It’s the setting that matters

July 23, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

If I am critically listening it’s important that the setting be right and that I am comfortable with my surroundings.

That comfort level matters for me because in order to easily hear sonic differences I have to be relaxed and not on guard or self-conscious about being judged.

It is part of my nature to freeze up if it feels like I am on trial—never a good thing in school when tests were what determined your place in the educational rankings.

Your mileage may vary.

I think it’s valuable for each of us to self-examine our strengths and weakness as listeners and evaluators.

I, for example, am far more accurate when I don’t know what’s on offer. If a listening session starts out with prejudice it takes time and effort to wash away those preconceptions. Much easier if it’s merely A and B from which to decide.

As in most things in life, we do our best work when our comfort level is highest.

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20 comments on “It’s the setting that matters”

  1. As in most things in life, I do my best work when it’s only me in the room.
    You can only effectively compare between two components or loudspeakers
    at a time, so if there are more than two items to compare then you need to
    proceed with two at a time, ie. choose ‘the better’ between A & B &
    compare the ‘winner’ of said A & B between it & C, etc.

    The best way to listen critically, stress free, is to close your eyes so that
    your tympanic membranes get priority with ye olde grey matter.
    If you are listening in an environment where you do not feel at ease closing
    your eyes, then you are definitely in the wrong environment for critical
    listening, in my not so humble opinion 😉

    **Off Topic**
    Vale John ‘Strop’ Cornell (1941 – 2021)
    (“That’s not a knife…THAT’s a knife”) – ‘Crocodile Dundee’
    The brilliant man who helped bring ‘World Series Cricket’ (ODI) to the world
    stage, along with Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer AC (1937 – 2005) in 1975.

    1. Wait! What? Strop is dead! That’s not right, he wasn’t old enough!
      His anti hangover ‘bombs’ were legendary, stirred with a spoon of Vegemite.
      I was just a nipper then…

    2. Was it World Series Cricket that introduced the little duck that waddled along the bottom of the screen at the appropriate moment? WSC is long forgotten, but the duck lives on.

      A good audio dealer will make comfortable and relaxing rooms so that customers can best appreciate the sound when selecting products. My wife loved the dealer’s chairs so much she bought a pair of them. I finally got to sit in one this morning.

    3. Good morning FR!
      Listening with your eyes closed?
      For me, that’s a real easy one to do.
      If you’re a blind man, which I am, you don’t have to worry about visual distractions.
      Not that I’m bragging or bosting, my ears pick up things that most of my sighted counter parts don’t even hear.
      If the sound is a little off, I’m quick to point that out to people.
      But this is what both you and I have in common with each other.
      We do our best work, when we’re alone.
      Thank you for posting this comment!

  2. I would venture to say that what Paul considers critical listening is on a different level of critical versus many others. He’s doing it as a business owner. He gets it wrong, the business can suffer.

    When someone like me listens critically it’s usually for something specific to a piece of individual equipment. I get it wrong and some business may have just had a sale increase due to a stupid customer.

    As a consumer who’s back in the ‘audio market’, the listening test is no longer something to be dreaded. The dread comes from finding the time, somewhat close dealers, or internet sellers with an extended home trial period. In the home auditioning case the comparison is typically made against what one currently has. At least in the dealer scenario there are usually many showroom floor models, directions to go, side by side comparisons can be made, and if done right, then what ever someone is interested in can be heard in many incarnations. Plus being at dealer is not a once and done event.

    So I’ve almost given up any kind of critical listening at home. I’m there to enjoy, be entertained, and relax. If I can’t do that, then it’s time to throw ‘critical acclaim’ out the window.

  3. Paul, I feel so sorry for you because I have a close friend who also froze up when it came to exams and test in school. He made it and got to do what he wanted to do, but it was such a struggle for him. He is today a very happy man.

    I hate pressure. When I am under pressure I can’t sleep and often I can’t eat. Final’s week in college used to tear me apart, one high pressure exam after another ( in most courses the final was at least 50% of your grade. ) Now here is the weird thing. The result of all the pressure was usually straight A’s. Pressure used to make me preform at my very best. Since I have retired I do everything I can to avoid pressure. It took three years after I retired to not have any more pressure nightmares that were weekly occurrences when I worked. I still do not sleep well and I have been retired for 10+ years.

    Now as to an A versus B shootout between to pieces of gear or two vinyl pressing of the same music. I can’t think of a more fun thing to do. I have no skin in the shootout. I did not design or build the gear and I had nothing to do with the vinyl pressings. Let the games begin.

    1. When the going gets tough, the tough get going!

      The night before my final university exams I went to an Italian restaurant and we ended up watching Liverpool beat Roma on penalties in the European Cup Final. What a night that was.

  4. I wonder how much those factors come into play when AB and ABX trials are conducted. Plus things like lighting, extraneous noise, how comfortable the seating is. That, and using untrained ears on some tests.

  5. Listening for the love of music is what I would prefer to do at this stage of my life. When I am relaxed and enjoying my music I prefer to use known source material (I’ve got plenty) so that I don’t snap into the ‘critical listener’ (Jekyll and Hyde transformation) that I often became in the past. It’s easy to leave being in the moment to become an audio system critic every time I hear a new recording so I don’t try on my first listen to enjoy the music.,” Instead, I trying to take a balanced emotional position to critically define what I just purchased. I know the positives and negatives of my system well enough so I don’t look to place blame in that direction on my first listen. On occasion, I just shake my head and say to myself why the heck did I buy this CD or vinyl record even though the reviews were good. I have no problem returning either of these mediums when that option is allowed.

    I don’t envy anyone in your position Paul. The pressure is always on whether you want it or not. I think the best way to enjoy listening is to realize that we’re not in school anymore taking exams. We’re just trying to enjoy ourselves by settling into a great musical experience.

  6. Paul, it’s hard to believe you would freeze in an exam, but you are so comfortable in front of a camera and microphone. And your writing seems to flow effortlessly. Most people do not freeze in a written test but freeze up in front of a camera.

    As for freezing on an exam, I once interviewed for an undercover position with the CIA. One step in the eight-month interview process was an essay exam in a room in an anonymous building in Arlington, VA. About twenty or so applicants, who looked like suited geniuses, were issued blank essay books and pencils. The time limit was one hour. The question was (paraphrased): “The Russians have launched a confirmed missile attack on the U.S. The missiles will arrive in thirty minutes. What advice would you give the President of the United States?” As I watched the other applicants open their books and feverishly write page after page on the subject, I sat there for thirty five minutes with blank sheet panic, unable to compose a single meaningful line on the subject. In the last twenty five minutes as many applicants finished, turned in their books and were leaving the room, I was just starting to write. I was able to fill only about two thirds of one page before I ran out of ideas. I wrote something like: “Under those circumstances there is only one advice to be given: Confirm the missile launch with military leaders and then follow the strategic response protocol that has already been established through months of military and geopolitical analysis and planning in preparation for such an event. Time being of the essence, the response must be timely and precisely as programmed, all factors and contingencies having already been thoroughly assessed and incorporated into the response protocol.” I probably added a few caveats, but essentially I said, “Gotta go with the plan…too late to develop a new one.” Somehow I passed the exam. Maybe they were impressed with my brevity and commitment to protocol? I would love to have read what the other applicants wrote, and how they filled up twenty pages on that awful subject.

  7. Wow, Joseph. What a story and what a great answer!! Love it.

    Yeah, I think my fears go back to a very stern father who demanded instant response or it was the belt.

    I am totally comfortable in front of an audience or a camera.

    Odd combination.

  8. Manufacturers of audio equipment will, I presume, at some point sit down and listen to their designs, in the context of meaning their design objectives.

    That’s not my role as a consumer. I’ve on occasion heard products and they have struck me as sounding good. Most of my purchases have been done that way. I would not necessarily be expecting it and I could be standing in a room at a dealer event not paying much attention. It’s not very critical, it just choosing products because you like the sound they make.

  9. I choose products of which I like the sound when I play music.
    Some 40 years ago I used the “obligatory” test cd every now and then to be “sure” I bought the “right” speakers. Bass deep enough, does the tweeter tweet enough etc.
    But that was 40 years ago today…
    Nowadays I feel that is ridiculous.
    Music tells me everything I want to know about the sound. In the right setting of course. Think espresso, beer, wine, outside preferably dark.

  10. Talk about setting.
    We were finally back at the Hollywood Bowl last night after two years. There were a few high altitude clouds that made the sunset pink. There was a guest conductor, some barely passed teenage years Venezuelan kid. The first piece was a bit messy, some new composer.
    Then Rachmaninov’s second piano. Somehow, the night made it perfect. It wasn’t all perfect. The PA system was a little disheveled when it started and there were a few disconcerting issues between orchestra and piano.

    But what a night!

    The only dithering and quantization effects were the three helicopters and two small airplanes that passed by. Early, with the first piece, there was some faint noise from the 101.

    No audiophilia nervosa, not perfect sound. But the setting made for a perfect evening. Especially after the early picnic, some nice wine and meeting old friends with season tickets close to ours.

    It is all about the setting.

  11. Being in a relaxed, low stress setting almost always means being at home. Sometimes it might mean being in a dealer’s show room assuming it’s one that is pleasantly appointed and separate from foot traffic in and out of the store. But at an audio show I don’t think it’s possible to be in a low stress environment: too many people, too much distraction, and pressure to “move along now you’ve heard enough.”

  12. Hi Paul,

    I understand your theory, but I listen to Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales Podcast and have read several of his books, he and dare I say, I may agree with you. Being out of you comfort zone, often produces the best results.

    There appears to be substantial evidence to support this in his books and podcasts.

    In particular Series 1 Ep7 – Bowie, Jazz and the unplayable piano discusses several examples of people being taken out of their comfort zones and producing extraordinary results Discusses the Koln Concert – Keith Jarrett, David Bowie and Brian Eno.

    The rest of the Podcasts are very entertaining too.



    PS: Vale John Cornell

  13. Very simply I agree with all of it.
    Environmental factors and comfort levels make a huge improvement in my concentration levels and physical relaxation levels as well.

    The writing is simply on the wall with this PM post. 😉

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