Plasticity

November 21, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

What a great word.

noun:
1. The quality of being easily shaped or moulded.
2. The adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment or differences between its various habitats.

Plasticity very much describes our ever-adapting ear/brain mechanism.

Unlike our test equipment which we rely upon to be solid and unchanging, our ear/brain mechanism is constantly changing, adapting, and learning. It is why we can identify with remarkable accuracy the most delicate of sounds: one violin from another, the tiniest of changes in vocal presentations. And we can do this all throughout our lives despite the fact our ears aren't working as well as they once did.

If I owned a piece of measurement equipment that was constantly changing and adapting I'd send it in for repair. Microphones, analyzers, scopes, and test gear are only valuable to the extent they are unchanging. They are a reference.

Fortunately, our ear/brain mechanisms are the exact opposite.

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35 comments on “Plasticity”

  1. It makes sense that we want a 'constant'/'reference'/'benchmark' when it comes to our home-audio rigs, so that we know when our hearing is 100%, 70% or 'off'.
    Our rigs can be an unchanging 'constant', but different recordings vary & our hearing can also vary...having 'good days' & 'bad days'.
    Sometimes I'll listen to a couple of CDs & think, 'hmm...my ears aren't very happy today' & so I'll spin a CD that I know always sounds outstanding through my rig & that will give me a definitive answer as to where my ears are at for that listening session.

    I pulled out 'The Pros & Cons Of Hitchhiking' today for the first time in about a year & wow...
    first time through the O/93s; I was impressed.
    But the last CD of the day, a first release, red book (Japanese/dot matrix/no barcode) 'Reggatta De Blanc' was stunning...no compression & Stewart Copeland's high-hat just sizzled.
    Some originals don't need remastering 😀

    So Paul, when is 'PS Audio' going to start making audiophile grade hearing aids?

    1. Extremely well said. I actually do the same thing. My ears aren’t always in the mood for certain types of recordings, so yeah you go with the sure thing.

      That Roger Waters album is outstanding. Very holographic recording. I believe some specific tech and recording techniques was used to achieve that holographic sound. Amazing and that was 1983!! ✌️

  2. I can agree that plasticity is a great word but I must confess not one I have used in a sentence recently. I’ll be trying to rectify that today. 😉
    However I find the latter part of today’s post confusing and contradictory. Measurement equipment is a reference but our ear/brain mechanisms are the exact opposite, which means they’re not. Yet we are constantly told to use our ears, the ultimate arbiter of system choice. So not a reference but the best tool we have?
    Whilst our hearing does degrade with age I think too much is made of this as fortunately it doesn’t prevent us discerning differences and still leaves us more than able to enjoy our music.
    I believe it’s possible our taste buds change as we age, as well as our tastes in general, but we still gravitate towards our favourite flavours.

    1. Indeed our measurement equipment is a fixed reference. If it were not it would be defective.

      But that fixed reference is limiting. It can only tell us so much. The rest we have to interpret or figure out from the results of those measurements.

      The ear/brain's plasticity is what makes us a much better reference tool for audio equipment. Not a fixed reference (limiting), but an ever adapting reference (unlimited) that can accurately identify true sound.

      1. Now I’m really perplexed? So use scopes, meters, analyzers and all the measurement references to put you in the ball park. Then use ears as the final reference - all the while saying everybody’s plasticity is different and evolving.

        Get a few ‘specialists’ and others to agree on the correct sound and now we have a golden ear expert. It’s no wonder that very few can agree on anything audio. A reference sound system doesn’t mean much since it’s a personal choice not an accepted standard. The same could be said about musical instruments and performances.

        The successful end result is that the sound Paul likes is a likable sound shared by many. ‘Many enough’ to support a successful business. The terms correct or true as applied to music reproduction are only applicable to a given individuals ears.

        1. As I had time to ponder after writing the above reply it occurred to me the term “golden ear” could be taken as somewhat derogatory. That wasn’t my intent. Rather it may have been better stated as someone in touch with their plasticity who has years of experience and maybe some formal training in picking out absolute sound nuances . Those are qualities many audiophiles may or may not have honed to a maximum degree. ✌️

          1. You must’ve had 3 to 4 cups of coffee already today Mike… two more great responses that never even occurred to me. My comment was sort of similar to what posted in some perverted way 🙂

  3. I would say that our actual hearing and listening experience are our individual references. I believe most audiophiles have a sense of the sound quality the audiophile deems correct.

    That’s why at an audio show, for instance, there may be rooms that one walks into, listens for a minute or two, and knows this room and sound is not for them. And of course the opposite which the room sounds correct.

    There is a maker of highly regarded digital gear, that’s hideously expensive, that I identify as just sounding “wrong” to me well before I look to see what type of gear is playing.

    Other audiophiles love the sound.

  4. Why is it that my ears have zero plasticity when it comes to a poor quality recording which so far has been left out of this equation? I guess everyone is “assuming” that we are listening to the highest quality recordings.To engage in any conversation like todays post, disregarding this variable is a not the best way of conducting a legitimate discussion.

    1. The difference is between using your 'audiophile ears' for critical listening and simply being present to the music and enjoying it. You get to choose and by now, you should know where the switch is. 😎

      1. I stopped being a critical listener by 90% close to a year ago. I’ve commented about my transformation several times in my comments yet I don’t expect everybody to remember what I’ve commented on in the past. I just let the music’s essence flow through my ear/brain connection and into my soul. It’s so much more rewarding when you listen to quality recordings on a quality music system.

        It’s but one of the ways I can enjoy music. The other is by going to live venues. I’ll be at a concert on December 7th to hear a friend of mine, Emmet Cohen and his Trio. It puts listening in a different perspective than home listening. They are not the same and will never be.

        1. Sounds like you've got life in balance, Stimpy. I'm just a sometimes-visitor to this space.
          I think I watched a YouTube of Emmet Cohen. Did he do a YouTube or Zoom series from his apartment during the worst of Covid?

          1. When you speak about life in balance, that is the definition of Emmet Cohen. Yes he is a wonderful, super nice, super talented young man. Always has a smile on his face. I’ll be going down to say hi during intermission. He’s becoming very popular lately being on national TV and news articles for being interviewed about how he turned the pandemic into what is a once a week live nightly small jazz club. Sort of like an after hours jazz club. I’ve never seen musician market themself online like this.

  5. Fortunately our ear brain ability’s allows many of us to fill in the gaps between measured sounds and heard sounds. For instance, AM mono radio in our cars whilst listening to popular music that wasn’t always recorded well or broadcast well. Tastes change as does our ability to filter out the wheat from the chaff. The only constant is change.

  6. It's a plastic world. Everything manmade and in nature has plasticity. Materials like concrete, steel, wood and glass have plasticity indexes that describe their flexibility and ability to adapt to different loads and stresses. They creep over time and become more brittle and rigid. People, like materials, have varying plasticities, We have to exercise our bodies and brains as we age to optimize the plasticity we have left. "Use it or lose it."

  7. I agree, our ears can hear things that cannot be measured. Mainly when a musical instrument sounds like a musical instrument and then there's the phase effects on sound. Our ears detect correctness in music and our systems.

  8. I just had this experience last night when I turned on my equipment and began listening to the latest Carmen Sandim sacd. The bass in the beginning "Mini Brazilian Beasts" was too tight and had no body to it. It was all pluck with no resonance. I had just listened to this the night before through headphones and so I knew it was wrong.

    So, I just listened to the full disc and enjoyed it more and more as it played. After "Humdrum Heroe," one of my favorites on this terrific disc, I returned to "Mini Brazilian Beasts." The bass had filled out, warmed up, had the body and resonance of an acoustic bass in that sweet opening section.

    So, I thought my system just needs to warm up to sound right. Or, my ears have to adjust to my system for me to hear it properly. And then I thought, either way, I am right where I want to be.

    1. I own a copy of the CD as well and my first listen was very enjoyable. The next day I decided to listen again and I found that there was still a slight sterile quality in this recording

      Let me qualify what I just said by telling you that I only listened to the PCM layer because I haven’t bought into DSD entirely just yet. It took me 15 years from the inception of the CD player to actually find a component that sounded musical to my ears.

  9. Things like test gear, if properly calibrated, are reference standards. Things like microphones, cables, amps if used properly ( e.g allowed to warm up to its proper operating temperature ) produce repeatable results.

    Our hearing ( the ear brain combination ) is highly variable and effected by many things. For example, if I have a head cold my mild tinnitus becomes unbearable tinnitus. I once met two guys at an audio show who ( like me ) often drink wine while listening to music. They claimed that every glass of wine increased the value of the stereo system by at least $5K! 😮

  10. Even our stereo equipment is not a constant. Everything from power line quality(much less if you have a power regenerator) to humidity has a impact.
    I find my stereo sounds best in the cold winter months of Canada when the furnace is running enough to keep the humidity down or hot summer months when the air conditioner is running. The humidity seems to suck the "energy" out of my speakers. Fortunately I do the majority of my listening in the winter when its nice and dry.

  11. While listening to a BBC podcast on the electron, I thought of all the chatter we engage in about machine measurements vs. human hearing. The message of the podcast (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001cf1n?partner=uk.co.bbc&origin=share-mobile) is basically that for all its importance to the world today, we know next to nothing about what it actually is. Really! A point? A particle? Vibrating strings? What? If that’s not an argument for some humility, I don’t know what is. And yet folks profess to know exactly how it moves as signal and noise through various conductors and equipment to produce the sounds we hear. I think Paul has the right approach. Machines and computer programs can tell you some things, but only listening can tell you if you want to spend your time with the result.

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