Change of scene

January 15, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

I sometimes group systems into two categories: those you can step into without adjusting, and those you cannot.

A great place to experience what I am referring to is an audio show, where room after room has a different system setup.

Enter room one and your reference disc sounds like what you would expect. Enter room two and that same disc sounds very different.

What you might find illuminating is this: the longer you listen, the more acceptable your ears are to the sound. You get used to the colorations of the system.

I personally struggle with this. If a system is so far out of my comfort zone, it doesn't feel to me as if it's musical. I don't stay and get adjusted. The transitions are too jarring.

What's been your experience?

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28 comments on “Change of scene”

  1. Some 10 years ago, when I was a retailer going to CES, I was shocked by how much new (unbroken in) equipment was being used. New kit (including all cables) can sound really nasty (to the point of schizophrenic) , especially during the first 50 hours. Back then good power conditioning was both uber expensive, and iffy. Neither did speaker manufacturers bring kit that would be synergistic with their room sizes. This compounded by not knowing how to correctly position speakers

    From your comments it sounds like manufacturers have not woken up?

  2. This reminds me of a story a friend told me that when he emigrated he hated the food. The salt was not salty enough and the sugar wasn't sweet enough. After 5 years he went back to his country of origin and again, experienced the same problem. It seems we become accustomed to what we consume.

  3. All a matter of getting used to.
    We're all biased. The taste of food, the sound of audio.
    Older audiophiles (like me) are used to the sound of class AB.
    If we all had grown up with Class D (like young people today !), we would not have any problem with that and probably would not like class AB.

  4. My experience is quite the same. Hearing something unexpected for a short time mostly results in preferring the own previous preference.

    In long time listening we get accustomed to a different sound and we immediately search for a combination of the best of both worlds, the new and the previous.

    Like that it happens to me with vinyl and digital. I listened mainly digital for several months now, with several listening periods and cross checks to vinyl. Both have preferable aspects to me, both sound great and quite similar in my setup.
    What remains at the end is knowing single downsides of both, trying to improve them somehow, match the setup with them or live with them.

  5. I have that same problem when I have listening sessions at audiophile buddies homes. I come back to my own system, after listening to a different one, and think it's lacking in some aspect. I didn't think that way before, and after a few days, I don't think that way again.

    I find audio shows overwhelming, in general. Room treatment/acoustics are inconsistent, component mix is all over the board, you can't always sit where you want, everyone is playing different material, etc. It's sensory overload with too many variables. I agree with Paul. When I step into a room that's too far off what I like, I immediately walk out. No reason to pollute my mind with something in the direction I don't want to go.

    The main reason to go to the shows is to meet folks and listen to equipment of interest. With a dwindling audio store presence and internet audio companies, it may be the only way to listen to something you have read about. I preplan for shows and go to the rooms of interest first, even if it's not the most efficient way to navigate my way. I also like to bring my own CD with me, so at least I can hear the same thing in those first rooms of interest.

  6. I remember when I put together my first serious audio system back in 1984 or thereabouts. I was auditioning all the speakers in the $500 to $1000 range at several audio stores in the Detroit area. After listening to the Magnepan SMGA's, nothing else (at the time) came close to the clarity of the Magnepan's. Even to this day, I find Magnepan's (I now have the 1.6"s), sound much better than their competitors. I often wonder if it is the Maggie/dipole sound that I love or if I am just used to the presentation
    I use high end Krell electronics, so I don't even miss the low bass that much.

    1. I have pair of 1.6QRs in the basement. I had them in my system before I switched speakers. I changed to a traditional box speaker a while back, with a more than a bit or reservation. A few weeks ago I pulled out the Maggie's and set them up again for a listen. They sounded completely different than how I remembered them. Some of what I liked about them wasn't there anymore, yet a lot of it was. It's the same system as before, but I think I "adjusted" away from them. I do like my system much better with the new speakers.

      Having said that, the Maggie's gave me so such enjoyment for such a long time......I can't get rid of them.

      1. I think that a lot of the reason why I like the Maggies is the lack of crossovers in the 1.6's. In the past, I don't think crossover technology is as advanced as it is now, especially in lower priced speakers. Just curious, what box speaker did you change to?

  7. I've also noticed that my brain adapts to sound over time, although at audio shows sometimes I leave the room before I've had time to adapt. Our aural memories are far from perfect, so if a system is at least close to what my brain expects, the brain will pretty quickly adjust automatically.

    As a video editor, I often have to both mix and color correct my corporate videos. The tricks our brains play on us apply equally to sight and sound. I was reading the blog of a print designer this morning who noticed something interesting.

    He mentions that in 2015 researchers from Johns Hopkins found that "although we can distinguish between millions of colors, our brain will generalize any color to the ‘best’ versions of a limited set of basic colors." His practical advice is to not get crazy about small deviations from the ideal, as customers won't notice the difference: "...small deviations in color just don’t matter! People will catalog the printed brand color into the right, quite broad, category. And therefor see it as the ‘right’ brand color. Only when print products are placed exactly on top of each other [will] small deviations matter."

    I think something similar happens with audio reproduction. Now, manufacturers must strive for perfection and reviewers must strive to be super picky, but out in the real world, after we've plunked down our hard-earned cash for something that we will live with for awhile, our ears might hear deviations from perfection, but our brains will take what we hear and interpret the sound as closer to the ideal. Of course, there's a lot more than this going on, but it's one piece of the puzzle as to why we get fooled.

    Take care -- Mark B

  8. "There are two types of people in this world: those who divide things into two groups and those who don't." But I digress.

    I have long maintained that the last component in an audio system is not the room, but the brain of the listener. That's where music listening happens and there's a lot of breaking in and adjusting and such going on in there.

    Keep in mind (hmmm, mind...) that what we laughingly call reality resides there, is not at all immutable, and is far from consistent from person to person.

  9. I can get used to many things but NEVER crappy, bloated, overhanging, sloppy bass. NEVER. In fact, when that occurs (way too often) I simply can hear none of the other parts of the music.

  10. I used to struggle with this at times but, thanks to Michael Fremer, my definition of reference changed forever.

    Reference would be sitting in the studio and listening to the monitors and electronics used for the final mix. All else is different and, in most cases, better.

  11. Acclimation to sound perception has high survival value - when you move from tree tops to savannah to cave your ears had better adapt. Ears are the greater part of "break-in", different sounding gear will always make you a bit queasy. This is because poisons affect your hearing in the same way as radical changes in reproduction of familiar music, so it has survival value to regurgitate your most recent meal when the auditory scene changes out of step with the visual scene.

    This is why I moved back to the East Coast after 29 years in Boulder, so I had a good choice of live music to re-acclimate my ears to acoustic reality. Now I live in an absolute world where the over-bearing euphonics of audio production (99.9% of recordings) and reproduction are exposed as distortion. I discovered that truly bad sound has taken over the world to such a degree that even conservatory musicians are affected. They still know better than anyone what real music sounds like, but they compartmentalize the sound of highly processed recordings like someone who lives in a cave and hunts on the savannah.

    I suppose this is how you can go from IRSV to Bluetooth headphones, but I hear the latter as noise pollution.

    I stopped going to shows because most of the speakers sound bad; and even for good speakers, the rooms sound bad. Further, the music everyone plays is loaded up with spatial distortion of multi-track mixing and digital reverb. The few location recordings have too much reverb, as if a stone chapel was ideal for all kinds of music. The music I bring to shows drives everyone from the room, but at least it sounds better on better systems.

    I had an interesting example last year. I went to a tuned showroom dedicated to Wilson Audio. After I played one of my live tracks to verify the high-end quality of the system setup, they played a re-mastered "Take Five", one of my all-time favorite songs going back the my first phonograph.

    I could clearly hear the studio separators and microphone differences between the instruments and it was annoying. This recording sounded great to me back when I was only listening to speakers, but after twelve years of regular concert attendance it sounded fake. I later saw a picture of the session, which showed exactly what I heard. Great system, but if a recording this revered sounds wrong, it shows how rarely great sound is achieved.

    1. L deM just curious, which electronics were you listening through on the Wilson speakers, VTL or Spectral?

      BTW > i agree with your assessment, thanks to Steve Jobs and MP3 98% of all reproduced music out there today is noise.

      1. It was a Linn Reference set: server, preamp and amp. At that level there are few peers and slight differences. I would not be perturbed by six figure gear if the recordings justified it, but well matched $1K-$5K systems hide the flaws in the content instead of exposing them.

        They spent over $50K on the room, and that is a better investment. I shudder to think of the people who drag a system like this into a "modern" interior and expect to get equivalent results.

    2. The version of "Take Five" on the Columbia album was not recorded in Columbia's studio but in Dave Brubeck's house during rehearsals for the recording session. I told a brief version of the story of how that happened in a response to J.Atkinson's comment in Stereophile on there being a "clam" in Desmond's solo. If you want the whole truth get a hold of Roger Masters. He was sent to Brubeck's house in New Jersey to fix a movie projector. Brubeck interrupted him at work & asked if he knew how to run a tape recorder. He did. It was a 3 channel Ampex. Roger recorded the rest of the rehearsal. The Columbia engineers finally liked the rehearsal version of "Take Five" better than the studio version. Roger can tell you all about the room & how it affected the sound, the microphones, how he set everything up & what problems he solved & the ones he couldn't solve. He was 17 at the time.

  12. I find that this can be a big problem because it is easy to mistake your brain adjusting to the sound for the gear "breaking in". The only thing I have found as a constant that I can use is if the sound is flat (i.e. two dimensional, no depth to the sound stage). I can never get use to that.

  13. At shows, a lot of what you are hearing is the room itself and the absorptive effects of the people in there (and frequently their verbal chatter). Much depends on where you get to sit or stand. A good many presenters have become quite adept at setting up gear in small rooms over the years--their livelihood depends on it--and those who fail certainly stand out. Break-in, or lack thereof, is often a significant factor and frequently a room will sound much better on the final day of the show. Visiting hundreds of room at a show is a great way to sharpen your listening skills, and by being an audio show groupie over the years you can learn a lot about different brands and different types of equipment. Hey, even the presenters at shows take time to listen in the rooms of their competition, so what does that tell you? But please, remember to take your conversation out in the hall so others, who have often traveled far and at great expense, can have a fair shot at hearing the music in the best possible light.

  14. Many interesting comments on this one. Sorta gives me a headache when I start to think about it though.

    I have certainly had the experience of hearing something that just turns me off, does not sound "right" to me. Similarly, some things immediately appeal, sound musical, and are well-balanced.

    Am I doing myself a disservice by not giving the initially off-putting stuff a chance? Often these are pieces or systems that others (including vaunted reviewers) claim are superlative - at least in one respect or another.

    I know folks who make "snap" decisions when comparing gear or cables. There are so many things that may affect a direct comparison (like moving your head a few inches), that I have come to feel that the only meaningful thing is long-term satisfaction on a broad range of material. If something initially appealed, then wore out its welcome, then the initial impression was faulty.

  15. I think it's the fact that our ears are so sensitive that they can adapt to almost any musical situation (except extreme loudness) that causes difficulty in assessing systems. I have also found that ANY amount of alcohol affects my hearing immediately. The highs roll off and excessive volume is no longer 'a problem'. Listening at low volumes 'reveals volumes' for me - indeed I am coming of the opinion that it is the mark of a fine system that it can play at low volume with high resolution. The only caveat here is that extraneous room noise must be eliminated entirely.

      1. For me, when I am up early before the house stirs, I can set my family room system at -62db and clearly hear what I want to (at least as long as the darn refrigerator in the kitchen does not kick on LOL). This is with most rock/folk/pop/country music from 1970s and newer. That volume is low enough I can hear it clearly in front of the speakers and amplifier but the sound is not traveling through the rest of the house. Once everyone is up and there are other noises in the house or outside I have to adjust it to about -45db for the same effect.

        Alcohol does indeed affect the volume control and the music selection (that's when Ozzy or Uriah Heer or Nazareth get played more frequently!) and that volume level can hit closer to -10db! Incidentally, I don't get the same charge out of the loud music than I used to, I think I was more used to listening to distortion back in the day from my old speakers and my succession of newer ones post-college don't exhibit that behavior. 🙂

      2. Well, that's the rub. With 'relaxed' ears, a very quiet environment, it's a matter of reducing it slowly to the point where detail starts getting lost. In db terms, probably sub 70 on average, probably. Haven't really measured it specifically. But this would vary anyway with room conditions. My point is it can be quite a lot quieter than we have become used to without losing detail, if certain conditions are met. But is probably also a fact that certain speakers will always be clearer at low levels because of build quality, etc.

  16. Funny, I had that exact experience at VSAC 2008. I walked into one room where the owner was switching from speaker to speaker. My immediate reaction to each speaker was negative but became more accepting as it played.

    I'm glad to realize that it wasn't just me.

  17. Long time ago in the 1960s I went shopping for loudspeakers for the first time. AR3 was considered the reference speaker by many experts. But it was too expensive for me and required a more powerful amplifier than I could afford. It also had a muted muffled sound , rather odd for a reference speaker. I settled on a pair of used KLH Model 6s and I was very happy with them. Still have them. In college I got to experiment with AR3 versus KLH Model 17, similar to the 6 but with a smaller woofer. AR3 had far more powerful bass but up from there it was no contest, the KLH speaker had a much clearer more accurate sound. AR3's bass was so highly regarded that AR advertised that Medical Schools used it to train students how to listen for heart sounds. My school's music department's main speakers were AR3s. A puzzle came when I heard 2 live versus recorded demos using AR3 at trade shows. How could it be that they sounded so much like live? I didn't find out until about 10 years ago. I also got to play with a couple of Altec systems including A7s and I think Valencia. They had an awful harsh treble. Still A7 was the choice of many recording studios as monitors. In Britain they used the similar but slightly less bright Tannoy dual concentric monitor. In those days studio monitors were "calibrated" using a graphic equalizer, a sweep frequency generator, and calibrated microphones once a week. This is why the tonal balance of phonograph records is relatively consistent from one brand to another. The 1/3 octave Altec Acoustavoice equalizer cost $900 per channel, far out of the reach of audiophiles. Also in those days I was not a critical listener. I enjoyed recordings, equipment, reading about it, shopping for it, listening to it. I was an audiophile. Then in 1974 I had my epiphany moment and everything changed. I was off into time and space.

    From 1985 to 2002 I could not experiment with my new toy so I decided to see what I could do to make my newly acquired AR9 speakers sound clearer, more like newer speaker's I'd heard from other manufacturers. I had a new tool, a 10 band equalizer. Most notable was Snell AII which an acquaintance had. I admired its clarity and for the first time I noted how much the treble meant. Later I was to learn why this happened for Snell, how to duplicate its peculiar coloration by other means, and that it quickly became fatiguing to listen to.

    In 1987 I went to a trade show and noted that a lot of speakers had an additional rear tweeter. So I decided to add a pair to AR9. I heard an improvement so I added another and another. They were aimed at the ceiling. Later I was to realize I was using the same equations I'd developed for my patent in a different application. Now I began to understand and could set about being less haphazard about experimenting. I also had another new toy, a CD player with 4 way repeat. This allowed me to make adjustments listening to the same musical passage over and over again to see what effect different equalizations had. Eventually I came to realize that not only did the direct and reflected sound from the speakers have to be flat, something no one else did, the whole chain back to the microphones had to be flat too. By this time audiophiles had taken over the field of recording engineering and the variation in tone from one disc to another was striking. The one size fits all theory went out the window and I realized that not only would a sound system have to be adjusted for the acoustics of each room it is in but for each recording as well. That would require at least two equalizers. Finally AR9 began to sound however I wanted it to. Finally in 2004 I took on the Bose monster. Slaying that dragon took 4 years. Integrating this knowledge with knowledge gained from my patent made it clear that the two were interrelated. That is the tone of musical instruments will depend on where they are played. If you want to duplicate the tone of an instrument as heard at Carnegie Hall, you have to duplicate its reverberation as well. It just makes the problem more interesting.

    1. WOW! I think this is the densest post of yours I have read.

      1) AR acoustic suspension has much more accurate bass transient accuracy than vented boxes. It will add a little resonance to a heartbeat, but less than other speakers. Heartbeat training should have been Pro-4A, more accurate bass than any speakers of the time and most today.

      2) AR speakers sound like live but different in your living room because the acoustic conditions are different, and because recording engineers used much brighter speakers for monitors.

      3) Horns like A7 have narrow band resonances that does not show up in frequency response measurements unless you sweep really slowly. They have tons of phase shift arising from the reflection at the mouth and sharp cutoff.

      4) Graphic EQ likewise has loads of phase shift. Phase deaf recording engineers don't mind it. This is why they use dozens of processing steps in tracking, mixing and mastering, they can't hear the temporal and spatial distortion of every knob in the studio. I don't listen to mixed and mastered recordings.

      5) What I liked about early Snells was the wide, curved baffle which has several benefits. The midrange can cover the whole band of peak sensitivity (300Hz-4KHz) without crossover compensation for the baffle step frequency; and diffraction effects are minimized.

      6) My model of hearing says that the pinnae are directional phase encoders, perceiving space by comparing the relative phase of wavefront components arriving from the room reflections to the direct wavefront in order to calculate angles of arrival for each discrete reflection. This means that the entire reproduction chain has to be flat frequency and phase, and the transducers need to meet this criterion at all angles. At least we agree on some criteria between my theory and your praxis.

      7) To duplicate the sound of an instrument in Carnegie Hall, you have to duplicate the arrival times and angles of the reflections for that instrument. Of course, most of the seats and most recordings are outside the line where the reverb power is equal to the direct sound; and most people are phase and vector deaf from listening to processed recordings on phase mangling speakers; so just having some random function of reflections works.

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