I thought it might be handy for you to know what I listen for when I write about audio here at Jeff’s Place, and for my reviews at Positive Feedback.
I find it useful to partition my perceptions into two broad (and somewhat overlapping) categories while listening: musicality and sonics.
The musicality aspect of a component’s performance is related to its performance on the basic elements of music. I listen for how close a component comes to presenting recorded music realistically compared to live music, in terms of timbral realism (the unique ‘voices’ of instruments), the resolution of tone color (the ability to distinctly hear the chordal variations resulting from adding additional pitches to three tone triads), melody (the tune you ‘whistle while you work’), harmony (treble & bass accompaniments to the melody), rhythm (the steady beat that determines the tempo), tempo (speed), dynamics (variations in loudness), and loudness (the ability to play naturally at live-like levels appropriate to a piece of music).
The second category of performance I listen for is sonics, which describes the performance of a component in reproducing the non-musical artifacts of the recording process, like transparency (the ability to ‘see’ into the recording), resolution (the amount of detail in the audio signal that is audibly presented), soundstage (the ability to discern the three dimensions of the recorded space in width, height and depth), the soundspace (the ability to convey the acoustic sense of ‘space’ of the recording venue), and imaging (the ability to localize instruments & musicians on the soundstage).
Finally, I listen for the ability of a component to integrate musicality & sonics in a way that maximizes an emotional response during the listening experience.
Regarding emotional response, researchers who study the neurobiology of music have found that certain elements of musicality and sonics reproduction stimulates emotional responses in the brain.
Their research suggests that a home music system that can play at realistic loudness levels, is dynamically realistic, and can realistically portray timbral textures, tempo, and beat, will be more emotionally engaging and musically satisfying than a home music system that can’t do those things as well.
Also, researchers have found that the brain connection in the intraparietal sulcus does processing for both visuospatial processing and transposing melodies, which may help explain why some audiophiles get additional pleasure when that brain region is stimulated by processing recording artifacts containing visuospatial information, like imaging, soundstaging, and the sense of recorded space, which may co-opt the intraparietal sulcus in a way that increases the level of emotion experienced from recorded music.
If you are interested in learning more about how the neurobiology of musicality & sonics influences the music listening experience, search on “neurobiology” here at Jeff’s Place and read the various associated posts.
In simple experiential terms, I have found that if a given component overtly emphasizes sonic performance more than musical performance, it grows tiring for me to listen to before long, as it distracts me from the enjoyment of the music itself.
I have also found that if a given component overtly emphasizes musical performance more than sonic performance, I’ll probably love the way it plays music, but over time I may miss hearing some of the finer recording cues that can add to the overall enjoyment of the recorded music listening experience.
I suppose that every hifi system and listener will be a little different in what they need and prefer to achieve for their perfect balance of musicality & sonics, but in trying to articulate these particular performance parameters to you for a given piece of hifi gear I hope to give you the bigger picture of how a hifi component performs so that you will have the best idea possible as to whether it will be something you will enjoy for the long term.
As always, thanks for stopping by, and may the tone be with you!