[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

October 2002

Listening Season

I’m so excited! I’ve been waiting for months and months, and it’s finally here! I thought it would never happen. Everyone said it didn’t exist anymore, but I knew better. Be patient, I told myself; this can’t go on forever. But it’s here at last. Warm up the tubes! Clean up the stylus! Get out of my room! Listening season has arrived.

Listening season? Isn’t every day part of listening season to a true audiophile? Well, not really. Not in the Midwest anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I have the same disease as you. Test me if you doubt my true colors. What’s the first thing I do when I walk through the door after a long day at work? Let the dog out? Feed the cats? Kiss my wife? Yes to the third question would be the correct answer -- I do want to continue to live happily in my home and have full use of my listening area.

So the second thing I do is get all turned on. Turn on the preamplifier, turn on the amplifier, turn on the sources -- you know the routine. Now it’s time to sit down and listen to some quality music, right? Well kind of, yes, but something just isn’t quite right yet. It’s like that six pack of beer that you brought home from the store that hasn’t quite been in the refrigerator long enough. You’ll drink it, sure, but the experience isn’t all it could be. The system may be up to snuff. Thank goodness you listened to that brilliant reviewer and bought the amazing $5000 power cord. Your music collection is amazing, a nice blend of techno-baroque and country-rap (fondly called crap by the true admirers). Your new listening chair almost reaches out and pulls you in (properly chilled beer already in place). Everything is set up properly, floors measured, speaker distances set, anti-resonance controls in place, clean power shooting out of the walls. So what’s the problem?

Well, for about eight months of the year, it’s just plain too noisy. Perhaps noisy is not the word I’m searching for. It’s more like a lack of quiet. Noisy can be a problem too, but suggests a different set of problems. For those of you with kids, this hardly needs further explanation. Nothing ruins the mood more than a screeching sibling argument or the sound of MTV blasting from the television, the levels of distortion (total harmonic or otherwise) far surpassing the limits of adult human tolerance. Televisions, traffic, sirens, airplanes, and subways all can be annoyances that detract from the experience. But those are more on a macro scale and are much more in your face.

What I’m talking about is much more subtle. It’s that background drone that just barely lifts off the floor but reminds us of reality and pulls us out of the dream state that we audiophiles strive for. Perhaps what is most insidious is that much of the time we don’t recognize it’s there or how large an effect it has. Let me illustrate. I’m a teacher and have a classroom with walls made of cement blocks. The door is a very heavy hardwood fire door. I teach eighth-graders, so the classroom is never quiet. However, the room is soundproof enough that when the hallway is filled with noisy students, I can barely hear them. When the end of the day finally arrives (on some days not soon enough) and the students have left the building, it gets pretty darn quiet. Yet sitting at my desk, I feel a level of tenseness that will not leave until one more thing occurs. I reach over, shut down the computer, and everything changes. My head clears, my muscles relax. I experience quiet. You would think that the little fan in my computer was the jet-fueled turbine on a 747.

Quiet is truly a rarity in our society today. Most of us have probably never really experienced quiet. Average sound-pressure levels in busy urban environments can range from 75 to 90 decibels. In a rural area, 45 to 60 decibels is still not uncommon. One must venture far out into the wilderness, 50 or 100 miles from traffic, planes, industry, and human activity to experience true quiet at 35 to 40 decibels. I’ve spent time camping in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, far away from just about everything. The quiet sometime seemed so foreign that it got downright spooky. Better to hear the bear sneaking up behind you. I guess it can get too quiet sometimes.

So what do I consider listening season in this world of cacophony and din?

Well, June through about the middle of September is definitely out. It seems that almost every waking moment is filled with one of my wonderful neighbors contributing to the pollution of our air, via sonic and gaseous emissions from various lawn-related implements of destruction. It is absolutely amazing to me how man, an enlightened species, is able to justify the use of so many ecologically unfriendly tools to make his yard look more green. It never fails that the second I sit down to listen, the sound of a Lawnboy ends up in my soundstage.

And if I somehow manage to block out the din by closing all of the doors and windows, I’m left with the biggest offender of all. Hello, Mister Air Conditioner. Like the fan of my computer, the intrusion seems small. In fact, much of the time it's not much of a bother. However, if you’re a lover of classical music, as I am, it can be a real annoyance. When listening to Wagner’s room-shaking fortissimos there’s no problem, but I also love Debussy, Ravel, Vaughn Williams, and Satie. The quiet passages are just as important, if not more so.

This became glaringly apparent the other day when I was listening to a new CD on Reference Recordings called Reveries. This amazing CD is filled with transcendental pieces of music such as Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess. Lots of quiet passages. The music was amazing, but it was not until the air conditioning actually kicked off that it began to move me. The constant low-level drone was like a veil over the music. It blocked out not only the quiet notes, but seemed to rob the music of its raw emotion.

November through March eliminates the lawn-tool problem, unless you live in a place like Duluth, where the lawnmower is replaced by the drone of the snowblower. The furnace fan is still a culprit, cool air being replaced by warm, but an interruption nonetheless. I live in a home built around 1926. Most of these homes still have the nice quiet (but horribly inefficient) gravity furnaces or radiant heat. Unfortunately, the previous owners of my domicile found it fit to replace the original quiet form of heat with an efficient (and noisy) forced-air gas furnace. Bastards!

So what’s left? Those magical moments in the spring and fall when quiet reigns. These are the times when windows can remain closed and air conditioners and furnaces turned off. If the stars are aligned and the kids are out for the night, you can really get a chance to open your system up and see what that she really sounds like. You can spend lots of money to get your components to give you black backgrounds, but all is lost if the environment you listen in doesn’t give you quiet backgrounds as well.

Until then we are all forced to become listening-season poachers. Comfort be damned! I’ll sweat a little in the summer and listen in my underwear. In the winter I’ll don goose-down, Gore-Tex, and electric socks. Just keep my ears free and the listening chair near the tubes. Happy poaching.

...Bill Brooks


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