A Terminator drunk on cheap motor oil once told me that he’d take bad audio over good any day of the week.
Not surprising, I guess, coming from a killing machine that prefers the sound of terrified screams to music.
I didn’t tell him, but try as I might to find common ground with the stuttering T-800 — turns out he didn’t slur but stuttered — I couldn’t relate. Maybe it’s because I’m not into death and destruction, and I have a beating heart and my brain is emotionally enabled. Whatever the reason, I regularly crave more human-related things like heat, color, light, hope, connection — qualities that can just as well refer to good audio.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: worse gear sounds more mechanical, better gear, more natural, like life. Except life is not all black and white, ditto for sound quality. It’s all about degrees, both large and small.
Two components can appear to sound almost identical or equally musical in quick comparisons, but one among them is surely better suited to us in the long term for reasons that have as much to do with the sound’s attributes as they do with our own attributes as a unique person. We don’t all listen to the same music, and we certainly aren’t exact replicas of each other, like Terminators off an assembly line.
One trick when comparing the sound of different components is to let our subconscious and heart act as our spiritual guides. Our species has been listening to music since our Neanderthal ancestors used sticks to play drum solos on dried bear skulls. It’s in our genetic makeup passed down through 200,000 years of human evolution.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure what an oboe sounds like in real life. We instinctively recognize natural sound from fake. We feel it.
That’s because our ears are just part of the listening process. We use our whole being to listen to music. The less natural and more mechanical the sound we hear, the more our muscles spasm and tense up, our emotions harden, and we begin to retreat both mentally and physically from the experience.
We might not even realize it’s happening. It may be subtle — a feeling that we’re getting tired of listening to music, when really it’s the sound we’re getting tired of. Simply put, bad sound repels us, while good sound makes us want to keep listening.
Nowadays, with so much good sounding gear available in every category and at every price point, there’s no excuse to settle for a subpar listening experience. Music is too important to the meaning of life for that.
Unless, of course, you’re a Terminator, and things like warmth, color, humanness, and connection are concepts that make you see red, cyborg-like.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, on the day I met the T-800, it ended up doing the equivalent of passing out. It shut down, at which point I got the heck out of there.