Hints: It isn’t your speakers. And it isn’t your source.
As a child, you probably played the game “Telephone” or “Chinese Whispers”. It’s a simple game where each kid in a line or circle whispers a message into the next kid’s ear with the goal that the message remain intact all the way to the last kid.
That’s also, in essence, the goal of an audio component: to pass down the original signal to the next component without anything being added or altered. In the world of audio, we have words for these two phenomena: noise and distortion. Therefore, the most important component in an audio system is the one whose signal becomes most prone to noise and distortion.
This supports the argument that it’s the speakers that matter most. After all, the added colorations and the alteration of the signal are potentially more severe with speakers than with any other component, what with the cabinets and cones.
But how about the source? To borrow an archery metaphor, isn’t the source where the arrow (signal) starts its journey? And won’t a few millimeters off target when the arrow leaves the bow lead to a massive miss?
Of course, some people will say it was upgrading their amplifier that was the game changer. Or their cables.
So, instead of siding with any of these claims, I’ll ask you to divert your attention from what’s in front of you to what’s inside of you: yourmind. In my view, this is the area that introduces more noise and distortion to your experience than anything else in your listening room. Even more than the speakers. And the source. And the amp.
Your mind is ultimately where the listening experience happens. And when it comes to the fidelity to the original signal, it usually does a poor job. It adds more noise and distortion than all your audio components combined. That means that no matter how many times you upgrade your audio equipment, you’ll never be able to experience your system’s full potential without first optimizing your mind.
For clarity’s sake, I’m going to change the language a bit. For the mind, there’s another name for noise: distraction. Nothing muddies up a listening experience more than having it constantly interrupted by unrelated thoughts. Next time you listen to music in front of your big rig, try counting all the random thoughts you have while the music is playing. I promise you the list will be astounding for both its diversity and its absurdity: ‘Did I pay the credit card bill?’, ‘My God, that shelf is dusty’, ‘I want to have pizza tonight but only with veggies on it because I’m trying to watch my figure’… It never ends. In fact, it’s still going on after the music’s over.
Again, noise and distortion are the two things we’re dealing with here. And distraction is noise of the mind. Then how about distortion? Is there another word that’s more fitting when discussing the matters of the mind? Yes: interpretation.
Interpretation is the act of giving a meaning to the experience while you’re having it. Thinking that Beethoven’s music is exciting (or boring) is an interpretation. Thinking that your system sounds wonderful (or lousy) is an interpretation. Thinking that this song reminds you of someone or something is an interpretation. Any kind of personal interpretation placed on the music, even a positive one, distorts it. And it diminishes the experience because the music loses its magic when you rearrange it into your own psychological rendition.
Yet, we do it again and again. We listen to our thoughts instead of the music. We listen through a colored mental lens instead of listening to the vibration of the soundwave as it is. It keeps us away from the core nature of the wonderful auditory phenomenon unfolding in front of us. That’s why the most important upgrade we can bring to our listening room is… meditation.
You can meditate while sitting, standing, or eating a noodle soup, but regardless of how you do it, the intention of meditation remains the same: to train your mind to be silent. It takes time and practice to learn this skill… but I speak from experience when I tell you it’s worth it. When your mind is silent, truly silent, you can capture so much more of the soul of the music. When your mind stops adding its own words to the music, the music speaks to you in its native language.
Imagine you see stars in the night sky. And then your mind wanders to the constellations. Learning about the constellations is interesting but they get in the way of viscerally experiencing the beauty of the stars as they are, brilliant and unique. Listening to music, or experiencing anything, in its purest and highest form requires the ability to see the stars without obscuring them with the constellations.
The ultimate upgrade to my sound system came when I upgraded my mind. And that upgrade didn’t come in the form of acquisition. It came in the form of subtraction.