Do you know what a "forehead slapper" is? It's one of those "light bulb" moments of discovery; but the discovery you make is so utterly obvious that, instead of yelling out "Eureka, I have found it!" what you really want to do is to slap your forehead and yell at yourself for not having seen it sooner.
That's what happened to me a few nights back, when I was on the phone talking with my world-class-geneticist and Canadian hi-fi and Jazz-Crazy friend Stephen Black. Stephen and I regularly talk for hours about just about anything and everything you can think of and at that particular time we were on probably our nineteenth subject for the evening – the various kinds of music that we like – when Stephen said something that was so completely dead-on and so absolutely obvious that, all-of-a-sudden, any number of things that had been banging around inside my head – "there", but neither coherent nor fully-defined – suddenly congealed into a single all-encompassing truth and, once seen, it was so just "trip over it" obvious that I wanted to slap my forehead and apologize, to Stephen and to myself, for not having seen it years ago.
In fact, it was the same sort of revelatory feeling that I had had at UCLA more than five decades ago when, on the very first day of my very first class in economics (which I had just taken as an elective at the time) the professor – Anatol Balbach, who later became an important figure with the Federal Reserve Bank – said things that I had always known but never been able to articulate, and I knew immediately that an economist, just like him, was what I wanted to be.
So what was this great and mighty, hugely significant but completely obvious, thing that Stephen Black said? Simple: "It's not what you feel about the music (or the equipment that you use to play it on) but how it makes you feel (what feelings it invokes in you) that determines whether and how much you will like it."
That one simple sentence explains – at least to me – how it's possible for me to like music of just about any style or genre, and similarly, why I may not like some particular piece of music or a performance of it, even though it's in a style or of a genre that I usually like very much. What it all comes down to is very simple: If I like the way it makes me feel – meaning that I like my emotional response to it – it's good, and if I don't like it, it's bad. That's it, stated about as simply as possible, and, at least to me, it makes perfectly good sense. After all, isn't "feeling good" in one way or another what we're all looking to get from our hobby; from our system; from our music; and from just about everything that we do or willingly get involved with?
Just yesterday, something happened that brought this all home to me: After, for lack of space, having gone for a good long while with only digital program sources, I finally shuffled things around so that I could make room for and hook up one of my turntables (I have four of them; a Linn, a VPI, and two Aristons). After getting it all set-up and properly "dicked and dialed", I put on the first LP that came to hand: the Dunhill "Easy Rider" album [Dunhill DSX 50063], a compilation of great old songs by Steppenwolf, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and others, that may or may not have been in the movie of that same name (Frankly, I just don't remember) and was still on the platter from years ago, when my then-girlfriend had borrowed that turntable.
When all was ready, I lowered the stylus into the groove, sat down in my favorite chair, closed my eyes and... the sound was aweful" It wasn't just the abundance of clicks and pops that can be expected from a less-than-entirely-clean LP (a good many of which I was able to get rid of with my Nitty-Gritty record washer, that I also dragged-out and set up), but that hard mid-range coloration that so many less-than-well-recorded-or well-manufactured LPs unfortunately seem to have. Even so; and even though, in that case, analog sound was less that what I had come to expect from the best CD sound, the analog experience from that LP was still conspicuously greater than I could get from most CDs.
Truthfully, I have no idea what it was; it may simply have been that I was "connecting" better with the – certainly great – music. It may also be that there is either something that analog has and digital doesn't (or vice versa), but listening to that crummy recording-in less-than-good-condition made me feel good in a way that digital recordings seldom do.
It was the same way with other analog recordings that I played and – most importantly – also the same when I compared analog and digital recordings of the same things. (Pink Floyd's The Wall and the analog and digital [from analog masters] recordings of Radu Lupu playing the Beethoven Piano Concertos #3 and #4, as just two examples) In every case, on hearing the analog version, I simply felt better, regardless of the relative sound quality of the two media (which, on the two sets of recordings just mentioned seemed equally good in both digital and analog).
Again, I have no explanation for this, but it does raise a number of questions: Is what I'm feeling really a response to what I'm hearing? Or is it just "listener bias"? Or the dread "placebo effect" striking again? Is there something either added-to or missing-from one of the two recording media? If so, which, and what is it? If not, what else could there be? Could it be the playback equipment? All of my digital and analog gear are well-known and respected models from well-known and respected makers; is one set of gear simply better (or worse) than the other? If so, which and how?
These are all interesting things to ponder, but what they seem to do most of all is to introduce a different and perhaps much more basic question: If how our music or our equipment makes us feel is really the ultimate determining factor of whether we think it's good or not, and if (except for manufacturers or "tech-types" who really do need to know as much of the hard facts about the gear we listen to as possible). Testing and even (at least in some gross sense) how the music or the gear sounds doesn't really determine how we feel about it. Why should we, as audiophiles and music lovers, concern ourselves with things that aren't all that important? Why don't we just put on some music, sit back, close our eyes, and...
Enjoy the music!