KIH #39 – Listening modes

MO. Modus operandi. It not only applies to secret agents but listeners too. There are different modes of listening. Saying something to the effect of “I let the amps warm up for half an hour before doing any serious listening” suggests at least two: casual and serious. I think there are rather more but let’s start with those two. What’s the difference? We can probably agree that it’s primarily a function of attention. In casual mode, we may be doing something coincident with listening; like folding the laundry, cooking, entertaining, playing chess, working out, making love, checking email or any number of other things. Multi-tasking is the new normal after all. Now music becomes part of the emotional ambiance in which we do that other thing. It sets a mood which could be dreamy, invigorating, melancholy, celebratory or alternate between various flavours particularly if a playlist is well curated. The primary effect or expectation for the music now is to act as an enveloping blanket. Our main attention is reserved for whatever it is we do inside that blanket.

Serious listening is exclusive. Our entire attention is (should be) devoted to it. We do nothing else. Routinely, we even close our eyes to increase the focus of our nervous system on just the ears. That in such serious mode we should notice more comes as no surprise. In fact, that very expectation is at the heart of why most audiophiles pursue fancy hifi systems. We want to hear more. How is that possible? Does a costly hifi add data? Certainly not. It can’t. Does an inferior hifi then delete data? Not really though most of us would argue that lesser resolution obscures the small print and possibly renders it illegible. But noticing or hearing more isn’t simply about raw data or counting pixels. It’s also about making connections. It’s here where I think serious mode subdivides into different modalities relative to what connections we hope to make.

Say that we mean to follow a complex Bach fugue architecturally. We hope to see each recurring motif as it stacks up, delayed in time and shifted in pitch, one atop the other to build into that art form’s complex geometrical structure. Without getting esoteric, we might call that a higher mind perspective. That’s because our intent is to recognize structural principles as they unfold over time. We wish to see and, in that act of direct seeing, understand how Bach did it. There’s an aspect of higher math and sacred geometry to it. Seeing that isn’t a function of thinking about it. Rather, the chatty mind stops and another deeper layer of perception opens up.

If instead we mean to get turned on by the hip-swaying seductive rhythms of a samba or bossa nova, our focus is on the first chakra of sexuality and vitality. We want to be bodily engaged and animated. It’s a juicy vital mode. If we listen to a slow Indian raga, the most likely centre of attention triggered in us is again somewhere in the higher mind, i.e. not its thinking but contemplative part. If we listen to devotional Bhajan music, authentic Qawwali, a touching love song or turn-on-the-tears movie score, our hearts may be triggered in unexpected ways. A Bruckner adagio might also tug on our heart strings but do it in a less personal more universal or ‘religious’ fashion. Rock’n’Roll could primarily affect our vital centre in the solar plexus or below. And so forth. One really needn’t believe in the Eastern chakra system or its glandular Western equivalent to acknowledge that different music hits us in different spots; and that each of those spots comes with a certain focus or flavour which—not surprisingly—can reflect in our preferences relative to a hifi’s qualities.

Mounting the same horse from the other side, our primary choice of music style/s likely reflects our primary listening MO which then leads us quite naturally to a system that excels at that style of musical qualities. That’s back at the connections we hope to make. Which of our many trigger spots do we most cherish? What does a system have to do really well to make us connect with that level of our being most easily and often? I think it’s quite clear that the answer has nothing to do with frequency response and distortion measurements even though all of it flows into it. The most important thing to feel out is where we habitually listen from. Do we listen with our gut, heart, head, a combination thereof or from somewhere else altogether? What gives us the most pleasure? Do we have two or three primary modes which our system should accommodate?

Playback loudness too factors into this equation. A system which mostly gets used loudly or very quietly must clearly be built around different sets of priorities. Breaking it down into audiophile terms is up to each user. Whether our trigger points require lower bass, more presence zone insight, an airier more illuminated treble, grander soundstaging, juicier tone, denser images, bigger dynamics, snappier transients or longer decays is for us to discover. Translating that into THD, IMD, response deviations, power response, dispersion traits, filter slopes and such is for the technically inclined. The focus of this 39th KIH isn’t pat answers. It’s an invitation to consider our connection to music and playback in a different way. In its most basic form, the question must begin with “What do I really want from my hifi?”. That’s followed by a candid assessment of our listening habits; and an inspection of our most treasured moments. True, it can be very difficult to separate the external from the internal. What, really, did the hifi have to do with a particularly satisfying session versus was it all my own state of mind or emotional availability? Just so, it’s just as likely that deeper observation notices certain patterns.

That’s when we can begin to map out our very own peculiar trigger map which, when attended to, gives us the highest hit rate of truly memorable listening experiences. Here looking for answers from others, from presumed or actual experts, doesn’t work. In some ways, this actually isn’t so different from buying a car. Aside from setting a budget, the main questions to answer are, how will it be mostly used? In rush hour traffic? On bumpy country roads? With one or four passengers? In good or bad weather? Are ice and snow a factor? High or low speeds? Is luggage space or tow capacity important? Do I want to sit high off the road or low? Will a lot of very tight parking require parking assist? And so forth. Once such an assessment has narrowed down our valid choices, we get to factors like looks, comfort, reliability, reputation, trade-in value and such.

If we determine that we listen primarily in seeing not feeling mode, soundstage size and separation precision could be most important. If we insist first on an emotional connection, we may prioritize tone density and powerful bass. My choices of ‘could’ and ‘may’ remind us how very personal this is. Your emotional or seeing connection could depend on a very different set of triggers. Perhaps you don’t even distinguish between the two. There is no right or wrong, just a curiosity-driven inquiry into how we relate to playback; how many key modes or perspectives this includes; and what qualitative features best accommodate that. Such thinking about hifi disavows an absolute sound because it is too subjective and personal. It acknowledges that a properly selected and set up hifi can act as a time machine, emotional transformer, experience creator, legalized mood alterant, inner journey guide or simple diversion from the daily grind. Or, it may be nothing but a simple electrical appliance, no different from a washing machine or refrigerator which do their allotted job without our supervision or concern. On one level, that’s actually all a hifi is; an appliance. On another level—which has all to do with us—it can be a lot more. That part simply can’t be covered by standard review vocabulary or attendant graphs which must talk in generalities. The more—as in, hearing more from/with a hifi to get more out of it–is about the attitude of our approach and the expectation we apply; and then the attention we pay to our own psychology and to the actual experience of listening to music itself. It’s not complicated. It just falls outside usual reviewer commentary by being too personal. That shouldn’t prevent us from talking about it. It simply belongs into a different format than formal equipment reviews.

Written by Srajan Ebaen

Srajan Ebaen

Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Blondie the cat in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to DAR pro bono.

21 Comments

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  1. As someone who listens to a good deal of electronic music, without a central voice it has more in common with a landscape painting than a portrait. This is where I give my a brain a workout. I rarely choose to swing my hips at home so overall physicality takes second place until I’m behind headphones. So too does super low bass – although that could also be the result of being a respectful neighbour to those sharing the same apartment block.

    In feeding my heart however, words (and therefore a singer) are crucial. Now the listening experience becomes far more emotional.

    Both listening modes serve in nailing the qualities of audio gear. A single driver loudspeaker might be better with voice but lack the low down oomph for proper satisfaction when spinning techno. With the latter style of music, my personal preference is for turntables that lend a little warmth and tonal fat – i.e. those that trade in a little grey matter stimulation in return for a little more heart. Rarely will a digital front end offer this quite as readily, especially at the entry-level. Where a DAC/streamer combo really excels cerebrally is with dynamics, detail, player precision and immersion.

      • That’s kinda my point – there are hardly any. And besides, I’m talking a very sound unique to low-end turntables. The thickening I refer to comes at the expense of layer separation and clarity.

    • Interesting. I think I have the total opposite response. I find good electronic music tends to inhabit me and take over my emotional responses (Particularly Daft Punk Alive 2007). If a system can’t make it come alive and infect my hips, then I am not interested. It is proving a hard task in finding a DAC that will match my CD player for that connection.

      • Daft Punk Alive 2007 is a very different type of electronic music (more celebratory and uplifting as far as I am concerned) to, say, Function’s Fabric Mix.

  2. My love of audio started as a teenager and from that point, I knew what I liked didn’t correlate to what others liked. We couldn’tl agree on what systems and gear delivered the goods.What measured best, what came across as accurate, didn’t translate to what sounded good. Also, we couldn’t agree on the music. Different styles and genres elicited quite negative assessments of sound reproduction that just didn’t ring true to me. I know what I hear, so one cannot blame the system because they didn’t like the music. I don’t think that’s given enough credit. Different styles of music require different kinds of gear.

    Knowing that from early on, I just went my own way and to hell with the others. They could all go for the deepest of bass, dissect the soundstage ad nauseam, and go to extremes with speaker placement while I just went about searching out what simply moved me. It took me awhile to realize that for me, emotional motivation was my Achilles Heel. I knew my music and all the trigger points. Once I knew the latent, achieving the manifest was just a matter of hitting the right notes, equipment wise. A little of trial and error and Bob was my uncle. Actually, Bob became my therapist.

    Tim P.

  3. Hey Srajan, I’ve long enjoyed your musings – even if the journey occasionally seems longer than I’d anticipated – but I must chide you for introducing John to all things fine and European. You’ve taken a simple Aussie man who started out reviewing ~$1500 amps from the likes of Redgum Audio and turned him into a soy latte sipping Bon Vivant who prances about Berlin gazing at expensive lifestyle audio that he hopes will fit in with his Bauhaus decor 😉

    I wish you both a Merry Christmas and lets hope we all survive President Trump’s reign in 2017. Tschau!

    • Artie – I’ve always been a latte-sipping Bon Vivant but what you should be more afraid of is Berlin’s B&O store sitting 5 floors below my apartment. 😉

      And a joyous Christmas to you also.

  4. I think John went native all by himself without any help. After the Munich shows, he’d stay on in Germany for a bit longer to soak up the cultural differences. He scoped out Berlin well before he ever made the move. My only contribution to the cause was identifying John early on as someone who I thought made a great addition to our industry; and to support him a wee bit with visibility via 6moons to help him grow his site just a bit quicker so that he could make the jump into doing it full-time and quit the normal day job. That much blame I gladly shoulder. The rest is up to Berlin’s native allure, the quality of its DJs and finally, its superb winter weather -:)

    Seriously again, it *does* seem endemic to a career as audio reviewer that, with time, one’s coverage tends to include the costlier stuff. As one gets exposed to better stuff, it’s natural to want to own it especiallywhen one’s lifelihood revolves very literally around using it on a daily basis. Acquiring better sharper tools does enhance one’s work and pleasure of doing it. This doesn’t mean one needs to abandon covering the entry-level stuff but it *can* get tough finding just the right perspective for it when one’s own inner yardstick has been raised well beyond it.

    After all, it’s no fun to read “not bad for the money but…” and sundry variations thereof. To do it proper justice nearly requires that one momentarily forget how much more is possible so the reportage is unsullied by unfair comparisons even if those never get spelled out. From what I can see, John continues to cover budget components as he always has. His new location should simply expand the focus from gear that was imported to Oz to global gear, period -:)

    • Srajan, I’m 100% fine with the fact that DAR had to evolve from its humble beginnings, and its creator along with it – I only ask that he remembers the little people along the way. I bought the Dragonfly Black on John’s recommendation, and he’s usually one of the first reviewers to get his hands on new toys from Schiit, Audioquest etc – that’s valuable when my only other point of reference is usually the FOTM brigade at Head-Fi. I’m happy to read about gear from Devialet and Ayre as long as it doesnt mean that the budget gear is completely sidelined – John knows far too much about audio to be seduced by B&O or Bose, but I’m not going to throw a hissy fit if he encounters something in his travels that doesnt fit into the ‘hairshirt audiophile’ realm. If I can make a request, I would be interested to hear more about what Alex Rosson is hoping to achieve with Shinola Audio – the marketing pitch is interesting, even if I have no need for either designer watches or a bespoke turntable.

      Enjoy your eggnog – 28 deg C and moist in Darwin today 😉

      • I’d direct you to my enthusiasm for the work of Schiit Audio, AudioQuest (as you point) out but also Audioengine, U-turn and Fostex and as clear examples (off the top of my head) of my commitment to affordable fare. Moreover, I continue to champion affordable audio equipment’s display at shows. I presently run an Affordable Audio seminar at RMAF each year. Nothing is getting sidelined. But if readers choose to only see Devialet and Ayre (or similar), not much I can do about that.

        The aim is for DAR to cover gear from all manner of price points with an artificial ceiling placed at (roughly) US$10K per piece.

        The Shinola story is an interesting one. The Runwell turntable is the nicest looking turntable ever to be designed by VPI. If only I had the budget and time to travel to Detroit to dig deeper.

        • I made a trip to the Shinola store one Sunday evening. There were no demos of the Runwell being done at the time. I think the production run has been sold out, but not 100% sure.

          Also do check out Jack White’s Third Man Records, located next door to Shinola in Detroit. Jack will start pressing vinyl at the location soon.

          Detroit also has an annual techno music festival in late May of each year. If your trip to Detroit coincides with this time, perhaps your trip will be more worthwhile.

          As you might have guessed, Detroit is nowhere near as HiFi crazy as Berlin. There isn’t a whole lot to do here from a HiFi standpoint

        • Thanks John – it wasnt my intent to call your committment to affordable audio into question, merely to point out that the 6Moons definition of ‘affordable’ doesnt gel with mine. I completely *get* that a 15k tonearm can be considered a value proposition for those who live in that stratosphere, but with the Aussie dollar on the slide its the last thing I need to read about. I look forward to a balance between affordable and aspirational gear in 2017 – the IKEA bread board article you linked to recently is a shining example of something that might benefit those of us who will NEVER spend 2k on a hi-fi rack or speaker stands. When I win the 31 mil on Dec 31, I’ll post some pics of my purpose-built home dedicated entirely to music, musclecars and the (few) women who genuinely appreciate such things 😀

          • I didn’t realise 6moons had offered up a definition of affordable? Of course, and as you say, affordability is like beauty – it sits in the eye of the beholder. I know MANY audiophiles for whom a $15K tonearm isn’t a stretch at all.

  5. Srajan,

    I have two modes when I sit down and listen professional and relaxed. Professional is the same mode I work in daily (managing member public accounting firm), when I pull back the conference table and listen to the stereo system in my office, when I moonlighted as consultant in the broadcasting industry. Obviously an analytical brain pattern so I have a system that can be listened to without fatigue for long periods and pull the sounds that reach me emotionally. We discussed the specifics in KIH #35.

    The relaxed mode is state where I let the music roll over me a little. A completely different brain pattern. Fatigue is less an issue so the detail can be greater but if say drum kit is stretched or the guitars bounce around it suddenly isn’t relaxing. This is purely at home I can’t get in this mode in the office.

    The main difference in the two systems is the speakers. I have horns in the tweeter and mid-range at home and the office has vintage AR-4x speakers on their fourth crossover upgrade.

  6. I have an aural memory of a wonderful, balanced sound from somewhere.
    After living with the more revealing and analytical sound range of equipment for more years than I probably should have, I slowly realised that I was spending my sessions listening to the equipment and not the music.
    I have devoted the last couple of years to trying to re-capture/create that aural memory (with ample assistance from both John and yourself) and in the last couple of months am enjoying my system and music like I haven’t for some time. Too long in fact.
    Give me atmosphere over analysis every day!

  7. In all seriousness, why is it that B&O has such a bad reputation? I’ve replaced my AKG Y50 (WhatHiFi product of the year) by a B&O H6 and I’m delighted by the sound quality. Or can both of them not be taken seriously measured against the high demands of audiophiles? 🙂

    Additional question: Which Fostex headphones would be a good start for a newcomer?

    • Fostex ‘phones: check out the MKIII T50RP. Superb sound for €150.

      As for B&O, it’s possible that many audiophile treats better looking products with suspicion – that the sound MUST have been compromised for it to deviate from the utilitarian aesthetic where badges of honour are handed out for doing it tough with something more comparatively agricultural in appearance….?

      Wait – there aren’t badges of honour for such stuff? My mistake. 😉

      • The T50RP is a good example of this. I’m sure it’s a great headphone for the price but it certainly isn’t pleasing to the eye. Or as Tyll Hertsens has put it: “I wouldn’t call them ugly, but their utilitarian style is about as appealing as a dump truck.” ;D But probably I’ll try my hand at some modding.

        Unfortunately the TH610 isn’t in the same price range… But would the Audio Technica ATH-M50x be a suitable alternative?

        Thx!