Blog No. 11: Simply Listening….

In 30+ years as a reviewer, I have always marvelled at the rather misplaced envy of audiophiles who don’t work in the hi-fi industry. They think it’s all about freebies and lolling around listening to gear and flitting from hi-fi show to hi-fi show. But they seem to forget that, as with careers in any field, the “new” and the “buzz” do eventually wear off and it becomes, well, a job. And there are responsibilities, ethical concerns and other realities (like magazine circulation and the decline of the market) to consider.

Now I am not complaining about my lot in life, having worked in a fast food restaurant, a wine bar and a ridiculously hectic burger joint,  in bookshops and hi-fi retail, moved furniture, schlepped hay bales on farm, pumped gas on the midnight shift, delivered newspapers, etc, etc, so I know that there are far worse ways to pay the mortgage than listening to and writing about hi-fi.

But, yes, I’m a miserable bastard who gets crankier every time I see yet another illiterate join the ranks of “journalists” (and it’s far worse in fields other  than in hi-fi writing, by the way, such as watch journalism – you have no idea how lucky you are). I rankle with every act of stupidity in what are mature industries. But it’s like anything in life: you get pissed off in a restaurant because your meal arrived under/overcooked, when there are millions around the world who are starving to death.

Perspective is needed. We tend, quite naturally, to worry more about immediate concerns than global matters or those without direct impact on our lives. And I am the first in line to argue that charity begins in the home, e.g. I’m more concerned about my taxes paying for the NHS, local roads, the police, etc, than providing foreign aid. There are enough people suffering locally in every country on earth for governments to have their hands full without looking for other problems to solve.

Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that the only time I actually get to listen for pleasure is when in transit, whether in the car, on the train to London for whatever meetings I need to attend, or in-flight, when travelling on business. What amazes me – and I surprise myself rarely, like when I managed to quit smoking – is how I am so readily willing to dispense with high-end audio criteria when away from my system.

Let me explain: every time I fire up the system, it’s in order to review a disc or a component. It is not the same as listening for the sheer joy of music, as you know every time you go to a hi-fi shop or show, when you listen intently to the sound quality and the equipment – not the music.

No, I don’t listen to “crap” in transit, and like any good audiophile, I have excellent headphones, a fine player and the music is high-res. But even the best I can muster out of a portable via headphones positively sucks compared to the wall of sound (thanks, Phil) created by a decent hi-fi system, especially the scale, the out-of-head soundstage or other elements denied portable/headphone listening.

And yet … I still love it and lose myself in the music because the isolation and the complete absence of interruptions alters the entire listening dynamic. No phones on airplanes, no doorbells ringing, discouraged use of phones on trains, illegal use of phones in cars – it’s like “enforced listening for pleasure.”

Is there any point to these musings? Not really, other than to remind you what everyone should have burned into his or her psyche: hi-fi is the means to an end, not the end in itself. Otherwise, it’s like caring more about the glass than the wine inside it.

© Ken Kessler 2016