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Wake up your ears

The more you listen and really pay attention to your tunes, the more you'll get out of your music.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

This isn't just for audiophiles. I don't care what kind of speakers or headphones you have -- once you start listening, you'll hear more of what's going on in the music. The only "downside" to focused listening is that you might turn into an audiophile. Once you focus on sound, the more you'll hear, and the opposite is also true, and the music matters less and less. I usually stick to acoustic music when evaluating sound quality, but this time out I went for highly processed, totally unnatural, but beautiful sounding recordings.

"Gwely Mernans" from Aphex Twin's astonishingly brilliant "Drukqs" CD sports rolling thunder spatial movements that drift well out beyond the edges of the speakers. That is, the sound exists in a fully dimensional plane, completely detached from the actual locations of the left and right speakers. The effect is much diminished over headphones, and some speakers do it better than others. The $399-per-pair Equator D5 desktop speakers (review to come) were awfully good in this regard, but the Zu Audio Omen DWs were even better.

I loved the way the strings blend with Thom Yorke's ghostly vocals on "Faust Arp," from Radiohead's "In Rainbows" CD; the music is beautiful, but the sound is endlessly fascinating. "Reckoner," from the same album, puts each instrument in a different reverberant field. The drums are very spacey, and Yorke's falsetto chorus appears in a completely different environment.

Thom Yorke's other band, Atoms for Peace, took me on a very different trip in their "Amok" CD. The music isn't all that far from what he does in Radiohead, but it's more stripped down, less dense. Each skittering bass thump, tremor, and percussive accent stood out in sharp relief over the Omen DW speakers. The soft-to-loud dynamic shadings and textures were laid bare, some instruments seemed closer to me, others were set back deep in the soundstage. Where lesser speakers sound "mushy" and blend all of that into one blob, great speakers make it easier to follow each instrument. That makes sense as each instrument and vocal was probably individually mic'ed and tracked; they are separate elements in the mix.

The dusty electronica haze of Mouse on Mars' "Instrumentals" CD seems to come from everywhere, a swirling tornado of hissing beeps and spikey crackles. You're visiting a place, an environment of sorts. The spatial characteristics of a recording, the foreground and background elements, are more or less apparent on different speakers and headphones. Then again, any recording's subtler elements will be more apparent when listening in a quiet setting; they're more likely to be lost listening outdoors, or in a car, train, bus, or plane.

Different listeners listen for different things in recordings, some focus on bass, others the naturalness of the sound, or how realistic vocals sound, while others crave maximum volume.

Again, once you start to pay attention to the stuff the band might have spend weeks perfecting in the studio, the more you'll appreciate the artistry that went into recording and mixing the music. If you find it difficult to focus on music you love, that might be the fault of your headphones or speakers -- if the sound doesn't pull you in something's wrong. Try to borrow a set of great headphones from a friend, and see it that makes a difference in your ability to focus on the music.

Listen closely, and tell us what you hear in the Comments section.