Lowering our guard

November 17, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

We learn from very early on to protect ourselves from pain and unpleasantness. If something is too loud we cover our ears and move away.

On a more moderate scale, we do the same thing when listening to music. If something is too piercing, bright, screechy, or objectionable our ears tighten up as a form of protection.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when music is natural, open, and inviting, our ears relax. We become more open. We invite in the sounds.

I often think of this as a safety valve. The better the system and the recording the more open the valve.

This observation is intriguing because it suggests our hearing is variable. Unlike the wags who would have us characterized as machines that can be cataloged and judged based on A/B testing in a vacuum, I would suggest circumstances skew those results.

Imagine an A/B amplifier test where a poor recording is employed. Listener's ears are tightened up to the point where they cannot relax and hear into the music.

I have long preached that surroundings, environment, and circumstances play an equally important role as the electronics and recordings themselves.

If our dukes are raised for a fight it's unlikely we can (or should) lower our guard enough to enjoy the music.

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20 comments on “Lowering our guard”

  1. Our ears do not tighten up. We can exclude light because we have eyelids. We do not have earlids. Dolphins can close their ears. Our brain, however, has a good capacity for tuning into and away from specific sounds. We can do it in a busy room with lots of people talking, when we only want to hear one person, and we can do it walking down a noisy street, not hearing the traffic. It is an issue of some scientific interest. Google "Acoustic Ecology" and read all about it.

    1. I agree with your comments. A guy in McGill University Montreal Canada is investigating human response on this subject. He has clearly identified a link between music we like and that which creates a different response from the brain. This is, if I understood correctly, identified by a small generated difference in skin conductivity. Apparently we perspire more when we hear something we enjoy.
      Hey-ho but well above my pay grade.

  2. It is my experience that an excellent recording can make an average system sound
    pretty damn good & a poor recording can make a high-end home-audio rig sound 'meh'.
    So, I believe that the quality of the recording is the most important link in the audio chain.
    'Listener fatigue' is often not immediately noticeable...it can take 2 or 3 hours to set in,
    but when it does, you get an overwhelming feeling that you want to stop listening to the
    music coming from your audio rig.

    1. Many years ago I was at my cabinetmaker's factory where he had a TV cabinet he'd made for Rowan Atkinson. It was done with beautiful marquetry, lots of rosewood and walnut, and on the pillars either side in ebony were the words "aperite portas videre mundum" (in capitals, of course). What would your hifi cabinet say? Frater, certe petra et volvunt? 212-3, or 3-212, depending.

      1. Now come on Steven, you know how I detest Hi-Fi cabinets.
        My gear is on bamboo boards on the floor.
        But I like "Brother sure can Rock 'n Roll" 😉

        Btw England 287/9 Australia 239/3 with 13 overs remaining 😀

          1. They call Adelaide the city of churches.
            Ironically it has also been host to some
            of Australia's most gruesome murders.

            I'm on the third floor; maximum siccitatem.

  3. After periods where I listen frequently to my system, I start listening to the trees instead of the forest. When that happens, rather than starting to try and solve something, I take a few weeks away from it. Most of the time, I come back and things seem good again. The hardest part of this hobby is staying at the forest level.

  4. It is incredible that our brains have a defense mechanism towards harsher tunings and frequencies much like many other things on this planet.

    I don’t take my hearing for granted and life is too short for bad recordings!
    Man…I sound old. 🙂

  5. I think our hearing is variable but is that down to our ears or our brain? I tend to listen at generally the same level these days but in the past I’d be listening and thinking, this needs a bit more so up went the volume. After a while my ears/brain had adjusted to this level and it needed a bit more, so up it went again, and so on, until the end of the session when my ears would likely be ringing, or was it my brain?

    It’s a similar phenomenon when you come off the motorway at 70mph and drop straight into a 30mph zone, it feels disproportionately slow.

    BTW, thanks for teaching me the meaning of ‘plethora’. It means a lot. 😉 🙂

  6. Of course we do not have ear lids. The only ways we have of protecting our hearing against sound that would damage our is to either shield our ears ( ear plugs or ear muffs ) or increase the distance from the source of the sound ( run away ).

    We do, however, have the ability to tune out (or tune in ). When I was a younger man and went to audio shows in NYC the rooms with the best gear were always play dull boring classical music. I hated it. If they were not playing classical music they were playing jazz which I have never understood. I wanted to hear how four guys where three of then played electric guitars ( one of them a bass guitar ), the fourth played a drum kit and they sang songs with catchy lyrics sounded on their gear.

    Now I do realize that not all classical music is dull and boring, that some jazz is easy to listen to and that not all four piece rock bands make good music. My point is, if you tune out because you do not like the music it is very hard to judge if the gear is good or bad.

  7. A lot of these Paul's Posts query what is established science. For example, we don't hear sound, we hear what our brains tell us we hear. That is a mixture of the physical, the subconscious and the conscious. We also to some extent predict what we hear, it's stochastic, as established in neuroscience. Acoustic ecology is a lot to do with how we interpret sound. For example, if we hear a piece of music in identical conditions, do we react to it the same the first time we hear it and on subsequent occasions? Obviously not, but why should that be. Then there is the issue of bioacoustics. Humans are visual creatures. The cochleal nerve has only about 30,000 nerve fibres, the optic nerve about 1,000,000 fibres. Our brains are flooded with visual information, why most of us appreciate recorded sound is fundamentally limited by the absence of visual stimuli of performance, and why we hear better in the dark. Light levels control the human circadian system, heaven knows what sound controls. If you are focused on trying to hear noise from your system, or Paul's "inner details" you may miss the overall sound image.

    Listening in the dark has its problems. You may cut out visual light, but you are cutting out the non-visual light that over 30-60 minutes can result in major changes in your metabolic and hormonal systems. It is better to have already been inside and away from strong natural light for some time. This affects our brain function and hearing.

    There is a corollary in the the conductor Herbert Von Karajan, whose great strength was the big picture, the great swathes of Beethoven and Strauss. He struggled with the inner details of the sound palette of Mahler, which he performed and recorded rarely, and only late in his life. He was more at home with No.9 and Das Lied von Der Erde, for obvious reasons.

    On top of that, our hearing goes to hell as we get older, and it is unavoidable. Our brain compensates for hearing loss, just as it can compensate for bass nodes. Bass dropouts are easy to hear doing a frequency sweep, but near impossible when listening to music because our brains fill in.

    So when Paul or Fred or anyone else says anything is best, or better, I don't believe it. A familiar piece of music on a portable radio can sound better than an unfamiliar piece on the world's best stereo.

    I wish there were some answers, maybe there are, so I just go along, or sit at home, and enjoy.

    1. This is an excellent summary and it explains subtly why to “test” equipment you must try to reduce or eliminate other distractions from our “brains”.

      The example of hearing aids not helping people in noisy environments from hearing individual voices should be obvious.

  8. Paul: "I have long preached that surroundings, environment, and circumstances play an equally important role as the electronics and recordings themselves."

    IMO Too many of the dedicated listening rooms that I see feel like sensory deprivation chambers. The systems may be great, but the lack of any other visual stimulation "forces" focus on individual trees, rather than the forest.

    Think about concert halls. They are frequently elegant. Light is low not dark. We can occasionally look around and notice things and other patrons (sometimes annoyingly so! But that is a different issue.)

    Look at the PS Audio listening room. It is what I think of as a sensory deprivation chamber, but in this case, it needs to be. The only thing to focus on is the system. This type of room at home can encourage hyper-focus on trees rather than the joy of the music. In fairness, this is good because it is a PS product development room.

    I want Paul to make sure the details are right, so when I install M700s in my more elegant listening room I can focus on the forest because he has focused on the trees for me. But I would have difficulty listening in a sensory deprivation chamber unless I was evaluating a system. In that context, I might admire and enjoy it for an hour or two.

    I apologize to those who love such listening rooms. I have seen pictures of some amazing and dramatic ones. They have clearly labored hard to develop superior acoustics. Indeed, I have learned from and integrated some of their ideas in my room and system.

    It is just not the right setting for me to listen to great classical music. I have a series of acoustical interventions and adjustments. But I prefer oriental style rugs underfoot, a lit fireplace and sconces ahead, and elegant furnishings and wall hangings for my listening. Even if it means I have money for Magneplanar 1.7's rather than 3.7's.

    Is it just me?

    1. I'm with you. My room is largely dedicated to audio and has extensive treatment, but none of it is visible. It cost more to build and decorate than the audio system itself, which was not cheap. Most classical music needs space and a reverberation time (sound -> no audible sound) of about 2 seconds. Without the reverberation you don't get the warmth. It was mathematically proven over 100 years ago by Wallace Clement Sabine. He was behind Boston's Symphony Hall, built in 1900, and still considered in the top few best acoustics in the world.

      I planned and made some rational decisions, had all the furnishings hand made, new rug, new artwork (Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick - not too big), and at the end of the day I still think it's a bit of a crapshoot (as Americans might say).

      The fireplace got bricked up and there is a green velvet chaise longue where it was because it's around the left hand first reflection.

      The most fascinating thing is to power up the stereo as when the room is bare and the sound is so appalling you then realise that room acoustics and furnishings are almost everything.

  9. After absorbing the ‘plethora’ of daily posts and all the severely differing comments slash arguments, I’m starting to think that every thing we listen to is actually a Rorschach test for the ears. No…. It is NOT a priest in a sports car adjusting an abacus with a javelin… It’s a Pachycephalosaurus with a clubbed foot juggling an antique chrome toaster and a RABBIT!!!!!

    And the best way to tame those harsh piercing bright screechy objectionable frequencies is a simple “Yes dear….. you’re right….. I’m sorry….won’t happen again.“ It also helps if you are looking down at the floor during the delivery.

    On a non audio note (see what I did there?) I had my home heating oil tank filled yesterday. It cost more than a bloody new furnace. My pacing around the house with the bill in one hand and the other hand waving about above my head and yelling customized cursing expletives for 45 minutes created way more heat than the overpriced fuel will. Let’s just say a tank of winter heat was about the same as a brand new PSAudio Stellar Gain Cell DAC.

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