What Do You Listen For?
A great deal has been written about what music we do or should listen to. And even more (every record or equipment review, for example) has been written about how things sound, how we ought to listen to them, or what gear we should listen on. To my knowledge, though, except for the occasional incidental reference relative to some other subject, almost nothing has ever been written about what we actually do or should listen for.
The fact is that we don't just "listen". We couldn't if we wanted to: Even in an apparently "quiet" room, the ambient noise level the sound that's constantly going on all around us while we speak with or listen to others, listen to music, or just sit still, saying or doing nothing has been measured to typically average somewhere in the range of 45 to 50 dB. That's hardly a thunderous din, but certainly audible if we were to listen to it. But that's the key: We don't listen to it. Instead, we are all constantly listening against it filtering out what we don't want or need to hear so that we can enjoy a moment of peace or concentrate on the auditory information that we DO want to take in.
So, what is it that we don't listen to? Well, for one thing, our own heartbeat. It's there in our ears all the time but, unless something changes (exercise, stress, a sudden drop in background noise level) or it's somehow called to our attention, we never hear it. Crowd noise is another good example. Because we have two ears and always, therefore, hear things from two different sonic perspectives, the incredible mechanism that is our brain is often able, by means of arrival time, tone, phase, and relative amplitude, to allow us to ignore what might otherwise be sonic chaos and focus on a single sound or voice.
Most of what we filter out is simply automatic, requiring no conscious control at all. If a sound is of no interest or no importance to us, we just blank it out without even noticing that we're doing so. And it can work the other way, too to filter in sounds of special importance to us. Tales of mothers able to hear the cries of their children, even against overwhelming noise are common proof of this.
Music is a special category of sound that can work either way; we can either filter it out or give it special focus as we see fit. When we're working, for example, or in the classic elevator situation, background music can be either just a part of the environment or, like the "on hold" music on the telephone, a distraction, and we're able to treat it accordingly either minimizing it in our perception or filtering it out entirely.
Other music the kind we want to actually listen to is also subject to that same kind of volitional selection. We not only pick the kind of music we want to hear; we also have distinct preferences (and act on them) as to how we listen to music and even to what parts of it we hear. This is of particular significance to audiophiles, and recognizing those preferences can be of real importance to every aspect of our audio hobby, including how we select and what we pay for our music system.
The thing I'm personally most likely to listen for is the spatial information a great recording can capture and a great system can re-create. To me, knowing (or at least being able to get a good feel for) the size and shape of a music venue and the positioning, side-to-side, front-to-back, and even up and down, of the performers in it is a major thrill and a big part of what I look for in selecting a recording or a system. Others, though, have different ideas of what the ideal system or recording should sound like, and they listen for different things: One, Tony DiChiro one of our industry's most talented electronics designers pays great attention to the accurate representation of transient attack and decay, and products designed by him show it.
Other people listen for "the harmonic envelope around the sound" or for bass, treble extension, clarity, or midrange accuracy and detail, or the "kick" of a kickdrum, or, like Tom Miiller, an audio reviewer for another publication, the overall "believability" of the musical presentation. Or whatever else a person might enjoy. There was even one person I knew the owner of a luxury Italian sportscar dealership who could easily have afforded anything that he wanted, but told me that all he really cared about from his system was that it should be able to play at rock concert volume HEADCRUSHINGLY LOUD without distortion.
So, let's go back to that same question that provided the title for this article: What do YOU listen for. If you don't know yet, or don't at least know what range of things you listen for, it's probably time to figure it out.
The reason is simple: Nothing no product that I've ever heard of, of any kind, for any purpose does everything perfectly. That's particularly true of hi-fi systems, the records we play on them, and the rooms we play them in. Just to give one obvious example, two of my all-time favorite recordings, the Ralph Kirkpatrick version of Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, weren't recorded in stereo, so, no matter what equipment I buy or how well I acoustically treat my listening room, I'll never be able to use them to satisfy my love of imaging and soundscaping. It just can't happen.
And, regardless of how great modern tube or solid-state electronics are, there are generally real sonic differences between them, so it behooves me or anyone else to figure out what those are and how they fit with what we're going to be listening for before we go out shopping for a new system. Same thing with speakers: Horns typically have great dynamic "punch" and a wonderful degree of clarity but, unless the bass horns are truly huge or your listening room can accommodate classic corner horns like Klipschorns, Lansing Hartsfields, or Electro-Voice Patricians, you're going to have to choose between having no deep bass or having the bass sections of your speakers something other than horn-loaded. And even then, the typical horn array doesn't image or soundstage as well as the typical cone or planar speaker (it's a matter of time-alignment of the drivers) so you might have another choice to make.
All of hi-fi is filled with choices and compromises, so my advice to you is to spend some time, do some comparative listening (in your own home or as much like its listening environment as possible), to as many different kinds of music and equipment as you can before you actually commit to buying anything, and then, once you know what "turns you on" and what you will be listening for, go out and make your buying decision based on that knowledge.
That's the very best way to be certain that after you've bought everything, gotten it home, set it up, turned it on, and put on some tunes you're going to...