How do you know?

December 12, 2014
 by Paul McGowan

…when you’re right? It’s a great question. If we design by listening and that listening is performed on an imperfect system, playing in an imperfect room (as all are and do), how can you design by listening? Wouldn’t the biases of the system and room enter into each of your designs?

Indeed this is a problem, one faced by any designer. There are two answers to getting around the problem: careful measurements and consistency.

Careful measurements are a given. When we forgo measurementsĀ and excitedly jump into the listening room with a new design it can bite us in the butt. Waiting for the new unit to go through its battery of tests on the Audio Precision is a prudent, conservative, necessary step: one I have had to learn to ‘hold my water’ until it’s done. With the assurance of careful measurements in pocket, we move forward with the listening.

But then there’s those pesky biases of the system and room. So the trick with this phase of design is rather simple, yet tedious. I have a suite of recordings I turn to for consistency. These ten or so recordings vary from the very old to the more recent and embody all types of music: Pink Floyd, Mahler, Buddy Holly, Dallas Wind Symphony, Turtle Creek Chorale. So varied in content are these choices that if the design displays a consistent problem or emphasis it’s quite obvious within a few moments. Too much this, too much that, not enough of whatever.

In your own life and experiences no doubt you do the same thing: constantly this pattern or rarely that pattern, you see a consistent resultĀ emerging.

The beauty of this method is that it works for you at home and for me in Music Room One. It is the basis of all design decisions.

It’s consistent.

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9 comments on “How do you know?”

  1. Hello Paul.

    I guess that an amp is perfect when the AD conversion of it’s output is bit-perfect identical to the digital file fed in by the source.
    The next test bench job would be to judge whether the amp can deliver a uniform power output to real-world speakers having varying impedances over frequency. Power output under step-response conditions of course.

    The only possible listening test could be to play an instrument that was recorded when played live in the listening room.
    However this will never work because the instrument will create different reflections and room modes in the listening room than the two speakers!
    Thus the final judgement will always remain a matter of personal and most individual taste!

  2. Designing by NOT listening seems a bit odd. If your room is not perfect and your system is not perfect, the only perfect thing left is your ears. If your ears get it right, who cares about the room or the system? Well, JA maybe… šŸ™‚

    1. The problem is your ears aren’t perfect. They’re good for picking vanilla from chocolate but that’s personal and a different problem from fidelity of reproduction. John Atkinson uses both measurements and ears to make the best decisions he can. And it is an imperfect situation until there is ‘perfect’ fidelity, something we’ll never see. Hopefully we get closer and closer with more steps forward than backward.

      1. I have to agree, my -or anyone elses- ears are not perfect. They are, however, all you’ve got to judge music by. If your ears like it, who cares about what a graph says? Likewise, should you continue to listen to a setup that graphs say is perfect, but that your ears don’t like? I don’t think so.

        1. depends on whether you are concerned with accuracy or what you like(totally valid for you as an individual). But the use of measurements and graphs gives clues on what you hear and vice versa. You need to use all the tools available to you even if no single one is perfect.

          And if all you do care about is waht you like it can be difficult discussing reproduction with others.

  3. Paul, I don’t think you answered your own question. What do you measure? What do you do when there is a conflict between what you measure and what you hear? There are a lot of questions about what you hear related to variables including the variable of YOU over time. You were very enthusiastic about the Hypex amplifier….until you heard the Sonic Frontiers amplifier. At that point not only didn’t you like it anymore, it couldn’t be salvaged to meet your expectations. The IRS changed its sound after Arnie moved them around in your room. What if they moved to a different room, would the amplifier still be the right one? Very few people have Infinity IRS Vs. What about other speakers. You were sorry to see the Magneplanars go. I’ll bet you’d be even sorrier to see them come back replacing the IRSs. 20 recording cuts may be representative of the 200 you said you mostly listen to but what about the other 39,800?

    So how do you know when you are right? IMO you don’t. All you can say is that you think what you hear sounds like you expect it to based on your memory of the real thing assuming you have any familiarity with it at all. As an analogy (audiophiles seem to love analogies) for those of you too young to know and those too old to remember, in the early days of color television there was a constant problem adjusting them. On one channel the color of human Caucasian flesh was too green, on anther it was too purple. On some channels it was too pale, washed out, on another too saturated, cartoonish. It was said if you get the flesh tones right everything else would be right too. Was that true? It was joked that the system called NTSC stood for “never the same color. Then broadcasters started to add a video reference signal called a VIR which allowed the TV set to adjust the color automatically. But even that didn’t always work well. So they provided you with means to override those settings and regain control. They also incorporated sensors to automatically adjust the picture according to ambient room lighting. Which image was right? We don’t know. Even today, if you go into an appliance store you’ll see dozens of TV panel sets and no two look exactly alike. Not only do they all have a variety of user selectable pre-programmed adjustment settings, they offer custom setting options where you can override all of them manually. Same with your computer display. Once I tried for days to get two different model LCD monitors from the same manufacturer connected to two different computers to look exactly alike. I couldn’t. Even if they were the same for one web site they weren’t for another. This included using the video controls inside Windows. I concluded it was because the video cards in the two computers performed differently.

    So when you figure out how you know when you are right…please tell me, it’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for a long long time.

  4. Just perhaps good sound is the absence of irritants rather than the inclusion of everything “real”.

    Witness the freaking out on the user forum that DS may be too “soft”. Horrors!

  5. well if it isn’t Percy Wilson’s Zanzibar fallacy again. Most of what we humans judge often ends up in circular reasoning. If the circle is big enough it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking there’s a beginning and an end.

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