Building Community Through Shared Listening Sessions by David C. Snyder
One day, while sitting in the sweet spot and soaking up fine playback of an amazing performance (don’t recall the artist), I remember experiencing this almost uncontrollable urge to share what I was hearing. The positive, even mood altering experience of listening to music just begs for company!
Unfortunately, the pursuit of our audiophile ideal–the maximum fidelity rendering of Alan Blumlein’s stereophonic illusion–is somewhat at odds with simultaneously involving multiple pairs of ears (except where headphones are involved). Most if not all 2-channel loudspeaker+room based playback systems have exactly one sweet spot. Other locations may offer pleasing sound, but the complete sonic package is delivered to a single chair.
In the olden days before the Internet and cable TV, families and friends would gather around the phonograph and enjoy music together…often entire albums at a time. The experience was less about quality sound and more about quality time. Has our relentless pursuit of perfection led us down the path of isolation? How can we bring a greater sense of community to this otherwise solitary hobby without sacrificing our audiophile ideals?
I was determined to come up with a way, so I decided to just start inviting folks over for listening sessions. My target audience was anyone who I believed might have more than a passing interest in sound and music…plus anyone I could convince to make the climb to our loft! Over the past 10 months, I’ve hosted north of twenty listening sessions, and I’ve been the guest at sessions hosted by others. This experience has transformed the way I think about our hobby.
The mechanics of a shared listening session are a little different than the SFAS deep listening sessions and other club events. When I’m hosting, the chief limiting factor is floor space; 150 sq. ft. for gear and guests. That means that these gatherings are small…very small. Like, 2-3 people. That’s okay, though. As a self-described introvert, I could not comfortably host many more even if my listening room was five times that size! Plus, there’s still only one sweet spot; a smaller gathering means more “stick time” for each of my guests.
A sense of occasion is important for this sort of thing. The climb up to the loft (two floors above the main level) is usually enough to set things off. I know another audiophile who permits guests to wear shoes anywhere in the house but asks that they kindly remove them when entering the audio room. Anything to set the listening event apart from whatever happens in the rest of the house seems to enhance the experience.
If my guests are technically savvy, sessions begin with me giving a quick overview of the whats, hows, and whys regarding component selection and room setup. Next, after verifying the precise location of the listening chair with a laser distance measure (more sense-of-occasion stuff), I play a couple of tracks that I know to be well recorded to acclimate my guest’s ears to the system and room. I set average levels to about 83dB or so (C-weighted) to keep tonal balance near the sweet spot of the Fletcher-Munson curve…and to make sure I’m not torturing anyone.
No one says a word during these first two tracks–an unspoken rule that virtually everyone follows automatically. After that, we’ll have a brief discussion about what they’ve heard, and I’ll hand them the tablet so that they can queue up recordings that they are familiar with, possibly including music that they brought with them for the session. Depending on how things are going, I may insert a recommendation or two of my own into the session’s playlist. This will go on for an hour or two or until we break for refreshments two floors down in the kitchen.
While I still love listening intently to music alone, there’s something magical about experiencing playback through someone else’s eyes and ears–seeing how the music affects them and sharing in their reactions. Even when I’m not in the sweet spot, I feel like I’m connected to the music through their perceptions–truly a shared experience. On more than one occasion, the music has brought goosebumps to both me and my guest, even though I was seated on the floor next to the steps.
Enjoying fine playback as a guest in another audiophile’s room is equally satisfying. In both cases, I’m re-visiting familiar tracks on a new system while gaining exposure to really great music that I otherwise might never have heard. As a guest, the pressure is off. I don’t try to analyze their setup (unless specifically asked to do so). I just kick back and take it all in. In every case, I’ve heard or learned something new about the music, the artists, sound reproduction in general, and of course, my host. If their system does something better than mine, I’ll take note and see if I can find a way to improve. But mostly, I’m there to enjoy fine music and fellowship.
Of course, the greatest benefit to all of this is connecting with people. When we reach the end of our days and look back, it won’t be the number of solitary hours that we spent in the sweet spot that will bring us satisfaction but the number of lives we’ve touched and friendships we’ve made along the way. If you don’t have a shared listening session on your calendar between now and the end of the year, I encourage you to make the effort to set one up. It could change the way you think about our hobby too.