Closer to Music

I have been lucky enough to spend nearly all of my career explaining audio and video technology to readers. I'm just as lucky to have made Sound & Vision and its predecessor Home Theater my roost since 2001. But in a previous phase of my career, I divided my time between specialist publications like this one and other kinds: music and pop culture magazines, men's and women's and travel magazines and newspapers and more. It was while writing a story for Details that I racked my brain for a way to assert the relevance of audio technology to a young, hip, music-loving audience (not unlike myself at the time). Finally I stumbled upon the key that unlocked it all: the phrase closer to music. I've been using that phrase and its cousin—your relationship with music—ever since.

I've always assumed these phrases are self-explanatory. But just in case they're not: Closer to music means fewer impediments between you and music. It means music looms larger as you approach, taking up more of your attention. Most of all, when your relationship with music improves, it triggers a wider range of emotional or intellectual responses, and they are more intense, more complex. It's a great feeling. You know when you have it, you miss it when it's gone, and it becomes a lifelong addiction. Music is legal in all 50 states for both medical and recreational purposes.

It's the answer to everything: Why buy better loudspeakers or a better amp? To get closer to music. Why experiment with speaker positioning and other tweaks? To get closer to music. Why dump your MP3s for CD-quality files? To get closer to music. Why graduate from CD-quality audio to high-resolution audio? To get closer to music. Why get a better DAC for better results out of all of the above? To get closer to music. Why buy a better cartridge or phono preamp? To get closer to music. Why go from built-in TV speakers to a soundbar, or from a soundbar to a component system, or from a component system to a better component system? To get closer to music (and movies). Why upgrade your system in any way? To get closer to music. Why bother with audio technology in general? To get closer to music, to improve your relationship with music.

What we might disagree on is how much closer to music any of these things brings you. Which improves your relationship with music more, if you can afford only one: great loudspeakers or a great DAC? Will premium speaker cable bring you closer to music than zip cord? Does the progression from low-bitrate lossy to CD-quality audio improve your relationship with music more than the progression from CD-quality to high-res audio? Is CD-quality as close to music as you need to get? Is MP3 at 320 kbps as close to CD-quality as you need to get? Does vinyl get you closer to music than any of them?

Closer to music is implicitly my answer to a question audiophiles are always asking one another: Which do you care more about, music or sound? It might seem an absurd question but it's an occupational hazard for folks hearing the same shopworn test tracks at trade shows time and again. Once you've heard "Hotel California" for the thousandth time, as fine a song as it is, you can't help paying more attention to sound. As an audio critic, I'd be worthless if I weren't able to evaluate and describe sound; I listen with a notebook. But the only reason I bother in the first place, the reason I became an audio critic, is that better sound brings me closer to music.

In what may be more a leap of faith than logical thought, sound and music merge in my mind and become the same thing. And I am the same person as that teenager who spent every dollar that came into his hands on LPs. I'm just an older, fatter, balder version of him—and I've still got many of those same LPs. When, after all these years, I stumble on a new piece of gear that helps me hear them in a new way, I'm thrilled, superannuated 13-year-old that I am. Forever young, forever young, may you be forever young.

And then there's the subjective-vs.-objective debate. I'm a subjectivist at heart but not one who shuns objectivism. The reviews I write come with measurements by our magazine's Audio Technical Editor, Mark J. Peterson, who also bears the burden of correcting my misteaks. I think we're a great team (even though we live on different coasts and have never met!). And I think what we produce is a tremendously useful package. And we're both named Mark.

Subjectivists who discount the value of measurements are overplaying their hand. Of course honest standardized measurements of a speaker's frequency response or an amp's power output give valuable clues on specific characteristics that may bring you closer to the music you love (or drive you apart from it). But measurements—or double-blind testing, for that matter—never tell the whole story. Data can get you closer to music but only so much closer. To really approach the shrine, you need to set up the equipment in your own home, play your favorite music, and monitor your emotional responses. They can't be measured, only sensed.

If you want to hear more, that's always a sign that you're getting closer to music. Anything that improves your relationship with music is worth exploring, even if common sense tells you some things are more worth exploring than others.

Here's an exercise for the comments section. Name a product that has improved your relationship with music more than any other—even if it lies in the past or was never a stellar performer.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.

jnemesh's picture

My first DAC, which I am still using...putting this in my system was a revelation! Even my plain old MP3s and streaming music sound AMAZING with this in the system! I can't preach it's wonders often enough...people who love music NEED a good DAC! It doesn't have to be outrageously expensive, either. The Parasound retails for around $450. But it makes a HUGE difference in the immediacy of the music no matter what speakers or amp you have. HIGHLY recommended!

Mark Fleischmann's picture
If you're into computer audio, a great USB DAC is a must. I haven't tried the Parasound but I'm glad to hear it's doing good things for your relationship with music. I also like the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2 for $149.
jnemesh's picture

I also have heard good things about the DragonFly, and for the money, that should be a no-brainer for anyone on a tight budget!

Joe Johnson's picture

I agree about the ZDAC. I liked it so much I got a ZAMP v3, ZPRE v2 and 2 JBL Studio 230 speakers and built a whole desktop system around it. The other Z components are awesome and bring out the best in the ZDAC.

willdao's picture

My first "real" speakers, when I was about 14, were a pair of Advent Model 3s--small bookshelf loudspeakers that I tossed in the trunk of my Dad's big Buick (along with a Realistic turntable and a Technics receiver), when I went off to prep school. The system sounded cool, for what it was. But, as happens, the upgrade bug bit me soon thereafter.

Because my Dad was a good sport--offering to buy this system for what I paid for it, over a year later (the speakers and turntable outlived him, and may still be going strong)--I was able to upgrade to a Yamaha CA-410-II integrated amp (25 wpc WOO-HOO!), an Onkyo turntable--later replaced by an HK 'table with a linear-tracking tonearm (built by Rabco), and a lovely pair of Yamaha NS-500 "studio monitors," a 2-way ported speaker with an 8" woofer and just absolutely killer beryllium dome tweeters: sweet and detailed and extended, all.

They were an exponential step up in resolution and frequency response, and imaging was excellent, too. The cabinets were designed and built by Yamaha's piano division. At the time, the Japanese were not at all known as players in the loudspeaker market; their forte was primarily electronics. These showed what was possible. The NS-100s were a step up, and added a midrange.

In any event, I still have the speakers, in their original boxes, stuffed in a closet. Pack Rat 'R' Us. One of these days, I'll refoam the rotten woofer surrounds, and figure out whether it's the tweeter-level pot (probable culprit) or the whole crossover network that is the reason for the lack of tweeter output in one of them; I do know it's not the tweeter, thankfully: a replacement was going for almost $300, IIRC, in the late '80s...they're probably not even available, now. As an aside, the large crossover was encased in a sturdy case and covered with some sort of dark resin, presumably as an anti-resonance measure l guess. The internal wiring was thick and sturdy, the cabinets were thick-walled and well-braced internally, and damped--these things were BUILT.

One thing's for sure: I'll not get rid of them. They definitely "brought me close to the music": in those days, probably Miles (I'm a sometime trumpet player) and Jean-Luc Ponty (Cosmic Messenger) and Mannheim Steamroller and Floyd and April Wine and Steely Dan and Monk and, yes, Yes.

And Eroica. And Rampal with Claud Bolling. Rumours. George Benson. Let's not forget Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. Stevie's "The Secret Life of Plants." War. Tower of Power. All the Grusin stuff. Stax and Volt. Mobile Fidelity anything.

All of which I pretty much still listen to...thanks, Mark ,for letting me reminisce!

canman4pm's picture

Willdao, I was 14 or 15 when "Brothers In Arms" came out, and I discovered the Dire Straits. I got it one Christmas on cassette for my Walkman the year it came out from my parents. I hated it at first, I only liked the singles, at the time. I lent it too a friend, who kept forgetting to give it back for about 6 months, to my annoyance. It wasn't because I loved the album, or anything; I just wanted my property back. He finally returned it, and probably just for that reason I played it and a switch went off. Now, I think the singles are the "weakest" songs on the album. And they're great! As a body of work, I cannot think of many full albums that are as good overall. "Dark Side Of The Moon", Peter Gabriel's "So", Yes's "90218", come to mind. I can think of many albums with great music on it, but most have a weak track or two.

And even as a whole body of work, Mark Knopfler and the band have very few weak tracks/albums over all. Not something that can be said by many of the greatest artists. For example, few people will ever, I think, argue that Pink Floyd was not a great band. However, I think fewer still will argue for the merits of "The Final Cut".

willdao's picture

I know precisely what you mean, particularly about Dire Straits. Prior to their first album's release in the U.S., my older cousin, who sold audio equipment for a freestanding "audio salon"-type store (I would later follow in his footsteps), got ahold of a pre-release copy in a plain jacket.

[Forgive a brief digression, but it also fits part of Mr. Fleischmann's thesis, too: I heard it on a system he had set up in our grandparents' living room--I forget the equipment model numbers, but the system included a Luxman turntable and separates, the very first subwoofer I ever heard (two 10" or maybe 12" woofers on adjacent sides, acoustic suspension, wire-mesh grills...anybody have a clue what it might have been?), and, IIRC, the first pair of the Yamaha NS-500s I ever heard, and then drooled over until I could afford my own three years later.]

Anyway, the album was a revelation. Still is. Great sense of acoustic space and texture, dynamic range, presence. And, later, "Sultans of Swing" would get worn out on the airwaves. I love the song--and there ain't no bad one on the album--but I've always thought it to be the "worst" song on it. Perhaps it is just because radi stations wore it out, and that's colored my memory.

The twangy synth on "Walk of Life" and other singles that charted well, also annoys me. There are better cuts on such albums.

Meanwhile, just FYI, here's a little bit of radio trivia for you (I worked as a DJ in the '80s for a few years: whenever you hear "Telegraph Road" on a station--or "Stairway to Heaven," Freebird, or, say, Red Sovine's horribly smaltzy "Teddy Bear"--or myriad other super-long can bet it's not programmed. DJs the world over throw such long tracks in when they gotta take a dump!

(The more you know...)


CinemaDude's picture

I have not heard that name in decades. Like you, and the author, I was forever searching for the perfect sound. Went from my Heathkit Willemson amp to a Phaselinear 350w rms amp and from a Lafayette Electronics (yes, decades ago -- I still have a small bookshelf speaker from them, called the "Minuette") a three way speaker system with a dome tweeter that sported an "acoustic lens" as they called it that stuck out the front of it -- "upgraded" that to an original Bose 901 with its little "eq box" needed to compensate for the fact that the speakers were so non-linear that they needed electronic help right out of the box. And believe it or not, like you, just out of college and in my first apartment and my first job and no parents to warn me about being thrifty, I began that long, unending quest for the perfect piece of equipment to get the perfect sound. Unlike today's youth, I actually went to symphonic and chamber and choral concerts and KNEW what the actual live sound that I was painfully trying to capture with my hardware was supposed to sound like.

The linear tracking arm turntable by Rabco was one of my upgrades past my Thorens turntable, or so I though, after I went from the junking a pair of Bose 901s which I was sorely disappointed in because they had no bottom end punch (how could they, with their puny little 4 inch speakers bouncing sound off the walls -- what an idiotic idea). My buddy in the upstairs apartment who was no audiophile actually embarrassed me when he played his KLH6 acoustic suspensions and they sounded rich and deep to my ears and soooo much better than my brand new Boss in my apartment. In frustration, one day I turned the bass eq on my Soundcraftsman preamp/graphic equalizer all the way up and the volume/power thru my Phaselinear 350w RMS amp up so high trying to achieve even a fraction of the bass that my friend's system had, that I blew out both 901 boxes, actually with smoke coming out of one of them as the voice coil and cone of one of those silly little speakers bursting into flames. But I digress.

So out goes the Thorens (mistake) and here comes the spanking new Rabco linear arm turntable. Only thing is, while this Rabco thing SOUNDS like a good idea in theory -- the tone arm plays the record in a straigh line, just like the record is cut on the lathe. Let me tell you: lots of things sound good on paper but turn out to be disasters, et tu Rabco! See, thing is, the way the linear arm worked was, it pivoted on a rotating tube at its backend as the record groove itself move the front end of the arm by means of the needle in the groove. That cause the arm to always be at an ever so slight angle off 90 degrees, the rotating tube at its rear then nudged the arm to an angle parallel to it, at least for a fraction of a second until the needle again cause the arm to become off 90 degrees. Problem was, 1) image the noise generated by a rotating tube on which the rear of the tonearm is phsycially moving! 2) the arm was never actually 90 degrees to the record groove, it was always at that very very slight angle that cause it to move along the record surface. And did this? It meant that when you raise the arm with its arm lift, that cause it dragged, i.e, scratch across three or four record grooves because the arm lift was forcing the arm to move to be PERFECTLY parallel to the record surface. To get there, it needed to correct that slight off-angle and that correction required the needle to move across three or four grooves before it cleared the record surface. What could be more or infuriating an audophile than to have a turntable that SCRATCHED his records by the mere lifting of the tone arm?! Not much. Either you played an album from start to finish and lifted the arm at the end in the runoff grooves, or you were in danger of causing a scratch at the point where you lifted it off in the middle of a cut. Even if you only lifted the arm the space groove between cuts, this would also cause the needle it to drag over at least one groove of the cut ahead of the lead-in groove. Even trying to lift the arm manually was hit and miss, mostly miss, as the lifting itself was compensating for that slight non-90 degrees angle and that was enough for the needle to drag across grooves.

After spending hours and days trying to see what was causing this scratching, I finally came to the realization that this problem was inherent in the design and could never be remedied. The last straw was when I tried to play one of my direct-to-disc prized Scheffield albums and heard the needle drag across four grooves. I quietly disconnected the cables, took the Rabco off the shelf and walked it over to the living room window and threw it out -- two stories and had the greatest pleasure watching it smash to smithereens. I was 25yr old and hadn't yet mastered impulse control...what can I tell you. The sound it made as it blew apart, by the way, was fantastic.

Now I have come of an age where I know that what I thought were my "golden ears" which needed to be satiated by all those subtle enhancements and the all equipment that I bought over the years and which I realize now most likely have contributed to a fairly large footprint in a landfill someplace, those ears are no longer golden, but probably more like rust. I know that whatever subtleties can be had by the difference between no. 8 awg wire for my speakers at 20 cents a foot and Monster Cable at, well, a LOT more, my ears will never hear it, even if it is there (which it probably isn't, except in the brains of some marketing team). Probably the same thing with CDs and SACDs; I guess I can consider that a blessing as the quest is no longer burning in my chest as it did when I was an 18yr old searching for the perfect sound. Time changes everything.

BTW, with what did I replace those burned out Bose 901s which never came near the sound of the KLHs, you ask? EIGHT KLHs (I told you I was an impulsive youth); that's right -- four on each side in parallel and series, bolted together with rubber in between to avoid wood rattling against wood. And I lived with that sound for many years. The first thing I played on it after they were all wired up....Verdi's Requiem -- the Dies Irae. The timpani strikes would rearranged the organs in your chest cavity. The search, for awhile at least, was over.

willdao's picture

You are SOOOooo right--that HK/Rabco turntable was "upgrade" that wasn't. I, too, figured out that I needed to let whole albums track all the way through. (Not so hard, as most albums I wanted to listen to, I wanted to hear all the way through...or at least one side; the record industry--and even FM radio--was different in those days, eh?)

Also, there was mechanical noise/vibration from the spinning metal rod the cartridge assembly was hung from...and ringing noise from the chassis, the arm "gantry," the platter--all the metal components, and since it was ALL, metal, that meant noise from everywhere. I had putty shoved everywhere to try and dampen the thing. Finally, I gave up.

I didn't chuck it out the window--nothing so dramatic as your story!--but I did feel like it. Worse, I realized I wouldn't ever get my money back out of it, because I couldn't cheerfully saddle some poor other soul with it.

When I moved from an apartment in 1985, I just left it where it was--on a shelf in the back of a closet, unloved and unused. If someone else came along and tried to use it...well, that was on them...if they failed to heed the note I left on it: "JUNK! Use at your own peril!" OR something like that.

I've also owned KLH (and sold KLH, among many other brands--at age 15, as a "wholesale rep" for a company located in Baltimore, although I never set foot on the was basically just an excuse to get discounted hi-fi for ME, family, friends...then, in college, I did the "audio salon" retail gig at a couple of places...where, for example, I heard my first Rega table in the mid '80s. On a high-mass, three-legged stand, with spikes, natch. Simple, effective, akin to Occam's Razor. That hollow, ringy-aluminum, clunky, over-thought and underengineered HK/Rabco had NUTHIN' on THAT!

canman4pm's picture

My parents got me a "Walkman" for Christmas, along with a pair of cassettes to go with: Chilliwack's "Opus X" and Men at Work's "Busness As Usual". It was a Sanyo (not an Official Sony Walkman®) and I got it for Christmas 1982. I was 11. At that time we were living in a small town in the sparsely populated Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. As such, all radio with top 40 programming was mono, crappy sounding AM. My parents did have a decade old Dual/Grundig (turntable/AM/FM/SW radio all-in-on) stereo system brought over from Germany and I did own a few records at that time. Despite that system, I hadn't REALLY heard Stereo before.

It was a revelation.

I have no idea how high or low end the unit was (my parents have never been techy-type people), but it was leaps and bounds the best sound I'd ever herd to that point. It was also lucky, my parents bought me two fine sounding albums. It was so far and above what I had heard before, that I haven't experienced as large of a jaw-drop-WOW sensation since. Getting my first surround system might have come close, for movies.

willdao's picture

I AM, actually, the "inventor" of the, well, at least in my own head, anyway. In 1980, I ran around with a barely-portable cassette "dictation"-type thing I talked my Dad out of, with some Koss headphones I rigged to fit, thinking "there's no way they couldn't make this rig stereo, if they wanted to...this is the future!"

No Dolby noise reduction (huge amount of hiss), no stereo; me with these big 'ol' cans on my head, skateboarding and bicycling all over Creation. What a geek I was!


Mark Fleischmann's picture
...keep going!
cdunphy's picture

This is kinda recent for me. I haven't listened to music unless it was background noise since I was a teenagerI am now err 52.Well I didn't buy anything for music I bought a bose surround sound system for movies, so I got it home hooked it up watched listened to saving private ryan and I was intrigued.The sound effect were kinda cool but I was having to change the volume all the time so I could hear the dialog and not get blasted by explosions.I started reading and researching and about that time I said to myself well I could hook it up to my computer (mac) and buy some stuff from iTunes and maybe listen to music again(looking for a hobby I think)I bought quite a few err albums? from iTunes and started to listen and right away something was wrong songs I knew better than probably the artists did seeing as most of them were from the 70's sounded not only bad but wrong so thru research and budget constraints I ran down to best buy and bought a def tech pro monitor 1000 center channel 219$ took the center channel cubes off put the def tech speaker on an voila I wasn't speechless I was singing at the top of my lungs. the next day I went back to the best buy and bought a left and right channel pro monitor 1000 and I was hooked now without even trying I listen to 20 hours of music a week and I love it.though I would have to say that it started a bit of an addiction as I have bought and replaced (upgraded) 4 different receivers and replaced my def techs with bigger more expensive def tech speakers but the sound of that first def tech center channel reminded me why I loved music when I was a teenager and brought some much needed joy to my life so thank you def tech

KINGTED's picture

I first saw Martin Logan electrostats at a Magnolia HiFi near Seattle and had to ask what they were. After playing some music on them, I made up my mind right then to save for a pair of Aeons. A few pay checks later these brought me more joy than anything else I owned for years. I have since added a ML center, upgraded to bigger MLs in the front and moved these to the rear, then added a second pair for the rear surrounds. But hands down equipment wise those two speakers brought more smiles per dollar than anything else, and they werent cheap.

willdao's picture

It doesn't always happen that more money-more smiles! But it's GREAT when it does!