Copyright © Lyrita Audio 2013
Musicality, when applied to audio reproduction, causes controversy in the audiophile world. But it really is very simple - we do want to listen to music through our hi-fis, don't we?
The view is well articulated by the reviewer, Michael Lavorgna, in a piece he wrote in December 2007. Here he is:
"The more we attempt to dissect the listening experience and zoom in on a particular component's performance, the farther we move from the enjoyment of the recorded performance and musicality. At times, we seem to get so caught up in the minutiae of hifi mechanics (as distinctly opposed to musical nuance), we lose sight of the music. We start listening to the hifi, not the music. We start to praise the things hifis do that don't mean a thing to music. The tail wags the dog while the cat's away. Thus begins the hifi sickness (and the need for 500 reviews per month).
But if we focus back on the music, I think we'll find music is much less fussy. It's much more generous and forgiving. It can speak to us through our car's stereo, our iPod, from down the street, in a crowed bar, on an airplane, a bus or a phone. Nearly anywhere. The only place I've found the power of music to be somewhat tamed and caged in is at hifi shows.
Music is satisfying. HiFi isn't. It's a sickness really. If you find yourself fretting along the lines of so much gear, so little time, you've got the hifi sickness. However, if you find yourself lamenting so many recordings, so little time, I'd say you've got a healthy hifi relationship.
As a 2nd generation hifi hobbyist, I've lived with the sickness all my life. I call it a sickness but I really mean that in an endearing way. As a member. A carrier. One who is infected and afflicted. Hifi vampirism. Once bitten, it's always better in the dark. Goldilocks enters the house of a thousand bears and she's never heard from again.
So sure, the pursuit can seem more interesting than the goal when riding the hifi hobby horse. We can even become experts in perceiving differences. Nuanced in noticing the sonic flavor of paper, beryllium, electrolytic capacitors, ferrite and alnico. As expert listeners, we can second guess designers, topologies, circuits and parts choice. There's no end to how much more we can know compared to the people who actually design and build the stuff we listen to. They really need to listen to all of us instead of spending so much time listening to the stuff they're building. Our prowess as expert hifi listeners is nearly boundless. We've heard The Difference.
Exactly how all this expertise relates to the enjoyment of listening to music on our hifi remains a mystery. Yet as listeners that is our only job.
There's a choice to be made. Do we want to be an expert hifi listener or enjoy listening to music on a hifi? Certainly both are noble pursuits. But we can't have it both ways. It's an either/or deal in the best Kierkegaardian sense. Maybe, just maybe, you can turn it on and off at will. I believe some people call this 'critical listening' versus listening for pleasure. I certainly believe this is possible but not as easy as some might think. A delicate balance to be sure.
Yes, I just quoted myself. But I said what I meant so why not. Now is also a good time to share my definition of the term musical as it applies to hifi gear: the experience of listening to music on a hifi where the music, its qualities and attributes, become the listener's sole focus. The cure lies in tying these two observations together. The Art in the mechanics equate to a musical presentation, i.e. the hifi dissipates as the music comes into focus. A delicate balance and disappearing act rolled into one. I think that's what reviewers mean when they say a hifi is "magical" or "eerie". Maybe not.
In a very important way, we're leaving our hifis behind along with our cherished hifi listening expertise. We don't need it and it actually gets in the way. Listening to music on a hifi is an aural illusion and you can only focus on the profile or the vase, never both.
Since Art is inherent in the mechanics of the listening experience, the act of listening is not bound by objective measures. And no matter how expert one becomes in writing or reading (or thinking) about hifi, there's no substitute for listening. Art appreciation lies in the experiencing and the only real credential in terms of Art appreciation that amounts to anything is time. Time spent listening in hifi's case. A Listener. And the artful hifi hobbyist spends his time listening to music. If we focus on the hifi and what it's doing, the art dissipates."