Zen and the Art of Audio, Part 1

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
133
378
65
In 1993, Harvey Rosenberg published a book entitled The Search for Musical Ecstasy. Unfortunately, the book is out of print as far as I know. Harvey and I talked about hi fi and music often. I miss what he brought to the conversation.

He asked me to write a chapter in his book that I entitled “Zen and the Art of Audio”. I have recently revisited the book, and I find it amazing that even in the infancy of my career in audio, I was seeking to find better ways to communicate the idea that all we really want in a home high fidelity system is to feel the same kind of emotions that live acoustic music draws out of us. Some of you have written quite eloquently about your journeys getting there.

I began my chapter with a somewhat humorous form letter intended to be used as an ice-breaker for a spouse to discuss the nature of the hi fi hobby in more depth with his/her audiophile counterpart. The chapter was the kernel to the idea behind my earlier WBF essay entitled “Music is Fundamental to Almost Everyone”.

DISCLAIMER: Some of my more pointed jabs in the letter below do not apply to most WBF members, many of whom have obviously grown beyond the stereotypes that I chidingly refer to in the letter. Dame Edna said: "Never be afraid to laugh at yourself. After all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century."

I hope you enjoy the letter, and if you would like more excerpts from Harvey's book, I will share a few more morsels.

FORM LETTER

(This letter is for disaffected significant others
to give to their audiophile partners.)

Dear Lovable Victimized Partner:

Sometimes it’s difficult for us to communicate by using the incredibly inefficient medium of words. Our very different experiences and perceptions have necessarily led to a different set of priorities. I believe, however, that you have made some assumptions about my priorities with respect to your high-end audio system that are not necessarily on target. I think you should know how I really feel.

1. I really want you to come out of your high-end audio closet. I am hurt and confused by the fact that you try to cover up how much money you actually spend on your hi-fi. I don’t think you realize how relieved I am that you are not spending discretionary money on drugs or a mistress. If you would cover up something as innocent as a hi-fi purchase, how deeply ashamed are you of your real perversions? I’m intrigued. What are your real perversions anyway? How is this “shame” affecting every aspect of our relationship?

2. I really do not want to deny you the pleasure your high-end audio system apparently provides you. It’s true that I have a hard time relating to your high-end audio experiences. I have not understood how you can listen to the same 2-3 minutes of the same selections again and again. I have not even understood why you chose the particular selections since they seem to provide little or no musical enjoyment. I have rarely witnessed you in the process of listening to entire pieces of music. Whenever I have asked you why you play the same selections over and over, you have told me that you are trying to improve the system. I apologize for giving you the impression by my reactions that I didn’t want you to enjoy your hi-fi system. It just didn’t seem to me that you were really enjoying it. This “improving” just seemed like too much work. I now understand after years of observation that the act of improving the system is your pleasure, not the end result of getting closer to the music. Please let me know when you have “improved” the system enough to enjoy music. I would really like to enjoy listening to music with you when and if you complete your test runs.

3. I am not as hung up on décor as your think. I have reacted to your setting up your high-end audio system in our primary living area much like I would respond if you decided to do woodworking or rebuild automobile motors in our living room. It is not fair that you dominate our living space with your collection of hardware, tools, unguents, and wires while you are in what seems to be the never-ending process of getting the audio system ready to be a suitable conduit for the music. I love music! If you could just get your audio system to the point where we could all enjoy listening to music on it and set it up so that any of us could operate the system (I’d settle for written instructions), I’d be more than happy to move the Queen Anne arm chairs out of the way for speakers. I think you could store records, tapes, and CDs in the highboy, and the corner cupboard should handle most of the equipment. The cables should just about disappear if you run them around the perimeter of the room behind the furniture.


4. I think your hi-fi system sounds bad. This is the most difficult truth I have to share with you because I know it is a terrible affront, and I am sure a major embarrassment considering all the money and time you have spent on your hi-fi system. Your hi-fi sounds harsh when you play it too loud. I do not understand why you seem to like this kind of sound. These bad sounds get in the way of the music as far as I am concerned. I also do not understand why you seem to want to play your hi-fi louder than one would naturally hear a specific type of instrument in a live performance. Furthermore, I think the “electronic” sound of your hi-fi system is not at all like live music. It’s just not very relaxing to listen to your hi-fi. When I ask you to turn your hi fi system down, I am not nagging. I just honestly think it doesn’t sound very good. When I give you my opinion, you act as if I couldn’t possibly know what I am talking about. I do not think you are judging me fairly. I know what music sounds like, and I think you do too. Maybe you’re trying to achieve something different than music in your hi-fi system. Are you looking for a new kind of stimulation that does not otherwise exist in your life? Should we talk about this?

Finally, I wish you were more oriented to musical results in the pursuit of perfection in your hi-fi. If you were, I know that you would feel not so excluded and so victimized about following your passion because it would be a passion we could share — music. I love you, and I want to spend more time together. I hope music can be a passion we share, and I hope that our hi-fi system can be a way we can share that passion in the privacy of our home.

Love,
Your Supportive Music Loving Companion
 
Last edited:

spiritofmusic

Well-Known Member
Jun 13, 2013
13,854
4,523
963
E. England
Is this a chapter edited out of Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus?
 
  • Like
Reactions: bonzo75

Chop

Well-Known Member
Aug 9, 2020
134
135
50
England
Excellent letter. I live with one of those... :)
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
9,696
6,682
1,335
North Shore of Boston
That’s pretty good Karen. That letter of support describes the audiophile I used to be and my wife could likely have written just such a letter. I am sure she had similar thoughts. I am now a different kind of audiophile who listens more than he tinkers, and my wife no longer has such thoughts. We actually now listen to music in the kitchen when making dinner together and cleaning up after parties.

The old me:

IMG_1581.jpg

The new me:

IMG_2532 copy.JPG
 
Last edited:

Audire

VIP/Donor
Jan 19, 2019
571
591
215
S. FL
Early on my wife compared high end audio to her Apple phone. She said she couldn’t hear any differences. That Hurt. :(

However, two years later after hearing numerous audiophile conversations and this present system (and the one I traded), she now likes it so much more. She literally asks me to turn it on at times. She no longer listens to her iPhone in the house. She’s now utilizing her listening chair more. She’s excited about possibly enclosing our back porch into a dedicated audio room. Most of all she’s learned how to better listen to music.

It‘s been great seeing how transforming just listening to a high end system can be. With this latest system, both of us have also added a new genre of music that we hadn’t even cared that much for in the past. We’ve been purchasing classical music. I didn’t see that one coming.

C59EF627-BAC0-4AE4-80DB-7E2166A3E83C.jpeg
 

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
133
378
65
Is this a chapter edited out of Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus?
The letter was meant to be a spoof on the 90's pop culture book, and although a bit premature at that time, I was actually attempting to make fun of commonly held gender stereotypes in the high end audio industry. Let's face it, until relatively recently, most women have not had the time or discretionary money to pursue hobbies like high end audio. I would like to see the hobby become more inclusive, and thanks to many of you, I have felt quite included.
 

tima

Industry Expert
Mar 4, 2014
4,074
4,317
845
the Upper Midwest
The letter was meant to be a spoof on the 90's pop culture book, and although a bit premature at that time, I was actually attempting to make fun of commonly held gender stereotypes in the high end audio industry. Let's face it, until relatively recently, most women have not had the time or discretionary money to pursue hobbies like high end audio. I would like to see the hobby become more inclusive, and thanks to many of you, I have felt quite included.

Do you think it is soley money and time or is it inclination or interest? I see few instances where women of the 21st century cannot do anything they want to do. Of course I have a man's unique perspective.
 

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
133
378
65
Do you think it is soley money and time or is it inclination or interest? I see few instances where women of the 21st century cannot do anything they want to do. Of course I have a man's unique perspective.
You raise an interesting point. I believe that the reasons more women are not involved in this hobby has nothing to do with innate temperamental differences between men and women. Although women in the 21st century theoretically can do anything they want, functionally it doesn't yet seem to work out that way on all fronts. What women want and what women get at this juncture given enculturated and institutionalized biases are not yet really in alignment. In 2002, Bobbi Carothers and the noted social psychology professor, Harry Reiss of the University of Rochester, examined data derived from a population sample consisting of 13,000 men and women, and he found that there were no significant differences between men and women in terms of personality traits, and the resulting variety of temperaments that are the expression of individual personality traits.

To be sure, there are physical differences between men and women. Men are usually stronger than most women, for example, but the physical characteristic that most distinguishes women from men in terms of how they engage with music listening is that most women are more sensitive to high frequencies and noise interference than men.[1]

Most high-end audio systems do not sound musically engaging to most women because the systems themselves are not presenting high frequencies in a natural way and the systems are rife with noise — unwanted information.

Here's a thought: If more high-end audio systems sounded more like music, more women would be interested in the hobby. Peter A. has a system that plays music, and he and his significant other listen to music together over S’mores and wine — nice! Audire has a high-end system that has developed to the point where it is good enough to lure him and his significant other into the world of classical music — yes!

I am committed to the idea that any home music listening system regardless of its ultimate price tag or composition should be able to provide at least a minimum baseline of musical performance that accommodates personal preferences in terms of music genre and engages the attention of any human who likes music, regardless of sex, race, or culture.

To put it more simply, if your significant other likes music and doesn’t like the sound of your home hi fi system enough to enjoy listening to it with you, you probably are not going in the right direction to evolve your hi fi system into a conduit for music listening pleasure and exploration.
______________________________________
[1] Sex Differences in the Auditory System, Dennis McFadden, Department of Psychology and Institute for Neuroscience, University of Texas, Published Online November 4, 2009.
 

sbnx

Well-Known Member
Mar 28, 2017
661
501
185
Karen, your point about hearing acuity differences is something I picked up on many years ago. My wife and I would go and listen to a system (pair of speakers) and afterword I would ask what she thought. In many instances, much to my surprise, she would say things like "Those speakers really made my ears hurt.". She is much more sensitive to high frequency ringing than I am. Many of the speakers that used metal dome tweeters back in the 90's and 2000's were a no go for us.

In one of the organizational behavior classes I took we discussed an interesting difference between the genders in the way we see tasks or activities. Perhaps this needs to be updated with recent research, but what I was taught was that in general males tend to be goal oriented and females more process oriented. In the context of HiFI and music the goal would seem to be listening to realistic, engaging sounding music in ones home. The process relates to obtaining and setting up the system to reproduce this music. However, there seems to be some behavior role reversal here. It seems most females just want to sit back, relax and enjoy the music. The males seem to be transfixed by the process of getting there and trying different stuff. I think some of these traits come out in "letter". Why is this? I have no idea.
 

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
133
378
65
Karen, your point about hearing acuity differences is something I picked up on many years ago. My wife and I would go and listen to a system (pair of speakers) and afterword I would ask what she thought. In many instances, much to my surprise, she would say things like "Those speakers really made my ears hurt.". She is much more sensitive to high frequency ringing than I am. Many of the speakers that used metal dome tweeters back in the 90's and 2000's were a no go for us.

In one of the organizational behavior classes I took we discussed an interesting difference between the genders in the way we see tasks or activities. Perhaps this needs to be updated with recent research, but what I was taught was that in general males tend to be goal oriented and females more process oriented. In the context of HiFI and music the goal would seem to be listening to realistic, engaging sounding music in ones home. The process relates to obtaining and setting up the system to reproduce this music. However, there seems to be some behavior role reversal here. It seems most females just want to sit back, relax and enjoy the music. The males seem to be transfixed by the process of getting there and trying different stuff. I think some of these traits come out in "letter". Why is this? I have no idea.
Hi, sbnx -

I am glad to hear that you already listen with your SO!

I think social psychology as a subject has not yet evolved enough to understand the extent to which many characteristics and tendencies are innate or learned. It does appear, however, that more research is indicated as we find out that more and more characteristics and tendencies are learned, rather than being primarily innate as originally thought. I would tend to believe that whether a person chooses to be more process oriented than results oriented depends more on the circumstances rather than any innate orientation that is attributable to sex, age, race, culture, etc.

Perhaps further discussions of social psychology should be saved for another type of forum.

We are where we are. Change happens slowly and sometimes not at all.

We aren't going to alter the course of human social evolution here, so we might just as well enjoy what we have that is really good — which is quite a lot!
 
Last edited:

sbnx

Well-Known Member
Mar 28, 2017
661
501
185
Karen,

I completely agree. We should try to help the new generation of audiophiles as much as possible. I don't think we should be so snobby. I remember my humble beginnings and getting started with a pair of B&W speakers, a Denon CD changer and a Yamaha receiver. I certainly wish I had a mentor and more guidance 20+ years ago. I even thought about starting a webpage directed at new audiophiles but it seems there is so much content already on-line that it would be redundant.

My wife really likes music and still plays clarinet and saxophone in a little jazz band. Of course she like to listen to music as well but doesn't really care about which amp we have etc. As long as it sounds good and doesn't make her ears hurt.

I would like to add that most people (99%) have no idea what stereo is capable of. They have never heard a well setup hifi system. During the 2020 Covid stuff I played around a little with a system in my main living room. One day one of my wife's friends came over and she asked about it. I said would you like to listen to something. She sat down and was amazed. She said something like "Wow, it is like the person is standing in front of me and the drums are back there and the piano is over there.... " She had no idea what music could sound like in a living room. (I should also point out that this was a pretty modest system made up of old used gear and an oppo dvd player. ) Perhaps if there was more exposure to the experience of real stereo (not just in your car or a wave radio) more people would be interested and pick up the hobby of really fine reproduced music.

Sorry if I am veering off topic. I have enjoyed reading your essays.

~Todd
 
  • Like
Reactions: Karen Sumner

paolo

Well-Known Member
Nov 7, 2016
109
45
135
Puget Sound
Karen referenced the following:
"...but the physical characteristic that most distinguishes women from men in terms of how they engage with music listening is that most women are more sensitive to high frequencies and noise interference than men.[1]"

Of all the stereo systems we've had, the one my wife says she enjoyed the most was our first- a DynaKit SCA-35 (which I assembled) a B&O turntable, and a pair of Magnepan MG1's.

Unfortunately, that was a very long time, and many dollars ago. :)
 

About us

  • What’s Best Forum is THE forum for high end audio, product reviews, advice and sharing experiences on the best of everything else. This is THE place where audiophiles and audio companies discuss vintage, contemporary and new audio products, music servers, music streamers, computer audio, digital-to-analog converters, turntables, phono stages, cartridges, reel-to-reel tape machines, speakers, headphones and tube and solid-state amplification. Founded in 2010 What’s Best Forum invites intelligent and courteous people of all interests and backgrounds to describe and discuss the best of everything. From beginners to life-long hobbyists to industry professionals, we enjoy learning about new things and meeting new people, and participating in spirited debates.

Quick Navigation

User Menu

Steve Williams
Site Founder | Site Owner | Administrator
Ron Resnick
Site Co-Owner | Administrator
Julian (The Fixer)
Website Build | Marketing Managersing