to teach us how to relinquish the witnessing judge upstairs, and let the mice come out to play when the cat's away.

Talking to career audiophiles over the years, many look back with regret—at the loss of the initial innocence that could groove to a crappy car radio when now, only the best will doand less effectively to boot. The solution seems to be some kind of training practice in meditation—not pretzel-twisted navel gazing in full lotus, but using listening to music as a setting that naturally stimulates cessation or slowing down of thoughts which are replaced by strong non-verbal sensory stimuli and corresponding emotional responses.

The most important first step is intention. The second is patience, buoyed on the understanding that loosing a hard-earned habit isn't unlike unseating a deeply rooted tree. It's takes time and much effort. The third is creative ingenuity in the selection of music that, completely personal to the listener, triggers emotional rather than rational responses. The fourth is post-listening discipline. One must remain in the state entered via listening without music, to get to know it and explore its boundaries. After all, moments of merging with the music completely wipe out our observer faculties. We just go off, somewhere, and afterwards don't know where we were except that we're back now.

The trick lies in catching ourselves upon arriving back "in the world", just before we shift back into normal mode. It's going back into that quiet, expanded feeling/inquiry mode without the music, basking in the afterglow, imprinting this experience in consciousness so that it, too, can grow roots that one day will be impossible to unseat. Eventually and with practice, we become familiar enough with the knack of hanging in this suspended state that we can listen to music, enter it spontaneously, and enjoy it without going unconscious. Call it lucid dreamingexcept that the music now becomes the dream which we interact with in boundlessly creative ways. We're not quite awake but could wake ourselves up at any time. We're in that between state of soft hypnosis or trance where boundaries soften, things expand and our identity of a separate self weakens.

Needless to say, such non-critical listening doesn't require more of an audio system than to make sounds and not stop prematurely while we're chasing the dragon's tail. Enjoyment here is not contingent on audiophile perfection but the bare holding-of-space, which the music provides. Why not allocate time for this kind of listening in parallel to critical listening? It's like learning to walk on two feet, simultaneously, without staggering like a drunk. It can serve as antidote to the frustrating elements of critical listening and make us into audiophiles and music trancers, able to shift gears as the occasion and our mood warrant. It also affords us a way to enjoy our systems, now, even if our audiophile persona recognizes its shortcomings full well…

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