How to Improve Your Sound With Your Mind, Part One

How to Improve Your Sound With Your Mind, Part One

Written by Jonson Lee

Copper has an exchange program with selected magazines, where we share articles, including this one, between publications. This one's from PMA Magazine: the Power of Music and Audio.


Your audio system was supposed to sound fabulous. After all, you did all the “right things.” You read the reviews. You got advice from your friends who are more seasoned in this hobby than you are. You got recommendations from various audio forums. You even auditioned the components before you bought them.

Yet here you are, sitting in front of your audio system, feeling unmoved by the music. You find the sound quality merely meh. Maybe it wasn’t like that when you first got it, but now you find yourself spending much less time with it. You invested so much – time, energy, money, resources – in building your system but the return-on-investment turned out to be poor. What went wrong?

Perhaps it’s because the speakers aren’t as good as what the reviewers and your friends made them out to be. Or the amp’s specs aren’t an ideal match with your speakers or preamp. Or you didn’t pay enough attention to the source, or the cable connections, which may be loose or badly oxidized. Or your room needs acoustic treatment, a factor that can be as important as the sound of the components themselves. Or the speakers aren’t positioned properly in relation to the walls and the listening spot, which is where my bet would be in most cases where the sound seems unfocused or unbalanced. Or, you just didn’t spend enough money on your setup.

These can all be important factors when it comes to your enjoyment of an audio system. But there’s another factor that matters much more, and it has nothing to do with how much money you spend, what audio components you choose or how you install them. You can’t even see or touch it. That’s because it’s a phenomenon happening purely inside your head.


Courtesy of Gilles Laferriere/PMA.


Before I became serious about audio, for years I was happy just listening to music through average-sounding equipment. It didn’t seem to matter. My listening approach was…uncomplicated. My current, much pricier audio system, which I carefully built over more than 10 years, delivers sound quality that would have blown away anything I ever owned during that earlier period. And yet, I can’t say I had fewer ecstatic music-listening moments then than I have now. I often wondered why that was, and how I was able to enjoy music as much as I did in mediocre sound, when my long-held belief has been that the better the playback, the greater my enjoyment of the music because of it.

To explain this discrepancy, I considered a few possibilities over the years, until I settled on this admittedly bizarre-sounding answer: our enjoyment of music depends less on the quality of the sound and more on the quality of our thinking. In fact, the word “thinking” is a bit of a misnomer here, because what I actually mean by “thinking” has less to do with what our brain does than what it shouldn’t do, which is to overthink.

See, the accepted wisdom is that the sound quality of an audio system is theoretically at its peak when it isn’t doing anything, or, more specifically, when it’s adding no distortion or noise to the music signal. Likewise, when listening to music, the quality of our thinking is at its peak when it’s adding no distortion or noise – doing no harm – to the music. That’s because listening to music is much less a task – say, such as trying to solve a math problem – than it is a state of mind.

On average, our mind receives 70,000 thoughts a day, mostly negative. In self-preservation, our mind is more likely to gravitate to thoughts that make us feel worried, tense, or dissatisfied, rather than carefree, relaxed, or content. This poses a crippling problem for us audio enthusiasts who want to listen to our music attentively, without disruption. And it’s why I try not to let my thinking overwhelm my listening.

Out of all the thoughts we most frequently have, three are most detrimental to serious listening. They start with A, D, and E respectively.




The letters form the acronym “ADE,” a German word for “goodbye,” and part of the art of listening is about saying goodbye to the negative thoughts that disrupt our connection to the music, and ultimately lessen our listening enjoyment. I promise that if you can cope with these thoughts, your ability to enjoy your audio system and your favorite recordings will take a quantum leap forward. Component upgrades, room treatments, careful speaker placements… they’re all important, but they can’t come close to the profound impact that listening to music with a clean mind can have on you. With this technique, you can have the most fabulous listening experiences even if you don’t have the most fabulous audio system.

Intrigued? Part Two will appear in the next issue.


Header image courtesy of Anne Nygård/Unsplash.

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