10 Ways to Come Home to Music

Audio equipment is a crock of pretentious technical jargon, a pile of useless black boxes, a plague of blinking lights, a waste of space, a needless drain on your household income—unless it brings you closer to music. Then it’s form of nutrition, a balm for the multiple beatings we take in our daily lives, maybe even a gateway to the soul. If I felt otherwise, I’d have to give up this audio-critic stuff and find another way to make a living, preferably one that paid more.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, the delivery of music through an audio system takes on meaning only if someone is listening. Obviously equipment playing in an empty room is useless (unless you’re cocking an ear in the adjoining room). But the gear is almost equally useless when serenading a listener who’s only half there. Listening is like an investment. It can pay dividends, but only if you ante up some human attention. The act of listening makes music more powerful.

This should come as good news. It means that however much or little you’ve spent on your system, and your iPod, you can get more out of them without spending an extra penny. No, I’m not about to abandon the central premise of my career—that better audio can improve your listening life. But I’m going to set it aside for a moment to help you concentrate on the act of listening.   So how can you listen better and get more out of your listening life? Here are 10 ways to come home to music:

Pay Attention: Make a conscious decision to replace background listening with foreground listening. Ruthlessly eliminate other activities. You are listening to music, period. If you haven’t done it before, or haven’t tried in awhile, you may find it hard. But you need to increase the quality (not the quantity) of your listening. And the only way is just do it.

Make the Time: You say you don’t have the time for active listening? Then make the time. A minimum of 20 minutes a day is a good start. An hour or two (but not necessarily more) is better. That will mean less time for other things. For heaven’s sake, don’t stop talking to your spouse and kids! But a little less time vegetating in front of the TV will mean more time for musical nourishment.

Listen at Home: While it is possible to do foreground listening anywhere, it’s easier in places that offer a neutral background of silence. It’s not impossible to actively listen in a car or on the street, but it’s harder, because the background noise places a floor under the dynamic range of what you’re hearing. Then unpalatable alternatives come up: Choose dynamically squashed music. Choose a low volume and miss part of the music. Choose a high volume and ruin your hearing. Choose to adjust volume continually, breaking your concentration. See what I mean? Home is the best place, at least until your neighbor turns on his lawnmower.  

Find a Sweet Spot: This is actually two instructions. One, find a place where you’re comfortable being an active listener. Two, maximize sound quality by picking the place in the room where your system sounds best. If your room does not have a comfy seat in the sweet spot—then rearrange it! This is important.  

Explore New Musical Terrain: As you become a more serious listener, you will need material that repays your attention, music in which to invest precious moments of your life. A probable and welcome side effect is that your tastes may broaden. One thing that’s helped me enormously over the years has been to get interested in historical styles and historical performers (especially from the era before I was old enough to buy records). Look for the paths less traveled and get on them.

Favor Naturally Recorded Styles: Unfortunately, contemporary pop music is rarely well-recorded. Excessive equalization and compression kill music by turning it shrill, starving it of tone color, and sucking the drama out of it. Look into other genres (jazz, classical) and eras (before everything got Pro Tooled to death). Again, historical recordings are among the most potent: The golden age of analog recording technology ran from the late 1950s, when stereo recording kicked in, to the early 1980s, before the dark age of early digital. Contemporary digital can be quite good depending on who does what with it.  

Share with Friends (and Strangers): This will be hard for some of you—as a matter of fact, it’s often hard for me—but your ability to listen will improve if you communicate with other listeners, even if you mostly listen alone. Share person to person, on the phone, via email or chat. They all work. I never come home from a great concert without emailing my friends about it, often before I’ve gone to bed. A second step would be to listen with other people — concert going provides the ideal excuse. Even one-way communication, like the reader reviews on Amazon, can enrich your listening life, not only at the basic consumer-guide level, but by offering perspective, suggesting new ways to listen.

Use Gift Giving to Expand Your Circle: When I find something I like, I give it to all of my closest relatives at Christmastime. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, there are always birthdays. By sharing music with your family, you create a common frame of reference and more opportunities to talk about music with people about whom presumably you care.

Listen to Music, Not Just Sound: This is a cautionary note to audiophiles, budding or otherwise. It’s a sad irony that some of the people who spend the most on their systems forget about music. In doing so, they undermine the quality of their listening.   And finally:

Turn Down the Lights: This old bit of audiophile wisdom really works! The less brain processing power you devote to sight, the more you’ll have for music. That’s why blind people have such keen hearing. It’s also why some surround systems that seem great for movies fall down on music, when visual sensory input decreases. If you don’t have at least one low-watt ambient lamp in your listening room, get one. Do not use overhead lights at all. And if you find your eyes drawn to front-panel displays, dim them or turn them off.   Happy and healthy listening to you. I hope I’ve changed your life. If you can think of anything I’ve missed, tell me.  

Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater, audio editor of Home Theater Magazine, and tastemaster of happypig100.com.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.