Developing critical listening skills

March 9, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

When Alon Sagee was a wet behind the ears audiophile he spent his days hanging around stereo shops. Today he is the president of the San Francisco Audiophile Society.

“At 20, I bought my first audiophile gear at HiFi Haven, a high-end audio dealer in my college neighborhood in New Jersey. This was definitely not a part of town you’d expect to find an expensive audio store. On its left was a raunchy strip club and on its right was Greasy Tony’s, purveyor of questionable cheese steaks to students, vagrants and felons alike. This infamous establishment was open all night, every night, and was staffed by the shadiest, crustiest characters you can imagine. While some of my friends frequented one or both of these paragons of local culture, I found more excitement wandering around expensive stereo systems. Names like Dahlquist, DCM Time Windows, Nakamichi, Linn and Mark Levinson populated my daydreams.

One day, as I was wandering through the store, a salesman named Peter Cuddy noticed the hungry look in my eyes as I ogled the gear on display. He seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm, and without any hesitation or pressure to buy anything, took it upon himself to teach me how to listen, not just hear.

At those fortunate times (for me, anyway) when the store wasn’t busy with actual paying customers, my new mentor taught me how to listen deeply into the music he selected, revealing to my attention new layers of nuance and subtlety that I completely missed before his instruction. Soon, I was beginning to discern not only whether the gear in question had the ability to place me in the recording venue and involve me emotionally in the musical event, but whether it could also reveal the intent of its composer and/or performer. Once again, I was completely enthralled by this new world that was unfolding before my ears.

Not long after he took me under his wing, Mr. Cuddy handed me a photocopied sheet that would serve as my main reference throughout my education. That single page of roughly typed but timeless questions cut through to the heart of what is meaningful to audiophiles.”

Alon sent me this document, entitled Developing Critical Listening Skills, and I thought it was valuable enough to offer it to you today. You can download a copy here.

I think it delivers a timeless lesson we all benefit from.

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29 comments on “Developing critical listening skills”

  1. The vast majority of that list seems to relate to the quality of the recording than the audio system. There is one question, no 22, which is probably the only question you need to ask about an audio system.

    1. Agreed. Many are traits of compression or errors of mixing, recording or performance. Unless you knew the recording intimately on a good system, it would be difficult to know if it was the system causing those effects.

      1. Lucia de L starts in 30 mins. The only technical requirements are a decent murder, believable madness and a lingering suicide. If you have to think too hard, the composer, librettist and performers have failed in their task. The idea of having to be a skilled viewer/listener is the antithesis of what performance, live or recorded, is to me.

  2. I think the quality of the recording is definitely a good part of the enjoyment that we derive from this indulgence of ours . I don’t play a lot of vinyl these days as fifty percent of my collection is from the early seventies and I must say some of the stuff they were pressing in Australia was crap . I was looking at Kraftwerk Autobahn as it was playing last track side A and the cartridge was dropping a mm or two because of a small lump , on looking at the rest of the album there are furrows and pits , I’m surprised it plays at all . The first track still sounds better than the download . And while I’m on it Riccardo Chailly Brahms Serenade no 1 a Decca recording what a load of rubbish , what were Decca thinking , about as good as Rolling Stones recordings . I’ve finished now .

  3. The town/store in question has to be NEW BRUNSWICK,NJ where Rutgers University is located. I sure remember Greasy Tony’s but not the Stereo store at all. These were all located right up the street from the Train Station in the center of town. Wonder whats there now??

  4. On a more positive note AR put out a test record from around that period of tracks from Ensayo recordings , 100 gram vinyl I still play it and it sounds much better now than when I bought it . Looks like Ensayo is putting an effort into reviving the label .

  5. Fortunately I don´t listen to music like this, not in my room, not in a life concert.
    But undoubtedly there are audiophiles out there who listen with this set of rules in their head all the time.
    I prefer to focus on the music. And when the tonal balance of the audio system is good, I´m fine.

    1. Interesting… when the silicon modifiers were used in the ears location became skewed and up became down. But after a week of use the sense of direction was corrected by the brain.

      A similar experiment was done with vision. Wearing glasses that inverted and turned everything one saw as upside down, after wearing the same glasses for a period of time (maybe it was a week) the brain made the adjustment and everything was seen as right side up. Then, when removing the glasses, another adjustment had to be made over time to get the brain to see correctly.

      Its also interesting to note that those folds in our ear lobes serve a function! Very interesting to learn that! 😉

  6. Thanks for sharing this with us. I think No. 1 is the No. 1 take-away from this list for me. An interesting challenge for many recordings and systems and a great, short-cut critical listening technique. And, FWIW, I tend to subscribe to the somewhat conventional wisdom that there are two primary factors that (more than any other) establish the “Hi-Fi” in Hi-Fi listening: 1) The quality of the recording; and 2) The listening room. Everything else may be thought of as adjustments made to extract the best from these two critical factors.

  7. Beyond what Mr. Sagee said about this episode, I believe that Mr. Cuddy would have done him a more marked favor, if he had taken him, to listen to a symphony at Carnegie Hall, or any other concert hall.

    And he would have, given there prior to the presentation, a small musicology class about the work (s) to be presented. This must include, but not be confined to: the period in which the work was written, the musical ideas of the composer, the harmonic structurers, the melodic lines etc, etc. and at the end of the concert he would have transmitted his impressions on the performance of the musicians, and the reading that the conductor of the orchestra had made of the sheet music of the works heard.

    This undoubtedly would have given Mr. Sagee more lights and would have guided him to listen to more good live music, and not to focus on the poor simile offered by the best stereo equipment.

    In the end, what Mr. Cuddy was doing, is to bring water to his mill, and it seems that he got it.

    And about the quality of the recordings in yesterday’s post I gave my impressions.

    With my respects to the moderator.

    1. I re-read your comment twice. Aren’t we talking about reproducing recorded music in our homes? I apologize if I missed your point but I don’t think anyone in this thread is trying to suggest that “Hi-Fi” is anything but a poor substitute for live music in a good venue. Did you mean that the insights to be gained at a fine orchestral performance when used as touchstones for comparing your experience to that of listening to a recording of the same performance would be a better learning experience and reference tool? If so, I can’t really disagree with that observation. But your jab at a Hi-Fi salesman trying to help a potential customer evaluate Hi-Fi choices leads me to think that was not your point. Respectfully yours.

      1. The more we frequent the concert hall and become familiar with the sound of each of the live instruments, the more we consciously realize that the current audio technique is very, very far from convincingly reproducing the sound.

        Moral: Listen more to music in a concert hall, than your sound equipment, if you really want to enjoy good music.

          This is nothing new.

        1. This is a problem for science and engineering, to find out the reasons why they are so different and what if anything can be done to narrow the gap. That’s what I started doing 44 years ago. My first goal was the perception of space. Then about 30 years ago it also included the perception of tone. Based on my own analysis and experiments, if the goal of high fidelity sound recording and reproduction is to subjectively duplicate the sound of what a live concert played on acoustic instruments sounds like, then the current approach isn’t nearly up to the task. No matter how much time money and effort is sunk into perfecting it, it just doesn’t address critical aspects of sound and hearing. To understand the problem I had to put everything I thought I knew aside as incomplete, only partially true, irrelevant, or just plain wrong and start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper. BTW I didn’t become a critical listener of tone until the mid 1980s and I’m still practicing at it.

          In my experience audiophiles including those who write reviews for magazines are not critical listeners at all, they are very poor listeners. To become a critical listener you have to be around a lot of musicians (real ones, not the pop or rock types who need electronic processing to sell their sound) and listen constantly. Go with one of them shopping for a piano or a violin. They all sound different. Can you hear those differences? JA couldn’t hear the difference between a real Steinway D grand piano and his recording of it played through Vivid speakers and didn’t understand it even when his audience who heard it tried to explain what was wrong with the facsimile. One day at Bob Kreisler’s house, President of the New York Audio Society he couldn’t hear that one of the woofers on his Snell Type AII wasn’t playing. Sure enough it had gotten disconnected.

          If you have different goals than these then none of what I said above applies to you.

          1. Definitely, that’s not with me

            I believe that my goals have been exposed through my comments from the beginning.

            I prefer one and a thousand times to attend a concert in which works of the great masters are heard performed by live orchestras not amplified, that listen to music in any of my sound rooms. with the sole exception that if it is about the enervating noises produced by “artists” devoted to “modern” music, with PA amplification; of course I prefer to hear my equipment, because this way I do not run the risk of leaving this “concert” with my destroyed auditory system forever.

            What I am against is the incessant propaganda on the part of the specialized magazines and the pseudo gurus who write in them whose knowledge on the subject and possibly its integrity are in doubt, because of conflict of interests.

            As for the list contained in today’s post, in my case it is totally irrelevant.

  8. You correctly remind us to keep our audiophile enthusiasm for this hobby in perspective. Having never seen such a list, I can identify with much on it when listening critically to my music, which is most of the time. But it has only encouraged me to attend more live concerts to properly recognize the limitations of recorded music and appreciate what I’ve got at home.

  9. I still have no idea what pace, rhythm, and time have to do with audio equipment. Exactly what are you listening for there? Please, no more of that toe tap meter stuff.

  10. I read the comments, and reread the list a few times, as someone else said, it is more about evaluating the recording, than the system.

    For evaluating a system, you need to listen to music you know well. How many of those flaws are in the recording? I think every serious audiophile should have at least 3 reference tracks that they have heard on a number of different systems. Each one focusing on one or two items on that list.

    I find when I am demoed music I don’t know, on a system that I have have never heard, I usually listen to it as a whole. Am I enjoying it? Could I happily listen for hours, or is something bothering me. How’s the sound stage, can I tell where everyone is? Beyond that I think you can tell if a system is doing some things right, such as bass and treble extension. But without recordings that you know, the music playing could have been chosen to hide defects.
    As to comparing a stereo to live music, that may be helpful to those who listen to classical and non miked, or amplified music. I have been to close to 300 shows over the last 47 years and I can’t remember a single one that didn’t use at the very least a small guitar amp and amplified vocals. Depending on the venue and performer, I often prefer the sound I get at home. A live show is more than just the music, it can be an opportunity to hang with like minded people. Experience the lighting or what’s projected on a back screen, the total experience.
    That is more true for some bands than others. A Grateful Dead show was an experience like no other. While some audiophiles were Deadheads, not all Deadheads were audiophiles. Many a Deadhead felt lucky to have a third generation cassette of a special show. That was a love of music.

    I want to thank bfotk for the Monk list. Thelonious Monk was a one of a kind guy. Ask most people to name a few jazz greats, and they will say Coltrane and Miles. And they would be right, but anyone who digs into jazz will know the importance of Monk.

    I started writing about the list Paul posted, and didn’t get back to it, until much later, so I read some of the comments. First thought was, that I thought the classical music snobs were a thing of the past [unsoundmind doesn’t count], we still have a few. While I am a long time reader of Stereophile and I don’t question their integrity, I think their founder and maybe “The Absolute Sound” hasn’t helped the audiophile world, as it has been many years since I or others that I know have bought a system with the goal of duplicating the sound of live music. They are two very different experiences and sounds. Can you duplicate a single instrument, I believe you can get pretty darn close. Can you duplicate the Who at home? Maybe with a PA system and a huge room. Would you enjoy it, I doubt it.
    A final thought, taking someone to hear what an instrument sounds like, which instrument? Do all tenor saxophones sound the same? I used to work the door at a bar that had live bands. One night before the band went on, the sax player took be between doors, it was a quiet area. He then proceeded to ask me which reed he should use, they each sounded different. So which one is the sound you want to teach someone?
    I enjoyed this one today.

  11. HiFi Haven, in New Brunswick, NJ, was legendary unfortunately before my time. We as audiophiles should be thankful for this remnant of that store as well as for it’s founder Marty Borish. Marty was originally an electoral engineering graduate from my alma mater Rutgers University. After HiFi Haven he went on to run Acoustic Research before founding NAD. NAD is of course credited with creating more audiophiles around the world by lowing the cost of entry for good sounding kit.

    My audiophile journey has now come full circle. It started while I was attending Rutgers. I went there with a Sony receiver, NAD CD player, an Aiwa tape deck and Advent speakers in toe. I graduated with an Adcom integrated, Adcom CD player, the Aiwa tape deck and TDL speakers. The story about HiFi Haven came my way much later via Copper magazine. What goes around truly does come around. Thank you Marty!

    https://www.twice.com/industry/marty-borish-nad-electronics-founder-dies-89-65592

  12. Marty must have sold the store to Stan and Ruth who were the proprietors when I was a customer from the mid 70’s to about 1980. I was just a kid back then, an my salesman Jerry always was “giving” me stuff to take home and listen to it. (Write us a check and we will hold it until you return the loaned gear) When my buddy wanted Nakamichi separates, he gave us an Ampzilla and Thaedra to take home and compare to the Nak AND a pair of Infinity Quantum 2 tower speakers. It blew my buddies mind that the GAS gear sounded way better. Stan even made a house call to fix the binding posts or fuse holder on the speakers. Ultimately he bought the GAS.

    Also it was here that I heard my first set of Dahlquist DQ10’s and ultimately bought them and set them up in my dorm.

    Good Times.

    1. Hello All
      TimmyS, great to hear from someone else who experienced Hi-Fi Haven!

      In the 38 years since Peter gave me that document, I have never once referred to it during a personal listening session. When I listen for sheer enjoyment (i.e. when I’m in the sweet spot with the lights down), I close my eyes, turn off my brain and let the music wash away my audiophile sins. With my system in its current evolution, playing well recorded material, I find these sessions to be thrilling, emotionally involving experiences. “Critical listening,” on the other hand, is different and mostly used for evaluating gear I’m auditioning or reviewing. This is when the list shines with Peter’s insights into music, which amaze me to this day. The listening set-up is often the same, but my mind-set is completely different. I enjoy these sessions as well, but they feel more like work than my personal listening episodes. I still use three LPs that I bought at Hi-Fi Haven in the early 80’s as reference recordings. I was mesmerized the first time Peter played Jazz at the Pawn Shop for me on a superbly configured system featuring DCM Time Windows, speakers that made me drool and were far out of my student budget.

      For me, the beauty of the list has not been in memorizing each point and rating the gear against it, but using the list to actually train my mind to know what to listen for in music, whether live or recorded! Before Peter Cuddy’s list and patient instruction, I heard much less of what was really going on in the music. Once the door to that awareness was opened, it was all over for me… or rather, it was the beginning of a wonderful, albeit expensive lifelong love-affair with music and the gear that can do its reproduction the most justice. Alón

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