If the Hifi Guru Says So...
Thoughts on musicality and the art of hifi

Sleepy singer and sunny power cord

Sleepy singer

"Do you get the feeling that the singer did not have enough sleep?"

A group of us were listening to Diana Krall singing You Call it Madness in her All For You album (Impulse 11642) when the guru raised this question. Evidently happy with what he had heard, or rather, with what he felt, the guru added, It is very hard to achieve this sort of feeling.

For the group of us, this was another lesson in musicality the term that so many audiophiles talk about and yet so few truly understand.

Yes, it is easy to say that musicality refers to the way hi-fi components make music sound like music rather than "hi-fi", the way they convey the mood, the emotion, the soul of the music. I too have often talked about musicality in vague and general terms. The guru is one of the few people I know who expresses it in very specific terms like the feeling that the singer did not have enough sleep.

Of course, that sort of feeling is musical only when it is supposed to be that way. If a bright and happy song sounds sleepy, then something is wrong either with the singer or with your hi-fi. Which is at fault? Ah, you'll have to find out!

Another example: Recently, I asked the guru to help me evaluate a very expensive power cord. When I plugged in the cord, the sound improved in many ways: the background became dead quiet, the various musical instruments sounded a lot more real rather than like hi-fi, bass went deeper, bass lines were clearer, and so on.

Sunny power cords

The guru did not comment on all these. Instead, he asked, "How did the mood change?"

It's more lively, I replied.

Would you say the feeling is more sunny? the guru asked.

Yes, I agreed.

The guru then asked me to look at the title of the music. I saw straight away what he was trying to get at. The title was Fisherman's Song at Dusk. (Hugo Gold CD II, HRP 762G). Obviously, Fisherman's Song at Dusk is not supposed to sound sunny. So the power cord, although excellent in many respects, was not perfect in terms of musicality.

Interestingly, when we later placed some isolation cones beneath the loudspeakers, the mood of dusk was restored.

Now we got the correct mood, without losing the sonic qualities of the power cord. Neither the power cord alone, nor the cones alone, could have achieved that result. This shows the importance of evaluating components as part of the entire system set-up and it shows the unfairness of A/B testing. We shall discuss this at another time.

Four Seasons

Although in Singapore we do not experience spring, summer, autumn and winter, we have a good idea of the mood each season represents. Listen, then, to Vivaldis The Four Seasons to check if the mood feels correct.

Because there are so many different recordings of this music, here is a good chance to evaluate different orchestras and different conductors who is able to portray the different moods more correctly. You may discover, for example, that one orchestra is good at conveying the mood of spring, while another is good at autumn.

To evaluate hi-fi systems, listen to the same recording in different set ups. You will experience differences in mood.

This may be difficult at first if you are more accustomed to listening out for hi-fi qualities like how much bass or treble, how much detail, how deep and how wide the soundstage, how "pin-point" the imaging, and so on.

But once you begin to pay more attention to the feeling rather than to the sound pay attention to how you feel rather than to what you hear you will have a better understanding of this thing called musicality.

Mood test

One very challenging mood test can be found in Mahler's Das Leid von der Erde / The Song of the Earth. Mahler's music is profound, often difficult to understand and appreciate. I know nothing about Mahler's music and would not be able to tell you this if it was not pointed out to me by the guru, who is a member of the Mahler Society, Singapore.

About one minute into the last movement, the orchestra plays a long, sustained note, quite softly. From the start of this note to its end, in about 20 seconds, the mood is supposed to change from winter to spring, from despair to hope.

It is, indeed, a great challenge for orchestra conductors to bring about this mood change by performing just one note.

It is also a great challenge for your hi-fi system to convey that change of feeling.

There is so much in music, so much to hear, if only you know what to listen out for. And it certainly helps to have someone experienced to guide you. Unfortunately, most of us don't have an experienced guide. And most of us don't listen to music like Mahler's.

With the heart

What about more ordinary music (like female vocals) that ordinary audiophiles listen to?

Whatever music you are listening to, do you get the feeling that the singer or musician cares about the music? Or do you get the feeling that the person is just mechanically voicing some words, bowing a violin or hitting some piano keys? Do you get the feeling that the performer is disinterested? Cannot be bothered?

Worse still, do you sometimes get the feeling that the music is mechanical? That it is performed by a machine rather than by real people? Pay attention to how you feel. Don't analyse too much.

Listen more with your heart, less with your head. That is what music and musicality is all about.





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