Deep Dive

How Much Do We Actually Hear When We Listen?

Issue 138

In March 2021, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the announcement of Spotify HiFi, touted as delivering high-resolution “lossless” digital audio equivalent to CD-quality 44.1 kHz (a debatable definition for audiophiles and audio pros for whom “hi-res” begins at 96 kHz). More interestingly, the article implies that the majority of people who can perceive higher-quality audio are victims of self-delusion: “A larger percentage of people will only think they hear a difference, because their awareness of the quality of the file they are listening to informs their opinion of how it sounds. Still, if you are wired a certain way as a listener, the idea that you might be missing something can nag at you.”

Spotify HiFi logo.

 

This denigration of audiophile discernment reminds me of how people similarly have treated wine connoisseurs who have been fooled in blind taste tests. However, it begs the following questions: does the WSJ dismissal argument have any merit or validity? Besides the obvious fact that audio frequency ranges and other criteria can be measured and quantified, do humans hear things that perhaps they are unaware of, unless it’s brought to their attention through better equipment, kind of like seeing patterns in a monochromatic puzzle once colors are added?

Recording engineer Allen Farmelo wrote a fascinating blog entry about what he has dubbed “subconscious auditory effects.” It describes the process of how we actually hear more than what we consciously are aware of. While certain sounds are beyond the 20 Hz – 20 kHz range of human hearing, but can be felt, other sounds are filtered by the brain as unimportant or too distracting. He also differentiates between listening closely to individual elements for nuance and articulation vs. listening broadly to experience the emotional effect of music in the aggregate, or “global” listening. Additionally, he is interested in sounds that only some people can hear but not others, as well as sounds that no person appears to be able to hear, yet may get noticed by their absence from music when removed for a subsequent audition.

Farmelo does not claim to know the answers, but he is keen on keeping the questions alive for further research. He feels that working audio professionals, whose livelihoods are predicated around audio exactitude, too often unjustifiably dismiss audiophiles, who are more populous in the global listening camp. He points out that audiophiles are often the ones who create the demand to push gear specs, because they can tell the differences between DAC A vs. DAC B, which is why the audio workers have jobs.

Man listening to the radio, 1922. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing, photographers.

Man listening to the radio, 1922. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing, photographers.

 

KEF Senior Technical Engineer Jack Sharkey has explained that there is a definite audio difference between MP3 and higher-resolution CD-quality sounds of the same material. The data compression involved with MP3 eliminates the silence and reverberations between notes that make the music come alive in a space. This is something that can definitely be heard by even untrained ears, even though the ability to articulate the differences might be limited by the listener’s extent of audio knowledge and technical terms. Of course, heavily-compressed EDM (electronic dance music) would probably display this much less than classical or jazz music, where space and air between notes are vital to a performance.

A University of British Columbia study on the balance and co-dependent relationship between listening and sound-making explored the psychoacoustic differences between hi-fi and lo-fi environments and how what one hears is dependent on the degree of conscious attention devoted to the soundscape.

Lo-fi soundscapes blur distinctions and create more of an aural wallpaper environment that discourages listening for minutiae and emphasizes global listening amidst the cacophony of background sounds. Conversely, hi-fi soundscapes allow for minimal distraction and deliver closer-to-optimum listening environments, and enable the listener to fully experience music from multiple perspectives.

One audiophile blogger cites an account of how he and a colleague compared a $4,000 and a $400 amplifier and concluded that they could not distinguish any significant difference. However, after prolonged respective listening to the $4,000 amplifier over the course of several weeks and then swapping it out for the $400 amp, both of them arrived at the fact that music listened to with the $400 amp was disturbingly less enjoyable and lacked the presence and life that it had been imbued with on the more expensive amp.

While it is more important to listen to the music and not the gear, there is certainly validity and considerable anecdotal evidence for hi-fi equipment that is able to sufficiently enhance the listening experience and provide what might be described as “missing or previously inaudible material” to better enjoy and appreciate the music due to superior clarity, articulation and aural re-creation.

Referencing my own experience, I find myself listening to music more often than not as background sound for when I am writing or doing other computer work. More frequently than I would prefer, I am listening to streaming music on Spotify, YouTube or Pandora on an inexpensive Bluetooth stereo speaker, mostly so as not to disturb my wife in the next room who is also working on a computer and listening to her preferred music on a vintage CD player/radio/cassette boombox. My turntable, CD player, amps and favorite Ohm speakers are rarely used when not in storage, as my wife prefers silence, so any critical listening for me is usually with headphones.

 

JBL Flip 5 wireless speaker system. $119.95, and it's waterproof.

JBL Flip 5 wireless speaker system. $119.95, and it’s waterproof.

 

Spotify, YouTube and Pandora are like the FM radio stations of the 1970s and 1980s, where one could get introduced to new music, thanks to eclectic DJs. I have certainly learned and heard many artists whom I had never previously known about, and despite hearing them for the first time on a cheap Bluetooth speaker, the emotional content connection of their music was conveyed and I was able to appreciate it.

Getting the opportunity to hear some of that same music in a hi-fi environment opened up a wealth of other sounds that I was not aware of previously hearing: additional harmony voices, left and right instrument panning, extra delays on instruments and voices, tambourine jangles, and many other subtle but crucial instrument and vocal sounds that contributed to the music’s overall impact.

What came as a pleasant surprise to me was that after the experience of hearing that music on a better system that could deliver the extra sounds for me to hear, it seemed to reprogram my brain’s entire perspective on how to listen to it.

Listening once again to MP3-quality streaming on Spotify through my inexpensive Bluetooth speakers, I now heard the “missing material” that had previously escaped me. At first I thought that it might have been my brain just filling in the gaps from memory, but I found this held even with songs that I had only heard once before, titles of which I couldn’t even begin to recall. The effect was akin to having a stiff plastic cover over an upholstered sofa getting removed so its soft cushions could finally be experienced and enjoyed.

Did listening to the music on the hi-fi system re-train me to listen to sounds that were inaudible to me previously? Or was I hearing them all along but needed the hi-fi system to lift the veil and unlock that brain-ear connection for me to decipher the sounds?

While this may be a Kafka-esque enigma, this experience, along with the aforementioned examples, certainly makes a case to justify a Spotify HiFi. If my listening capacity to MP3 streaming music on a Bluetooth speaker can be greatly enhanced by listening to higher-quality versions of that same music on an excellent hi-fi system, or even with a set of hi-fi headphones, then why not?

Perhaps if I find that this hypothesis fails to hold up after trying Spotify HiFi, I will write a follow up article. Nevertheless, it is a subject that bears close scrutiny, and if other people share similar experiences, it would be worth it to know.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/Omar Medina Films.

7 comments on “How Much Do We Actually Hear When We Listen?”

  1. We also seeing this “learned” effect in people with color deficiency—who, when suing a color filter technology that let’s them “see” colors they previously could not—retain some of this ability even when they are not wearing the color filter assisting technology.

    1. Interesting. Was this when viewing the same subjects as before only, or did this newfound color awareness transcend to viewing new subjects as well?

  2. It is sad when the term “high resolution” is applied to “CD Quality” when so many think that CD’s Perfect Sound Forever has not been achieved. Who knows what is happening to those “packets” as they fly throughout the world to reach us.

    For many, not knowing what they are listening with (quality headphones or speakers), maybe CD redbook IS enough. For most audiophiles it is not. But since the streaming services are not doing anything more than passing along CD content they will find a way to market it as something new and better.

    I will remain a physical media guy for a long time and listen to real high res at 2496, 24192, and DSD/SACD. I wish all “remasters” did sound better, and some do, but most not.

    I am not sure that for “most people” it is the convenience they are drawn to and the current state of affairs is good enough. Now that the pandemic is nearly over and people are on the move the extra money for “CD Quality” might not get people to spend more a month.

    1. Sad, but true. As limited as CD 44,1 kHz quality is, however, it still beats MP3 quality hands down for any attempts at more critical listening.

    1. In what context are you bringing up listener fatigue? Are you implying that listener fatigue is responsible for not hearing some musical elements on cheap equipment?

  3. I have hearing aids now but I use flac and high res. sound
    I can hear more depth and nuance in the music
    especialy acoustic recorded music
    I will keep listening till my ears and memory go

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