The Art & Science of Sound

Your Musical Mileage May Vary

by Jack Sharkey for KEF

There are two types of audio enthusiasts: Those who are into the music and those who are into the sound. I love music in pretty much all its forms, but I got into this because I love sound – more particularly how things sound. With that in mind, there is truly nothing better than a song that sounds great while delivering an intense emotional moment.

I know people who use music as the soundtrack to almost all of their daily activities. Like the trustyold radio that highlighted the soundtrack of your childhood from the top of the refrigerator (or wherever your mom or dad keep it), music is a constant companion. Thoughts of fidelity, resonances, toe-in and crossover settings are not important – they listen for the song. A simple Bluetooth speaker or even the built-in speakers on a television are just fine for folks who can listen to the core of a song and experience it without caring how it sounds.

Then there are those of us who view listening to music as a spiritual event akin to a Japanese tea ceremony where the entire experience is what matters. The song, the sound, the setup, and the company all combine to make the time spent listening to music a magical and spiritual experience. The gear is important, but it’s really all about the song and what the song means in that particular space and time.

The third group are the gearheads. It’s about the sound the song makes as it works its way into your heart. Sound is a fascinating and powerful energy and although the gearhead might seem detached from that aural magic, the gearhead is in essence chasing the magical experience of hearing a sound that ignites their internal passion.

The point? As much as they seem different, in essence all three are exactly the same.

All three experiences are perfectly valid, and to many of us, all three experiences are completely interchangeable. There are nights when I am a complete fuss-budget and I never actually get comfortable in the listening. The subwoofer is not integrated perfectly with the mid-range. The vocals are slightly off center. I can find a hundred things wrong with what I hear without even looking very hard. When I’m in this headspace it drives my wife crazy – all she wants to do is listen to some music without the constant interruption and fiddling about. Luckily, I’ve got my system tuned quite nicely so those moments are fewer and farther between. Plus, I’ve come to the realization that my obsession about sound is more often than not an utter annoyance to everyone around me.

I don’t listen to much vinyl anymore, but I do miss the physicality of vinyl or even CDs. Both formats made me an active participant in the listening experience – it was my Japanese tea ceremony. But frankly, between my NAS which contains all of my ripped and stored CDs and hi-res files, or TIDAL and Qobuz, I don’t see much reason to do anything else other than find the song that fits the moment and just listen to it. I spend at least one night a week ritualistically listening to music just for the sake of listening. It makes me feel connected to myself, my history, the world around me and lots of other more metaphysical things. I take it very seriously and the quality of the sound and environment I’m in play a huge role.

Yet, I have these two granddaughters, both under six, who listen to their version of the radio on the fridge – the TV on the wall connected to Spotify, and they become immersed in what they are hearing every bit as much as I do during my listening ritual. They don’t care how it sounds – they care about how they feel. They are the very essence of musical joy and happiness. Do I wish they listened on better gear? I used to, but to them how it sounds isn’t the point so who am I to disagree? But I would love to see how much more joy they get with larger amounts of musical energy swirling in the air about them!

Listening to music should make you happy, (or sad, or nostalgic, or fired up, or any other emotion you can experience), and if it does that for you regardless of the delivery system, then it’s doing its job. No one can judge you or tell you otherwise. You may not feel you need anything more than a simple Bluetooth speaker or whatever, and that’s perfectly okay, but sound moving through air does things to us beyond just hearing a lovely melody or striking guitar solo. The more air we move – with quality – the richer the experience. To me, it’s always analogous to what we eat. A five-star meal every night might eventually lose its panache, but probably not. On the other hand, a greasy burger and soggy fries every night just doesn’t make your senses as happy as they could be. The key is to enjoy the greasy burger when you’re in the mood and still appreciate the five-star meal when the soul demands more nourishment. A cheap system can get the job done, but what about when the soul demands magic? A decent (not even expensive) system can do both. It can be your soundtrack background and your calm in the eye of the storm when you want to escape into some tunes for an hour or so. Even though your mileage may vary, it’s okay to have both at your disposal.

Life is short – no to mention stressful and annoying – don’t deny yourself the unique and magical experience of music that nourishes the soul regardless of what mood you’re in!

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