Emotional engagement

November 17, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Here’s a good one for the measurement nerds in us all. How to quantify emotional engagement.

How is it that a technically inferior technology like vinyl can often better engage us emotionally than a technologically superior format like DSD? And to make matters worse, a vinyl reproduction of a DSD master like those we have produced at Octave Records.

How might we measure such a thing? I suppose we could hand out survey questionnaires after listening sessions, though that would seem to pull the pleasure out of the experience.

And even if we did manage to quantify those feelings, what would we conclude?

Part of the idea behind measuring things is to be able to duplicate/improve/understand in a way we can then maximize the end result. Figure out how the clock ticks and you can make more clocks.

I am going to suggest that we add to our lexicon the idea of emotional engagement. Like the nerdy PRaT some of us use, I prefer Emotional Engagement.

Joy and emotional engagement with the music. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

ht: RonRes for this riff

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

58 comments on “Emotional engagement”

  1. While when comparing analog recordings put on vinyl and digital media, we are used to a clearly bigger information content on vinyl, it always was fascinating why vinyl even also “engages” us a little more when made from a digital recording.

    The reason for the latter can’t be the more of information content as in the analog recording example. It somehow must be information added. Why can this sound better? IMO because the source recording is not perfect, nor is our whole chain. And an accurate reproduction of a non perfect source does not necessarily sound optimal.

    By the way, we all “tune” our sound by cabling, equipment choice and room measures towards what sounds best for us in our surrounding. This isn’t accurate either.

    But accurate and truly lossless reproduction (not today’s digital “lossless”) would be perfect and the goal (especially until the signal reaches the speaker)! It’s just, as long as this doesn’t apply for even the initial,stage, the recording, we will continue to be surprised that a 100% accurate reproduction of this flawed source signal doesn’t necessarily lead to best sound.

  2. Finding some sort of emotional engagement is not the only function of music.
    Sometimes it is just about escaping reality for a few hours or just remembering
    my ‘glory days’ (I think that ‘jb4′ calls it “nostalgia”)
    For some people finding ’emotional engagement’ can be as elusive as finding
    the best 3D holographic imaging from their home audio system.
    Emotional engagement is as subjective as home audio itself…so how do you
    accurately measure that & then standardise it?
    I suspect that it is not really possible to do so.

    To my mind an analogue vinyl record made from a DSD master is similar to a class D amp with tubes at the input stage…the best of both worlds; possibly?

  3. Let’s put it this way – how much does sound quality contribute to emotional engagement? Unless you’re a complete audio nerd and actually get emotionally engaged with sound quality in its own right, I suspect not as much as Paul implies. I would not relate emotional engagement to the quality of the stereo system.

    I was listening last night to the first three Beethoven symphonies (Jordi Savall’s recent recordings). The first two are steeped in Classicism. What it must have been like to hear for the first time the composer-hero burst out in the opening bars of the third symphony? I still get goose-bumps when I hear it, and it’s got nothing to do with the stereo system, it could be on the radio or in the car.

    Having engaged in HD audio for some 13 years, and vinyl, I don’t consider there to be a quality pecking order between vinyl and lossless PCM, and I was not won over by any marginal sound quality improvements of DSD to continue using it beyond a trial period. I don’t enjoy music emotionally any more or less because of the format. Sound engineering is another matter, but the quality seems to be consistently high these days not to have to worry about it.

    I suspect most people buy vinyl because they like collecting records, stream lossless PCM because there is almost no limit to what is available, the high quality and convenience, and DSD/DXD as a purely audio quality thing because you are restricted to the incredibly small number of issues (few if any I would consider listening to).

    I also suspect most people don’t see the point of high-end audio because for say $6-7,000 they can get a static stereo system with all the emotional engagement they could possibly want, or no more than $500 using headphones.

    1. No and yes.

      No, because for myself and probably many audiophiles, sound quality (no matter if by gear or a good sounding concert hall) does mainly contribute to emotional engagement. It does even so much, that music one wouldn’t listen to on the radio or a simple stereo gets accessible.

      Yes, because there are much more folks, who are much more frugal and who don’t perceive differences of an expensive stereo or don’t give it any importance. A low or medium level stereo would be fine. For them however imo “sound quality” anyway plays a role on a lower level in terms of volume level, bass content etc. No one can tell me that there’s someone who doesn’t have a higher emotional engagement when his personal preferences for an intensive listening experience are fulfilled. Those “sound quality” preferences can be as low as “for more intensive listening”… “I need a quiet environment”, “I need bass”, “I need to play it louder than background music”

      If you get goose-bumps listening to the kitchen radio and don’t need a stereo for that, your audio dealer really is a skilled salesman. 😉

      1. I think back to when I started to go to the ballet 35 years ago and sat way at the back or up in the gods. I fell in love with it and got long-range goosebumps. Over time my income increased and I got closer to the front, to the point that we could afford the best seats (thankfully still reasonably priced), and we can see every last detail of movement and inflection. We can also see the mistakes.

        I suspect it’s much the same for the audiophile who builds increasingly expensive systems. Would they be happy to go back to a budget system? I probably wouldn’t be that happy going back to sit in the cheap seats. It’s what we become accustomed to, but I still don’t think it makes much of a difference to the emotional connection.

        I think of how radio broadcasts of music were used to raise morale during wartime. During WW2 Myra Hess was broadcast daily from the National Gallery. The most extraordinary of all was the Leningrad performance of Shostakovich 7 during the siege in early 1942. The few remaining musicians from the Leningrad orchestra were starving and several died during preparations. They only managed one rehearsal. An offensive was launched to quieten the siege and it was broadcast over enemy lines as propaganda to dishearten the enemy. It turned morale in one of the longest and costly engagements in modern military history. I doubt anyone was particularly concerned about sound quality.

        1. Yes, I think that doesn’t contradict. I didn’t say emotional engagement and goose-bumps isn’t possible when just listening to a radio, I just said, there’s hardly anyone who’s emotional engagement with music isn’t stronger with noticeably better sound quality.

    2. Steven,
      I suspect that there are some ‘audio-nerds’ who get emotionally engaged with the audio gear (hardware)…they like to stare at it for hours on end, fondle & caress it’s various surfaces & parts, in an almost disturbing way, & the music is merely secondary.

    1. This whole album is one of my favorite of all time. I play it loud at least once a month. Go to the ( Lost in Vegas ) review of this track. Watching these guys listen to this track was a emotional experience. Maynard was so taken by it , that he gave them front row seats at the Vegas show.

    2. Thanks for pointing that one out, I’m listening now. One odd thing. I don’t listen via youtube, I pull up the video of what someone is suggesting then close it and search for it on Qobuz or Tidal via Audirvana. When I did that with Tool Pneuma I got 2 results for the track, one each for Tidal and Qobuz and then a whole page of results for sound effects. Pneumatic tool sounds in auto shops. It never crossed my mind that a commercial music service would host such things. lol. I won’t count that towards my “learn something new every day” goal though.

  4. A reference system is not needed for emotional engagement anymore than a specific playback medium or recording technique is. It’s more about the music and the setting.

    In fact being locked into a “sweet spot” critiquing recording and equipment quality wondering about “what if” may take any emotional joy away. It may even possibly bring out emotional angst.

    “Emotional Engagement” says nothing about the system. Much like PRaT, it’s a descriptor for the individual listening and how they feel at the moment.

  5. To me, emotional engagement is about the quality of the music and less about the technology it is recorded on. A mediocre album recorded on DSD will never move me.

  6. I agree with SntbcwS, Bill H and Mike (I’m in a good mood today).

    Music first. BY FAR the most important part of the experience. Soundquality is of lesser importance, call it a bonus.
    Despite the fact that PmcG drums into our heads on an almost daily basis that soundquality is the most important, the recording is only a TOOL.
    Speaking of which…thanks for the link Nephilim 81, good choice. Loved it 🙂

    Off topic : China vs Australia 1 – 1

  7. Emotional connection with the music is truly one of the goals, and why music plays the role it does. One of the items you might try, and I oft recommend, is to use a really decent sleep mask or a completely dark room to enjoy listening by. Sight deprivation (absolute black) can enhance the experience.

      1. I agree whole heartedly! I turn all the lights off and then close my eyes so I don’t notice the glow from equipment displays. When there isn’t anything else to distract your mind it takes music to another level.

  8. For the past four or five months I have spoken about my change from being a critical listener to an emotionally engaged listener. To accomplish this ability the quality of the recording helps me relax and engage and enjoy the music by consciously clearing my critical ‘monkey mind’ and allowing myself to be in the moment without any unconscious distractions. Mindfulness is not a new topic for many of us and I decided that this would be the best way for me to relax and let the music come into my being with my audio system being the conduit providing this enjoyment. Since I have taken this turn in the road and become emotionally engaged with my music I have released myself from the bonds of critical listening for the most part. There are times to listen critically but they are much more in frequent than my former listening mind. It’s easier to be emotionally engaged when instead of only considering IQ as an attribute I realized that I needed to examine, evaluate and improve my EQ. When we are happy with ourselves then everything around us makes for a happier life.

    The one issue that helps me to enjoy my music on a higher plane is to listen to higher quality recordings. I now realize that emotional engagement during my listening sessions has nothing to do with the presentation format. The recording quality is just that no matter what the format.

    Paul… you used the term PRaT in your post as if it was an audiophile term that’s related to our music systems reproduction abilities when I thought that we had discussed this before and recognized that it has nothing to do with our audio hardware or the recording format. PRaT is a musicians acronym for the synergy in performance that creates Pace Rhythm and Timing and gets our toes tapping. It is one of several aspects of how we become emotionally engaged with the performance.

    1. Well stated, Neil! I’m ready to turn-off that steady evaluative/analytical critical listening mind mode I’ve been in these past 8 months (speakers, setup changes, speaker wires(5 sets), regenerators, interlink connectors and SACD playback). Have returned $8K of components and settled in with that which has elevated my music’s playback realism and truth!

      With my many years of steady high-quality recording investments, time to just enjoy the Music, with all of its goose-bump, hair raising, catch your breath, teary eyed moments/hours of emotional involvement!! 😉

      1. Better to be an engaged listener than a frustrated critic.

        Paul’s post challenges us with enough technical issues where critical listening is useful but many technical discussion sites may cause some of us into an addiction that becomes very difficult to break. so one day I thought why the heck did I spend so much money on my music system if I can’t derive the pleasure that I deserve from it which was the reason I became an Audiophile in the first place.

  9. This art is very sadly lost today.
    But I grew up in a time, when a song told a story.
    If you can get the melody to match up with the lyrics, you have a very good thing going for you!
    In the sixties and seventies, singers and musicians had all that down pat.
    But as late as 2009, the art of telling stories threw songs went out the window right along with last night’s dinner.
    The way music is made today, sounds more like noise rather then music.
    If you just set down and listen to a love ballit from lets just say, from 1973, the song justt may very well pluck your heart strings.
    Now that’s what I call having an emotional connection to the music!

  10. The trouble with “emotional engagement” as an evaluative attribute in the field of high-end audio is that it is just too abstract a concept to be of practical value. At the end of the day it is too personal an attribute. With concepts such as PRaT it is possible, with a willing subject, to sit them down and teach them to recognize most of the key precepts, in such a way that you can end up with broad agreement on the PRaT attributes of a given system. I’m not sure that is achievable in the same way with “emotional engagement”.

    The main reason I state this is that I have definitively been “emotionally engaged” on rare occasions with music played over my car’s stereo system, and I couldn’t with the best will in the world find many positive things to say about the audio attributes of that system. I have also, on many more occasions, been “emotionally engaged” with music played at live recitals over systems with truly horrid audio characteristics.

    So I think it is fair to say that while “emotional engagement” is a great thing to be able to achieve when listening to your audio system, it is not necessarily a defined attribute of the system itself.

    1. Then I assume that you consider PRaT an acronym that is appropriate to use when discussing music reproduction.

      That is not my understanding of what this term means. I stated above that PRaT is a term that musicians use in their playing together or solo to elicit emotional engagement but we each have our own opinions.

      1. Interestingly, I only encountered the term PRaT after I came to Canada 30+years ago. It described a set of attributes that I had previously known as Pitch, Rhythm and Timing, and was one of the many new ideas that emerged during the UK’s Linn/Naim years and may even have originated with Tiefenbrunn himself. I associate the specific term ‘PRaT’ with the British reviewer Martin Colloms, which surprised me enormously when I first read it, because during the 80’s Colloms was most assuredly NOT in the Linn/Naim camp of audio reviewers. But any way up, it was a set of objective attributes that a critical listener could be taught to recognize. It is a separate discussion as to whether those remain among the most important differentiating attributes of a high-end audio system in 2021, but back in the 1980’s I’d say they definitely were.

        I confess I am not familiar with the usage of the term within the community of performing musicians.

        1. Yes I thought that to be the truth as well until a few musicians mentioned that it’s a term that they use and that equipment cannot change rhythm or timing. That’s why I responded to you in the first place. We probably both have valid points

  11. So we are debating whether it is sound or music that is engaging. Please indulge me and read through this comment. I going to assume we all have cars that we drive. Mine is a 1999 two door Tahoe. Yours may be old or new, gas or hybrid or the dreaded electric. All our cars can get us from point A to B. Now imagine that you go out to get in your car and instead of your car you find a 12 cylinder Ferrari. To help you imagine click on the link and watch a few of the videos.


    If this ever happened to me I would consider it to be the drive of my lifetime and there would be goosebumps.

    Now we all have stereo systems of various age and various gear and various cost. They all play music which I hope we all enjoy. Now, as above, imagine that you walk into your listening room to put on your favorite music and you find this.



    A stereo system that cost over $1M that requires two power amps per channel and has an active crossover system. Can anyone say they would honestly not be blown away by the sound?

    We all have our favorite music. It may takes us back in time, or has a catchy hook in it, or appeals to the musician in you ( if there is a musician in you ). Of course we enjoy this music, it may inspire us or let us relax, but IMHO, it is the sound produced by the best gear that we can sensibly afford that gives us the goosebumps.

  12. Good day Paul:

    I think that the dynamics of a phono cartridge, vibrations in a magnetic field, adds a little resonance and decay that may not exist in the recording. It can add something to a poor recording. Think back to some of the albums that were really popular in the 70’s. They were also played back over higher efficiency speakers that had a compressed dynamic range. Add in a couple of beers and the first girlfriend, it is now a great recording (emotional attachment).

    To listen to those recording on digital over a good system today, it sound flat, thin with little to no dynamics. It goes directly to the quality of the master recording. Another factor is how emotionally attached to the music.

    I’ve heard recording from the 50’s that had quality masters that sounded great on red book CD. Billie Holiday, Body and Soul, is an example. It was recorded when digital wasn’t even thought of. Over a quality revealing system, a good recording sounds fantastic regardless of the play back method. The music has dynamics, resonance and decay, you can feel the emotions the singer. Yet, a poorly recorded album sounds like crap.

    DSD holds a promise of capturing the inner detail, resonance and decay that exists in the music. Below is a link to a group that would sound great on a quality DSD recording. I personally find them engaging, toe tapping, sing along with (although I scare the neighborhood dogs).



  13. Dear Paul,

    I truly am thrilled that you like the term “emotional engagement” so much! Thank you very kindly for the credit!

    I don’t think there is any useful or sensical way to quantify “emotional engagement” between or among individual audiophiles. The “incomparability of interpersonal utility” is a fancy economics way of saying that there is no way to quantify that Fred likes vanilla ice cream more than Joe likes chocolate ice cream. I think emotional engagement is, unfortunately, uniquely personal, and only helps each of us as individuals to evaluate components and stereo systems according to our own idiosyncratic ears and our own spectrum of more or less emotionally engaging.

    I understand the approach of audiophiles who break down what they are hearing and evaluate components and audio systems in terms of discrete audiophile sonic attributes like “microdynamics,” “high-frequency extension,” and “bass articulation.” I can apply this approach deliberately to evaluate components and audio systems, but it is not the approach which matters to me.

    I prefer to evaluate components and audio systems according to how easily and quickly they allow my body and my mind to relax, to wipe my mind clear of forensic audiophile sonic attribute analysis, to connect me in a passionate way to, and to make me laugh or cry in reaction to, the music I love. This, to me, is the essence of “emotionally engaging.”

    With warmest regards,

    Ron Resnick

  14. Paul:
    As an audiophile and neurofeeback provider, I am aware of a number of studies that go right to the heart (I mean brain) of the matter in studying changes in the brain’s pleasure center while listening to music of various forms and even recording (vinyl, CD, PCM, DSD, etc.) So there is clear evidence that certain recorded forms not only appeal to us more, but my also effect different centers of the brain. As for me, I would rather just put on my favorite tunes and feel the rush of dopamine surge in my brain. Good listening to you!

  15. McCartney:
    “God Only Knows’ is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian. I’ve actually performed it with him and I’m afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian.”
    That’s emotional involvement. Love your dailies Paul (McGowan), keep ’em coming.

  16. It’s a great term, and is the best description for why I have Magnepan speakers in two setups at home. I bought a pair of the little MMGWs for my living room because I wanted something that would just disappear visually. I was so surprised when playing a familiar recording actually made me tear up, which I have to say is rare for me. And that was even before I added the sub (particularly necessary in this case). So there was something in their sound that touched me in a way the previous speakers didn’t. When it came time for new speakers in my listening room, Maggies were the winner during auditions at a local dealer as well. I wouldn’t necessarily describe my Directstream DAC as emotionally engaging — just that it was better than any other DAC I auditioned. So it’s a tricky concept, but very real I’d say. Maybe my low-power Pass diy amps with high-sensitivity speakers qualify, but that’s just more of a “sweet” sound somehow.

  17. It’s like asking how do you measure the emotional engagement of sex? What are the gages? Intensity? Duration? Passion? Bliss? Seduction? Motivation? Involvement? Heart rate and blood pressure? Does the engagement depend on reference quality? Is cost a defining factor? How important are looks? Is the experience better in the dark? How fatiguing is the experience over time? Is dynamic and punchy what you want, or do you like it more mellow and slower paced? Is accuracy all that important? Do you find yourself bored, wishing you could try a different experience with a different setup? Is the experience enduring or is it just a temporary high? Good luck trying to measure emotional responses that are influenced by so many changing physical and psychological variables.

  18. Headroom, headroom, headroom! The analog circuitry surrounding most digital recording and playback chips is mostly pathetic crap compared to what is found in most professional analog recorders, disk mastering gear and record players. Digital could be so so much better!

  19. A few points on my mind …
    I did notice it last friday. My system started to play more detail, more puncture, more dynamic. But I did not any change in the system for some time. Is it some change in the neighborhood, cold and wet weather (autumn culminates here in central europe), my all the time clogged nasal cavities? As far as change is positive, I do not complain.
    I found Zuill Bailey vol.2 on Spotify and i remembered one of the tunes as my grandfather used to practise it at home. He is forty years after his death…

    1. burphy,
      Have you ever noticed that some days your ears (hearing) is more ‘in tune’ with your home audio system than on some other days?
      I think that it can depend what mood they are in 😉

      1. Yes, I know that, but this one is something different. Let’s say i am used to something like 1-2-1-2-2-1… but this time it jumped to 3 and it is in there :-O

        1. Maybe by luck the power grid was cleaner or there was less EMI or RFI in the air. Or maybe your system started sounding better after a while when all the equipment was fully warmed up. Did the lighting level change? Maybe your brain needed warming up, or alternatively calming down. Some of my most magically listening has occurred when I was half asleep 🙂

  20. If it is true that vinyl enhances enjoyment at times, I wonder if that is because it adds an electro-mechanical buffer before amplification. It does not make sense to add components (like a preamp after a dac) to to the audio chain, but it works. The vinyl can’t add anything, but the cutting head/phono cartridge “buffer” must remove any residual digital artifacts. If that is true, I wonder if a related buffer could be the final stage of a dac.

      1. Thanks, burphy.
        Applying the KISS method, I envision something like a very small voice-coil with windings at both ends, each end in magnets: one master, the other, slave. There should be just enough mass to provide the flywheel effect. This might also improve isolation. What I don’t know is if it would really work and, more important, if it could be added cost effectively, knowing the part-cost multiplier might be seven or more.

  21. The construct, emotional engagement, is being quantitatively measured in music, marketing/advertising, and psychology as well as in other fields. If you Google “emotional engagement in…” you will see many, many journal citations on operationalizing the construct. From your suggestion of self-report questionnaires to experimental designs using physiological measures/reactions (for example, to advertisements) are being used as we speak!…Think facial recognition (including pupil dilation), heart rate, body temperature, all sorts of brain activity….many of which can be measured with your iPhone.
    There appears to be discussions of “ability” to emotionally engage (the listener) as well as engaging in the stimulus material (music). We test the range of emotional engagement of the listener as well as our engagement in the music.
    We also emotionally engage in our equipment. Perhaps part of emotional engagement with vinyl is the act of preparing the record to be played. For a CD, does the sound of the CD compartment opening and closing contribute to emotional engagement in the music?
    It’s a good sign for the world when Paul, the engineer, is trying to measure emotional engagement! Obviously, he must be much more than an engineer!

Leave a Reply

Stop by for a tour:
Mon-Fri, 8:30am-5pm MST

4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

Stop by for a tour:
4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram