Yeah – okay – so what is THE fundamental question?

Michael Vronsky asks:

Neil; In the context of audio in the home, what do you think are the hallmarks of a good sound. By this I mean what guidelines could you offer to an experienced listener?

The first thing I think I would say is you have to be gripped by the music and preferably you are being submitted to music that you think you know. If it’s unfamiliar music then I think the experience is complicated by too many other things, so I would advise any perspective person interested in acquiring equipment to make sure that what they are going to listen to is something they think they know.

Okay. Got that. But surely there’s more?

Yes. (long pause) if the experience is run of the mill, then the equipment in a sense has failed, because really good equipment in my experience always awakens a renewed interest in very much loved things that you think you know well. This goes not just for the performance but also for the equipment. Certainly true of the performance of course. But I suppose I must add a rider at this point that I am talking mainly about classical music, which is my main interest.

So, yes it has to surprise you and give you some delight that you hadn't noticed before in order to be taken seriously.

How might that advice differ when guiding a novice listener?

Gosh, I'm not sure I distinguished between a novice and an experienced listener. How would I define novice – bearing in mind I don’t feel comfortable placing music lovers into categories. I suppose it’s somebody who wants some music at home and hasn't really gone into it. The experience listener … well, I suppose the difference is that he or she will have listened to a whole lot of things and unless they get truly arrested and taken up with the music itself, the equipment has failed. If he's listening for a ‘liquid’ midrange or a fast bass or something else then the exposure has failed almost before it begins because he's not been taken over by the music.

In summary then?

Equipment being auditioned has to surprise you in terms of the nature and quality of the reproduced sound and give you some delight that you hadn't noticed previously. Without those emotions being generated, the equipment can’t be taken seriously.

So (pause) that disappointing equipment would be, well … rubbish?

No, not all. And you know that Mike (he laughs). No; what I mean is that if it isn’t offering you any more than you have already, then don’t buy it.

So in a single word then?

Absorbed. The listener has to be absorbed by what they are listening to – not listen for.