Fun with Moose and Squirrel

‘Cause it’s hard to say what’s real / When you know the way you feel—Flaming Lips, “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

In a recent Zoom meeting, some friends got into a dust-up about how “real”-sounding high-performance audio systems can be. The consensus was that there was no chance at all of real, live sound. A label owner waved it off as impossible: “Fuhgeddaboudit,” he said. He’s from New York, like me.

I began to feel the burn, but I contained my outrage. For a while. Eventually—you know me—I had my say. “What the hell are you all talking about?” I erupted. A confused silence followed, and I dove right in.

“Someday, you may be able to attend a live rock concert again,” I said, “and feel the bass pounding your chest and that jagged, piercing treble giving you vertigo. Don’t forget your earplugs.

“Or you might attend a classical recital again someday—where of course there’s no well-defined soundstage or palpable imaging.” But at a live event, your thoughts don’t turn to tight bass, soothing midrange textures, or sweet highs—nope, you’re there for the music, awash in sound that’s amplified or nulled by the acoustics of the venue—not to mention the coughing, the sneezing, the eye-watering perfume. Jazz is about the same in large spaces; in clubs, it’s more intimate, and it smells different. At any live event, an exciting gestalt of visual cues, music, and hall acoustics merges to form The Experience of Live Music.

Listening at home is wildly different, certainly, but a real connection to music—the emotion audiophiles crave—lives on. Here I am in the Ribbon Chair, Forsell Flywheel turntable spinning sweetly, and I’ve just placed the rebuilt van den Hul Grasshopper IV Gold onto the lead-in of my favorite cut, the 9-minute “Rent Party” from The Timekeepers: Count Basie Meets Oscar Peterson. With no effort at all, I’m leaning into the sound, feeling the music as Basie delightfully sketches to the left while Peterson, more closely miked on the right, counters with pointillistic, filigree detail. They’re comfortable in each other’s heads and enjoying one very sweet conversation. You feel the warmth, the love, and then, at a divine moment, Louie Bellson’s drums come in at center rear, brushing softly along with John Heard’s double bass.


It’s not only a Record to Die For, but a moment to die for, I thought, as I sat transfixed in the Ribbon Chair. I live for this stuff. That’s real.

At live events, you arrive with expectations high and leave with heart racing and ears ringing: obviously real.

It’s an audiophile sacred cow that recorded music “can’t sound like real.”

It limits audiophile expectations. If you’re not looking for it, you won’t find it! But at the same time, you want—need—to feel closer to the music, enveloped, coddled, startled. Me, too. When I fall face-first into a swirl of sound and fury, it makes me happy.

What’s the difference between listening live and listening to recorded music at home? To me, not so much: It’s all about the music, right? Don’t make yourself neurotic looking for that last sliver of performance from your system; if it doesn’t speak to you, an exotic cable probably won’t help. Instead, recalibrate, listen carefully and tune your system for whatever turns you on. Never mind accurate or flat; if your system talks to you, sit back and listen! Set it up so your rig gets emotional; it’s the right thing to do.

In an interview with Kondo-san of Audio Note at Stereophile‘s Hi-Fi ’96 at the Waldorf=Astoria, interpreter Masahiro Shibazaki recounted the following: “He says he enjoys very much the film of Kurosawa called The Seven Samurai. There is a scene where the samurai are marching. But the image on the screen doesn’t show any samurai, only their shadows. But what he sees in his mind are not the shadows, not the trees, but the samurai!”

If you feel it—if you see it like Kondo, if the music reaches you—then it’s real, at home or at a concert. Music exists on its own plane, regardless of the delivery mechanism; perhaps that’s why we can even enjoy it on the radio.

Audiophiles take what’s there and make it better, allowing us to become interlaced with the music, its emotional content fibrillating our souls while nostalgic memories bubble up like holograms. I ask you, what can be more obvious? If you’re feeling and experiencing music that way, then it’s real, no matter the source.

Some people are in touch with the music within us. Others prefer silence. From back when we were still evolving, man’s visual, listening, and music instincts were hard-wired into our brains, perhaps to better perceive the approaching sabretooth tiger thinking of lunch. Cavemen placed hollow logs around the fire and beat them with sticks as an artistic member of the tribe decorated the walls with images of Moose and Squirrel.

Our natural affinity for music is encoded in our genes, just as seeing Jesus on a piece of toast is a function of our instinct for recognizing faces—including the faces of predators, hopefully giving us time to leg it out of there. And if we don’t make it, hey, anything for the gene pool.

Real Music Experiences are available at live venues and at home.

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