Special Features

Listening Through

Dealing with Surface Noise and Other Distractions From the Music.

Published on April 2, 2012

Listening Through

The following is reprinted from Perfect Sound Forever online music magazine =

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I was asked to evaluate a small yet high-quality pair of Australian loudspeakers. Despite the fact that the room was huge, the walls were bare and the entire set-up seemed hastily put together, I did manage to note that these were indeed nice speakers and were well worth the relatively modest asking price. I did mention to the manufacturers that room itself was downright awful since the huge expanses of bare wall were producing a large amount of reflections (i.e. echoes).

One of the speaker designers asked me, “But you were able to listen through the room, right?” I was, but it got me thinking about how much “listening through” we do when it comes to reproduced music, especially vinyl.

Flash forward a few weeks, and I find myself reviewing a particularly troublesome LP pressing of Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow. I’ll let my printed criticism tell the tale:

“First the bad news: my LP copy of the new Kate Bush album, 50 Words for Snow, is one of the worst pressings I’ve purchased since I stopped buying used records on eBay. The surface noise levels are appalling, the records themselves are warped, and on the first disc the needle keeps going past the dead wax and swiftly across the label until my tonearm crashes into the spindle. In what third world country was this pressed? Even after a thorough and meticulous cleaning on the Walker Prelude LP Cleaning System, it was still borderline unlistenable. What a waste of $25.”

In other words, I wasn’t able to listen through this time. I switched to the CD in order to complete the review. That’s a painful thing to admit, considering I’ve been publicly pushing the sonic superiority of vinyl for more than 14 years. But sometimes those pops and clicks do ruin a recording, and I can clearly understand why so many people abandoned the format back in the ‘80′s and ‘90′s.

Let’s face it, vinyl isn’t for everyone. I’ve said this before, but your enjoyment of vinyl is somewhat dependent on your ability to hear around the surface noise. I recall one heated debate I once had with a rather stodgy old reviewer who couldn’t understand my love for vinyl; evidently a single pop or click would ruin an entire listening session for him. I pushed forward my usual argument that the best equipment could relegate pops and ticks so far into the background that they no longer seemed integrated with the music. He seemed to think there was something fundamentally wrong with that statement, that the so-called best equipment was actually obscuring the artifacts somehow, calling into question the accuracy of such gear.

It’s complicated, I know. But there’s more than surface noise getting in the way of our music. For instance, I noted that in the early days of CD’s, I actually heard more tape hiss in recordings–my opponents chalked this up, once again, to the increased resolution of digital formats. I found that particular artifact even more distracting than the surface noise on LP’s (I do remember mastering engineer Steve Hoffman telling me some years later that he thought tape hiss was an absolute good because it’s something there that’s part of the recording process and should be never taken away). In addition, we audiophiles are often struggling with the gremlins in our system such as occasional grounding hum, or “tube rush” and “microphonics” from a valve amplifier, and much more. The elimination of noise is an ongoing battle in our world, and sometimes we just have to give up and listen through to preserve what’s left of our sanity.

But think about it–we’re always listening through, even when we hear live music. An enthusiastic crowd singing along, the clinking of beer bottles and whisky glasses, an occasional cute waitress with tattooed arms and multiple facial piercing asking us if we’d like to open a tab–were we really meant to enjoy music in virtual silence so we can hear every single detail in a beloved piece of music? Or were we meant to roll with the punches?

When I was younger, I attended quite a few classical music concerts, and the rules are very different there. I was once scolded by the woman sitting next to me when I capriciously and absent-mindedly scratched my thigh during a Lutoslawski piano concerto (if I remember correctly, Lutoslawski himself was actually conducting so I should have been more respectful). Conductors occasional suspend a performance if there are too many coughs in the audience. Audiophiles, it seems, want that same sense of pristine perfection in their music. A sudden pop in the groove, a noise from outside, even a discernible edit from a sloppy mixing engineer can set us off and make us embrace the more noise-free digital formats that may be lacking elsewhere—such as the ability to sound like real, live music performed in an actual, physical space.

So should we all lighten up? With vinyl becoming more and more popular every year, my instinct is to say that we’re already lightening up and we don’t mind these artifacts as much as we did when CD’s first arrived. I still remember the first CD I ever heard and how the music welled up from absolute silence. There was no sound of the needle hitting the groove, nothing. It was breathtaking. But that elation didn’t last forever. Music, for what it’s worth, is full of noise. Musicians breathe loudly at times. They turn the pages of their sheet music, and it’s audible. They walk around the stage. Their fingernails occasionally collide with fret boards. Hell, they might even scratch a thigh, tie a shoelace or even hum along even though it’s an instrumental piece (think Keith Jarrett or Glenn Gould, musicians who could not resist making noise when creating unique, special performances).

If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool vinyl lover, you’ve already figured this all out. If you’re thinking about getting back into vinyl, you may need to re-calibrate your brain first and learn the vital skill of listening through. A friend of mine recently came over to listen to records, and he was torn between the obvious musicality of my analog rig with his own inability to ignore surface noise.

“Is there a product, an amplifier or something like that, that can get rid of all that stuff?” he asked hopefully.

Not really, I explained. In my younger days I worked in retail management, and occasionally someone would visit me at work and ask me how I could stand listening to the crappy elevator music on the Muzak system all day. “What music?” I’d reply. The human brain is awesome that way, it can make you immune to the things you don’t want to experience. Or you can just embrace it all, just like you embrace everything else in the world that’s asymmetrical and imperfect and utterly beautiful.

Marc Phillips

Re-published with permission from:

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