Do We Listen to Music Right?

It was a few years ago. A Hindustani music concert was in progress at Naradha Gana Sabha of Chennai. Sanjeev Abhayankar, a younger generation singer was performing. The concert was good. Though great emotional highs were fewer, Sanjeev could sing accurately keeping to his pitch in a well-trained voice. His singing style had the free flow of an unhindered river.

Sitting by my side was a writer friend who was supposed to be devoted to Hindustani music. He had brought along a friend of him. During the interval of the concert I was discussing with him about the bad sound system in the auditorium. We were talking about how the snags of sound system made that pleasant rendering into an irritating experience.

It was then that my friend told me that he had bought a new CD player for Rs.2,500/- and that his friend who had come along with him for the concert was the one who helped him with the selection. My experience was that in those days any CD player retailing for Rs.2,500/- would certainly be a low quality local make. Listening to music in such players would be an excruciating experience for persons with refined taste in music and sound. So what was the point in taking a ‘friend’s help’ to buy such a player, I thought.

I had then suggested that he had bought a mini music system for five six thousand and he could have heard different types of CDs in it. This must have annoyed my friend’s companion. He said with a disdain that I was probably referring to a compact combo music system and that listening to music in it will be torturous, killing the very life of the music played.

I was surprised. Here was a man speaking authoritatively on listening to music on high fidelity audio systems. I then asked him the name of the player he had bought wondering why he would buy a cheap player. He said it was Marantz. Now I was truly astounded.

Marantz was among world’s best manufacturers of great audio CD players. Many of its CD players cost a bomb and then some. I asked my friend how he managed such a superb CD player for a mere Rs.2500/-. He said he bought it second-hand. I understood! You do, on occasions, get these great audio equipments second hand. There you can then buy players as Marantz at low cost with the guidance of a home audio expert.

So that was how my friend made his fortunate buy! It was I who had spoken without a thought of such a possibility. I sheepishly told him that I too am constantly in search of better and better ways of listening of music and that I keep searching for good audio systems to buy. But a stony silence was their response!
I tried explaining that I know a bit about Hi-Fi Home audio systems that you install at home for better listening experience and that I have written many articles on the sound of music in AV Max, an English magazine writing on the technology of Hi-Fi audio and video systems. But I could sense that they were disinterested. Perhaps they must have thought that I am an ignorant person because of my suggestion of the purchase of a combo system.
What is Hi-Fi (High Fidelity) audio? Though it is an interesting subject for people interested in better and better listening, explaining it is impossible without use of a lot of technical words and jargons. I trust that you too can familiarize yourself with Hi-Fi sound if you can see how I got into the world of music listening with quality sound. Like everyone else, I too was listening to music on a Walkman or ordinary cassette/CD player for a long long time. I too had the mindset that it makes no difference how or where we hear so long as it is music!

However, in my heart of hearts, seeing music systems advertised as 3000 watts PMPO, 5000 watts PMPO, Extra Bass, Dynamic Sound, etc. there was this feeling that it must be something great and that somehow I must buy one of them. But those days these were priced way beyond my purse. Somehow, in 1997 I managed to buy a three CD Sony music system. At a time I could place three CDs and two cassettes in them. You could play and see video CDs in them as well. It had a big bright sticker on it proclaiming 3000 watts PMPO. I bought it in Burma Bazaar paying Rs.19,000/- for it. It was then a huge amount for me.

In the elation of having bought a great music system, I got into an auto rickshaw with the system without bargaining about the fare to quickly reach home. As usual, the policeman waiting for such purchases to be made stopped the auto saying that since it is a foreign product I should produce a proper bill. I felt like telling him that it was not his line of duty. Instead in my happiness of having bought a dream music system, I left the policeman with a fifty rupee note as the ‘proper’ bill to hurry home without further delay.

I readied a high platform just to keep the new music system. Just seeing the system so placed was a big delight for me. I kept scrubbing and polishing it so as not to allow dust to settle on it. For a few days I did not even go out, spending my days just listening to music on the system. Three CDs and two cassettes kept on playing turn by turn endlessly. However, all too soon its loud and booming sound started sounding to me both flat and imprecise. The ardour to listen to music on it waned. The audio from my old small portable player started to sound better than the audio of this much costlier system!

Slowly I shifted to my old player. In about two months I was totally done with my ‘3000 watts’ music system. Even an occasional watching of VCD on it was turning out to be a distasteful experience. I sold off the by now dusted up system before even a six months at a throw-away price.

I used to regularly visit recording studios for the work of the music company I was working for. I was always amazed by the sound quality that you get to experience in studios and my regret was that I could not get even one percent of that experience at home. I had realized that the design of the recording theatres, their sound-proofing wall and roof-claddings and above all the sophisticated Hi-Fi sound equipment were the reason for such thrillingly detailed audio quality. I had also seen how some indifferently put together recording studios were just harsh sounding.

As my interest in audio increased I started taking keen interest in the new music system that installed in our office. I noted that the system had a separate cassette player, CD player, amplifier and speakers and each one was from a different manufacturer specializing in its production. The audio from it’s two small speakers was so clear and sharp that listening to music on it was both enlivening and rejuvenating for me.

Then one day I happened to meet one Mr.Mahendra. He was selling and installing speakers and sound equipment in small time studios. While speaking to him I learnt that his favourite hobby and vocation was configuring, assembling and installing of Hi-Fi Home audio systems as well as being a consultant for such audio requirements. He invited me to his ‘Audio Lab’.

Soon I went to Mahendra’s home. His place was practically cluttered and littered with different audio equipments, speakers, connecters, cables and what not! There were speakers of different sizes, amplifiers and cassette players of different companies and various other audio instruments, the nature and use of which I could not make out. Most of them were ones which had come for sale after being used at least once. I had not heard most of the brand names on them before.

Mahendra took me into his main experiment room which had sound equipment everywhere with wires and cables hanging all around. Three types of audio equipment lines stacked in three stages were installed there. Each one had been connected to separate sets of speakers. He said that to find the system with best clarity we have to hear the music in two different audio systems back to back.

He placed a CD in the player that was first in the stack. As it played, pleasant streams of piano music flowed around us. I had never before heard music of such clarity and quality! When the same CD was played on the other two audio equipment lines, the audio quality of the music was even clearer and better. The many fine details and slight flourishes of the music recorded in the CD pleasantly played on my ears with very good separation and clarity that I had never experienced before. For the next many hours I kept on listening to many pieces of western and Indian music of my choice.

Long after I came back home, the experience of that sound of music was resonating within me. I immediately purchased the two speakers and a stereo amplifier recommended by Mahendra. They were indeed second-hand equipment but were expensive beyond my budget. But my craze to listen to music with quality and clarity won the day. I had by now realized that you can listen to music properly only with a quality audio system. From that day on I had become first a fan and then a searcher and seeker of quality audio equipment.

The standard of the recorded music that we hear at home on our usual systems does not reveal half the details of the recorded material. These systems simply lack the technical finesse to separate the many subtle bits and bytes of music which make the listening a highly enjoyable experience. Most are satisfied about their musical experience if they can hear the lines of lyrics in the songs clearly. They are unable to hear the finer flourishes of the tune and the musical arrangements.

But there are people who have very sharp ears. They can discern every small note and bit of sound and appreciate the separated layers of the music. They are capable of storing in their memory every bit of the sound they listen in the recorded material. They are capable of immediately identifying the clarity of the audio. Such people are called ‘Audiophiles’. They prefer to listen music only in the choicest of audio systems. They know the art of listening the sound of music and the science of enabling and enhancing it through different audio devices.

Achieving high sound standards in music listening requires some ‘must have’ audio equipments of high standards performing their individual roles to a finesse. The wires and cables that connect these various audio instruments are also should be of high quality and specialized as they too contribute to the total audio quality. Most of the different audio equipments in a professionally assembled system are made by different manufacturers. The products of well known companies popular among the mass are not up to the standards of Audiophiles most of the time.

The products preferred by Audiophiles are mostly not advertised in mass media or sold through regular stores. There are very specialized magazines for audiophiles all over the world which attracts both write-ups and advertisements of these specialized audio products. Magazines like Hi-Fi, Stereophile, What Hi-Fi, Home Sound News, Home Cinema, AV Max etc. are examples. Such equipments are only sold through very specialized stores.

These audio equipments could be graded into entry level, mid level and high end, depending on their price and sophistication. We can select our range of audio instruments based on our requirements and budget. It is common that some of the high end systems cost much more than a luxury car. Many systems often sport price tags running to many lakhs and even crores in rare cases.

An entry level audio range consisting of a source player, amplifier and speakers can cost up to Rs.50,000/-. If bought second-hand, a beginner’s audio system can be put together for around Rs.25,000/-. The medium range system can be assembled for upwards of Rs.1,00,000/-. A high end system can easily run up a figure around 5 lakhs. The home theatre audio equipment, which enables us to experience the theatre like sound costs many times more than a high technology high end television. All these instruments have stylish designs too.

I have had the pleasure of listening to music in many different audio ranges and high priced speakers. I have personally experienced the higher standards of listening pleasure matching their price. Still it is not always a given that the audio quality rises with higher prices. I have known instances of systems assembled for fifty thousand rupees giving better audio quality than the ones costing over five lakh rupees. It is more important than price to identify an audio system that goes well with the room where we listen to music and get it installed properly.

Sound sensitive persons love to listen to music only from such high resolution media as audio CD, FM Radio or Vinyl records. For them the idea of listening to music in MP3 is a rubbish to be avoided like a plague. They even look out for high tech recorded audio medias like Super Audio CD and Audio DVD for a higher standard of listening experience.

Some still prefer to listen to music in the old technology product, the vinyl music record. Today the Audiophile market puts out latest technology record players for such lovers of vinyl disc sound. But they do not come low-priced. A medium range Roksan Xerxes record player costs just two lakh rupees. However, if that is still cheap for you there are record players available at well over five lakh rupees!

We can still hear music from DVD players as well. Though audio quality that we receive with the video is still good in them, audio CDs to not play well in these DVD players. That is why lovers of audio quality in music do not play their music on video players. They only use dedicated audio CD players to listen to music. Such CD players are also expensive. For example the cost of a Marantz, NAD or Cambridge brand entry level CD player is well above twenty five thousand rupees.

An appropriate amplifier is a must for good quality music as they amplify and separate the audio signals emerging from players and present it in a proper stereo or multi- channel mode through the speakers. The electrical power of sound in operation in such amplifiers is rated in terms of RMS (Root Mean Square). Higher RMS signifies greater pressure, depth and clarity of sound. As already indicated before, you would have seen advertisements shouting PMPO (Peak Music Power Output). This denotes the loudness of sound and does not carry any value among Audiophiles. This is merely a marketing gimmick to gain attention.

The two-channel stereo amplifiers suffice for listening to music. But multi-channel amplifiers with 5.1 and 7.1 channels or more are needed for seeing films on the TV or a screen with theatre like sound. Even after the arrival of digital technology, old style valve audio amplifiers still enjoy dedicated fans. In their opinion, the warmth of the sound produced by them is incomparable.

Speakers have a very special place in producing high quality sound. Speakers are available in Audiophile market with different levels of sophistication and price range. Though ordinarily their prices range from twenty thousand to five lakh rupees, I remember seeing an advertisement where rupees forty-five lakhs was quoted for two bare speaker drivers!

When we install speakers at home, it is important to take the size of the room, the height at which it is fixed and the place where it is to be fixed into account. The reason for this is the fact that sound waves are absorbed and echoed by articles obstructing on the ground or the wall. Therefore, proper dimensions of the room and design are important for a music experience with the finest audio quality. Therefore, serious listeners of music specially design the room where they listen to music.

Some of these music lovers go to any extend in search of better audio equipment. Their fervor and search for perfect audio quality are beyond belief. For certain kind of persons among them music is only a product to test different audio equipment! All their thoughts are focused on
enhancing the sound producing capabilities of their audio systems. Therefore, they keep testing newer and newer configurations and attachments to see if they make a difference to the sound quality.

As a person who has continued on a journey of listening to music, I find it is important to listen to music with the best audio quality. Today I can say that I too have an audio system of reasonably good quality as a result of all the search, experiments and expeditions I had gone through. But I am not totally satisfied with my audio system. The mind is always on a search for an audio instrument even better, a new attachment that does even more to enhance the sound quality of the music that I always love to listen to. The search for perfect sound quality in music is a never ending one. Such search is often frustrating. But even such frustration is an emotion generated by music that we so love.