How to be a Better Listener
The practice of evaluating the quality of audio equipment by careful analytical listening is very different from listening for pleasure. The goal isn’t to enjoy the musical experience, but to determine if a system or component sounds good or bad, and which characteristics of the sound make it good or bad. I want to look at what I’m hearing so that I can form judgments about the reproduced sound. I can then use this information to evaluate and choose components, and to fine-tune a system for greater musical enjoyment.
Evaluating audio equipment by ear is essential, today’s technical measurements simply aren’t advanced enough to characterize the musical performance of audio products. The human hearing mechanism is vastly more sensitive and complex than the most sophisticated test equipment now available. Though technical performance is a valid consideration when choosing equipment, the final arbiter of good sound should always be the ear.
Many newcomers to high-performance music reproduction, and even a small fringe group of experienced audiophiles, question the need for listening to evaluate products. They believe that measurements can tell them everything they need to know about a product’s performance. And since these measurements are purely “objective,” why interject human subjectivity through critical listening?
The answer is that the common measurements in use today were created decades ago as design tools, not as descriptors of sound quality. The test data generated by a typical mix of audio measurements were never meant to be a representation of musical reality, only a rough guide when designing.
Given a massive research budget, it may one day be possible to more reliably predict sound quality through measured performance. But that day is a long way off. Until then, we must listen.
The more I listen, the better a listener I’ll become. As my ear improves, I’ll be able to distinguish smaller and smaller differences in reproduced sound quality, and be able to describe how two presentations are different, and why one is better.
Here are some broad statements about what distinguishes good from superlative sound quality, and what audiophiles value in reproduced music.
Good sound is only a means to the end of musical satisfaction; it is not the end itself. If a neighbor or colleague invites I over to hear his high end system, I can tell immediately whether he’s a music lover, or a high end fan more interested in sound than in music. If he plays the music very loud, then turns it down after 30 seconds to seek my opinion, he’s probably not a music lover. If, however, he sits I down, asks what kind of music I like, plays it at a reasonable volume, and says or does nothing for the next 20 minutes while I both listen, it’s likely that this person holds audiophile values or simply cares a lot about music.
I’ve noticed an unusual trend when playing my system for friends and acquaintances not involved in audio. I sit them down in the seating position that provides the best sound and put on some music I think they’ll like. Rather than sitting there for the whole piece or song, they tend to jump up immediately and tell me how good it sounds.
When I begin listening, at someone’s house or a dealer’s showroom, I don’t feel the need to express an opinion about the sound. Sit and listen attentively with eyes closed, letting the music, not the sound, tell how good the system is.
All audio components affect the signal passing through them. Some products add artifacts (distortion) such as a grainy treble or a lumpy bass. Others subtract parts of the signal, A fundamental audiophile value holds that adding something to the music are far worse than removing something from the music. If parts of the music are missing, the ear/brain system subconsciously fills in what isn’t there; I can still enjoy listening. But if the playback system adds an artificial character to the sound, I am constantly reminded that I’m hearing a false reproduction and not the real thing.
Pitfalls of Becoming a Critical Listener
There are some dangers inherent in developing critical listening skills. The first is an inability to distinguish between critical listening and listening for pleasure. Once started on the path of critiquing sound quality, it’s all too easy to forget that the reason I’m involved in audio is because I love music, and to start thinking that every time I hear music, I must have an opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound. Symptoms include constantly changing equipment, playing only one track of a CD or LP at a time instead of the whole record, changing cables for certain music, refusing to listen to great music if it happens to be poorly recorded, and in general “listening to the hardware” instead of to the music.
But high-end audio is about making the hardware disappear. When listening for pleasure, which should be the vast majority of my listening time, forget about the system. Forget about critical listening. Shift into critical-listening mode only when I would need to make a diagnostic judgment about the sound quality, or just for practice to become a better listener.
There is also the related danger that my standards of sound quality will rise to such a height that I can’t enjoy music unless it’s “perfectly” reproduced, in other words, to the point that I can’t enjoy music, period. Although it’s not very high-quality reproduction, I get a great deal of pleasure from my car stereo, don’t let being an audiophile interfere with my enjoyment of music, anytime, anywhere. When I can’t control the sound quality, lower my expectations.
The first aspect of the musical presentation to listen for is the product’s overall tonal balance. How well balanced are the bass, midrange, and treble? If it sounds as though there is too much treble, we call the presentation bright. The impression of too little treble produces a dull or rolled-off sound. If the bass overwhelms the rest of the music, we say the presentation is heavy or weighty. If we hear too little bass, we call the presentation thin, lightweight, or lean.
A product’s tonal balance is a significant, and often overwhelming, aspect of its sonic signature.
Good treble is essential to high-quality music reproduction. In fact, many otherwise excellent audio products fail to musically satisfy because of poor treble performance.
The treble characteristics we want to avoid are described by the terms bright, tizzy, forward, aggressive, hard, brittle, edgy, dry, white, bleached, metallic, sterile, analytical, screechy, and grainy. Treble problems are pervasive.
If a product has too much apparent treble, it overstates sounds that are already rich in high frequencies. Examples are overemphasized cymbals, excessive sibilance (s and sh sounds) in vocals, and violins that sound thin.
The midrange is important for several reasons. First, most of the musical energy is in the midrange, particularly the important lower harmonics of most instruments. Not only does this region contain most of the musical energy, but the human ear is much more sensitive to midrange and lower treble than to bass and upper treble. Specifically, the ear is most sensitive to sounds between about 1k Hz and 3k Hz, and to small changes in both low volume and frequency response within this band. The ear’s threshold of hearing is dramatically lower in the midband than at the frequency extremes. We’ve developed this additional midband acuity probably because the energy of most of the sounds we heard every day for thousands of years, the human voice, rustling leaves, the sounds of other animals about to attack us, are concentrated in the midrange.
Bass performance is the most misunderstood aspect of reproduced sound, among the general public and high end experts alike. The popular belief is that the more bass, the better. This is reflected in ads for “subwoofers” that promise “earthshaking bass”
But we want to know how the product reproduces music, not earthquakes. What matters to the music lover isn’t quantity of bass, but the quality of that bass. We don’t just want the physical feeling that bass provides; we want to hear subtlety and nuance. We want to hear precise pitch, lack of coloration, and the sharp attack of plucked acoustic bass. We want to hear every note and nuance in fast, intricate bass playing, not a muddled roar.
Correct bass reproduction is essential to satisfying musical reproduction. Low frequencies constitute music’s tonal foundation and rhythmic anchor. Unfortunately, bass is difficult to reproduce, whether by source components, power amplifiers, or especially, loudspeakers and rooms.
Critical Listening Summary
I’ve summarized the setup procedures for conducting listening that will provide valid, useful information about the sound equipment that is being evaluated:
- Use the same playback system for comparisons
- Change only one component at a time
- Match levels between products under audition
- Use very familiar recordings
- Select music that reveals specific sonic characteristics; e.g., bass, midrange, , treble.
- Listen to the product for pleasure over a long period of time
By applying these techniques, I’ll be more likely to reach accurate value judgments, and consequently buy products that will provide the greatest long-term musical satisfaction.