Dominic Marsh gets puzzled over the differences people hear with identical products and explains how he goes about evaluating and listening to new kit.
It has long puzzled me how any two people can hear different things in a hifi system and how they come to a conclusion that it can sound “right” for them, yet sound completely “wrong” to another person.
When we come to reading show reports, it has always baffled me how a collective of people can manage to demonstrate such diverse views of what they hear and most of them in all probability will conflict with what I myself have heard. Quite often I have walked into a demonstration where some individuals are engaged in the infamous “toe tapping” (Usually out of time too I might add LOL) which others will have facial expressions that look like they are draining the very last drop of juice out of a lemon segment, while some hold a facial expression rather befitting a corpse. I think the best observations to be made is when two or more people are walking out of the demonstration and listening to what comments they pass between them. This of course can range from “crap” to “stunning” and every permutation in between, or can be couched in other nondescript terms like “If I had the money . . . ” or “I get better sound at home for less”. I often wonder if someone else hears that kind of comment on the way *IN* to a demonstration can also inject some pre-judgment into the scenario. Interesting theory perhaps, but worth musing over at some point later in time. I have heard so may show systems with frightening price tags that have honky, booming, uncontrolled bass or shrieking treble, yet even so the amount of people that emerge from these rooms with a big grin on their faces could be they have a very low expectation of what real music SHOULD actually sound like.
A recent interconnect cable thread on one of the forums has also elicited that same diverse pool of opinion. Some members have stated that it is or might be a “system synergy” thing with the cable responding only in tandem with what it has been connected to; hence we get diametrically opposed opinions about it from that source of information. Some say that there is some sort of bias or hidden agenda going on that effectively kills a valid opinion straight off the starting blocks. More likely in that instance though is that some people have been swayed by another person’s effusive comments about their experiences with the cable and have effectively “pre-conditioned” their minds into expecting a certain level of performance entirely based upon another person’s enthusiasm and it has proved not to be so – with a resulting crash in perception probably greater than if nothing was said by anyone else beforehand. I say it’s not pleasant listening for me personally as I have owned various incarnations of the cable in question and don’t give a hoot what anyone else thinks.
As in the case of show reports, I believe that a good number of people will also have a favourite frequency band for their listening preferences, as in for example people that are almost fanatical about treble/midband/bass performance (delete as applicable), yet are rather non-plussed or less concerned how the other frequencies are performing which are not their priority or listening focus, while others are looking for a more generalised tonal character to the ‘wall of sound’ kind of thing which they perceive as a whole entity with little concern for the minutiae of individual notes, timbres and harmonics. Some adore the boom and tish and care not what the midband sounds like, others conversely revile that kind of sound. Maybe it’s simply because people will eulogise about only the positive aspects which pleases them and ignore the negatives until questioned what those are.
The biggest conundrum to me has always been how the objectivists claim to readily turn technical specifications into a predictable and consistent resulting sound. Never met any one of them yet that could tell the difference between a 30pf/metre and a 300pf/metre cable and they can only nod sagely when someone has told them which is which, but if it pleases them that one is ten times greater than the other then who am I to question that? They also claim that a good design off paper will translate into a good sounding component, but I have never known that to ever happen, except maybe for purely digital designs. Without exception, every design I know of personally has always been built as a prototype from drawings, then fine tuned afterwards by human ear for a better sound. That too very much depends upon whose ear is being used in that process. Or in some cases, how far back the accountants have dictated what the production costs should be pared to.
So, then good readers of Hifi Pig Magazine, how does ‘yours truly’ listen?
I prefer to do my listening in several stages and it matters not whether it is a personal purchase or if I have been asked to evaluate a component. If a new item is being delivered by whatever means, a simple and quick functionality test to make sure whoever delivered it to me has not turned it into a twisted mangled mess. Lights on, no smoke, no rattles, nothing is falling off and it makes a noise of some description and it has passed test number one, then it is switched off and ignored. It also allows me to put away any euphoria I might have accumulated waiting for the doorbell to ring when the courier arrives, the delight of opening the box or packaging, disposal or storage of said packaging, lugging components in and out of the rack and the commensurate connecting up, all of which will affect everyone’s stress levels to some degree or other I reckon, even the most hardened of professional reviewers who are indeed no strangers to such carryings on. Next, usually twenty four hours later, I have to then take into account whether this component requires some burn in, burn out, or burn up, so this is the ideal time to commence that process, then add on my own system’s warm up time for optimal performance. If I intend to do a “serious” evaluation, I make sure I am not hungry or too full either, neither hot nor cold body temperature wise, the phone is disconnected, plus the intake and outtake of errrrrrm “fluids” is taken care of too. Sounds a bit like an athlete limbering up for an event, but in my role as a reviewer it has to be done and I firmly believe that any potential source of stress is addressed accordingly for consistent listening results.
A blind ABX testing panel hasn’t done any of this “limbering up” process beforehand, so that to me immediately puts the test at a grave disadvantage at best and invalidates it at worst, quite aside from the fact that the moment any notion of a “test” is mentioned the stress levels are already climbing steadily before even the first note is heard. It is bizarre anyway that an objective outcome is sought with an utter reliance on so many subjective elements, the greatest of which is the variability of the human test participants. Go figure!
First part of my listening then is a general impression of whether or not this newly introduced component pleases me or not. It doesn’t have to be a reference or favourite recording either because that takes me into the realms of dissecting what I am hearing and I want to avoid that at this stage. I have plenty of boot sale and charity shop cheap music purchases lurking at the bottom of the rack that are ideal for this purpose, so it could be anything from Mrs Mills, to folk music, to Stravinsky and anything in between, so it gets put into the CD drawer and the play button hit. I simply listen for overall tonality and nothing else. It is very rare, but not unknown, for a component to stumble even at this early stage but there have been one or two over the years which have been quickly consigned to that popular auction website from personal purchases or returned to the submitting source for a review item. Conversely too, there have only been three items that really did grab me instantly and I fell in love with from that first contact, all of which I kept and enjoyed for many years. If I do go to a show or have a demo at a dealer’s premises, then truthfully this is far as I can realistically take an audition, because the system, room, choice of music, are all unfamiliar and it’s a black and white kind of judgment whether I like what I hear or not – even if I do take my own favourite music along. I don’t think I am alone in these situations, but I would dearly like to know where you all of you go after just listening to tonality alone in your own familiar surroundings.
Next, out comes the reference recordings that I know forwards and backwards intimately over many years. Incidentally, I have often heard that a human’s aural memory has a very short time span akin to a goldfish some say, but let me tell you this, I recently bought a CD that I last heard in the late nineteen eighties and I recalled it note for note and beat for beat, even down to the vocalist’s distinctive inflections. Am I somebody special to be able to do this? I think not.
You may not have heard nor indeed like my choices of music, but they have key elements for me contained within them that I know so well, rather than select an assault course of tortuous music that only the finest of systems can jump over, do battle with and conquer. I then split the listening into three sections, focusing on treble, mid and bass registers, mostly playing a track three times, concentrating each time on just one of those three elements and completely ignoring the other two for the moment. I can do all three simultaneously of course with music I know very well, because the cues I am listening out for will arrive at a particular time so I can switch back and forth as necessary in plenty of time. Funnily enough, I have taught this listening method to several people over the years and they were more than content prior to that with listening to a transister radio and music in the car, but now they are very critical listeners with full blown hifi systems of their own. I have created monsters!
So to some up then, a reviewer like me is trying to preach to a very broad church indeed and that is why I really am loathe to blight or indeed over praise anything that passes through my hands for review, as what may displease me or I find “fault” with (or vice versa), could in fact be absolute Nirvana to many people who are reading the review, even though it may also displease the people who have similar hearing acuity and tastes to myself. I don’t then see myself as judge, jury and executioner (for want of a better phrase) with my evaluations, I simply report what I find and then let the readers decide for themselves based upon what I have written in my review.
To make this article have more value than it has, then please feel free to add your comments on how you as an individual listen to music and how your perceive its sound, either in the comments submission panel below, or send an email to the editor Stuart Smith using the address on the contact page of this website. It would be very interesting to see if a general consensus emerges over time.