Don’t Forget to Listen To Music

It’s easy to lose sight of the songs in the audio hobby.

ost of audiophile fandom is gear-focused, no matter how much it tells itself otherwise. The gear discussions outnumber the music discussions 10-to-1, as do the number of technical reviews on the internet compared to coverage of new albums.

Don’t get me wrong, I like gear. I’ve mostly covered gear even though one day long ago I used to review music. Sometimes I wish the balance were the other way around. When I started I intended for it to be a more even split.

Gear is fun, in its own way. Gear has upgrades and ports and vacuum tubes and ear pads and colorways and cables.

But gear is supposed to be a means to an end: listening to sound. And as a mega-fan or a reviewer, it’s hard to remember to actually do that, whether your particular poison is music, movies, or games.

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I rarely take the time to just listen to music anymore, and my entertainment life has suffered for it. Music is either a background for writing or something I’m critically analyzing for a gear review

Even when I’m doing something more “interactive” with my audio time than music or movie listening, like playing a game, I’m still being at least a little bit mindful of the way my current gear is rendering the soundscape.

Instead of just listening to the sound.

It’s a bad habit that’s all too easy to fall into the further you get into the audio fandom, and it ruins a little of the magic inherent in the art of audio design itself. As a reviewer, it’s so easy to get caught up in having a small library of songs you know intimately. That way it’s easy to hear the differences in new gear the second you start listening.

Unfortunately, it means that all the fun of those songs is lost. I don’t hear the entertainment value or the creativity or the emotion anymore, I hear the different instruments, or the characteristics of the vocals, or the placement of different parts in the soundstage.

The same thing happened to me years ago when I went to film school.

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It basically destroyed my ability to enjoy a movie without also thinking about how it was made, or how I would pick it apart and discuss/criticize/analyze it. While having those critical thinking skills could potentially enhance my enjoyment of movies by explaining my emotional reactions, often it just gets in the way of me having those reactions in the first place.

Games and writing/reading, my other remaining entertainment interests, don’t really fare any better. I’ve played and reviewed so many games that I can see and pick apart their mechanics after about 15 minutes. I’ve written so much internet content that any time I spend reading instead of writing starts to gnaw at the back of my head and feel a little like wasted time, thanks to the “delights” of cultivating a daily writing habit.

Music was my last holdout before I started this whole headphone review thing three years ago. Music was still just a fun part of my life that I could engage in without listening to the timbre of the instruments. Playing instruments in different bands in high school and college didn’t ruin the enjoyment for me because I was participating in creation, not the nightmarish gear rabbit hole.

None of this is permanent. It’s all reversible. If you’ve found yourself in the same sort of hole, you just have to remember to listen. You have to force yourself out of your head through a little attentive entertainment.

I often think of a scene from that lovely box-office smash Men In Black, where Tommy Lee Jones laments that no one just looks at the stars anymore. Forest for the trees etc. My film-critic-theory brain thinks that Men In Black 3 is easily the best of that franchise, in case you were wondering, because it’s the only one with a seriously-developed emotional throughline.

Therein lies the secret. As you cultivate an interest in a highly-technical hobby like audio, you have to remember to let both your emotional and logical sides have fun. The logical side often runs rampant in today’s tech hobbies in its quest to get more of everything. More specifications. More bigger numbers. Better build materials. More hardware. More more more.

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It’s easy to get more music thanks to digital downloads and streaming services, so that’s not very fun for the logical sides of our brains. And why listen to a new song when you could hear your favorite kick drum in a new pair of headphones for the hundredth time?

Nourish that emotional side and listen to some music. Spend a little time each day, or every other day, listening to some music and doing nothing else, sort of like a regular meditation habit. Before long, you’ll notice just like I do that the emotional fun is still there, it just got buried under a pile of wires, headphones, and 6.3mm adapter plugs.

Most musicians aren’t making songs so that your gear will sound cool; they’re making them so you can listen to them and have an emotional experience.

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