The best listeners

January 18, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

Often the best listeners are the uninformed, the inexperienced among us, the spouse in another room, a neighbor with zero expectations.

Expert listeners often arrive with so much baggage—preconceptions about what something should, or should not sound like—that we cannot hear the obvious differences.

I do my best to go into listening situations with as few expectations as possible.

Clearing away preconceptions often leads to unexpected results.

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14 comments on “The best listeners”

  1. I always try to have no expectations. One of the challenges in this area is reading reviews. It's very easy to get pursuaded into expectating certain types of changes, based on a reviewer's comments. I have learned over to put that aside, yet I imagine preconceptions inevitably still exist.

  2. I still remember back in the late 70's (when I first met Paul and Stan) my wife and I where at the dinner table with her aunt and uncle (the uncle used to play string bass professionally many years earlier and knew nothing about Hi FI systems) with my QUAD 57's playing soft jazz in the background. As the bass player plucked a solo note, her uncle turned quickly toward the speaker and said "wow, it sounds so real"!! This made me feel good as my stereo was getting close to presenting real music!!!!! Many years later I have never forgot his reaction.

    1. I have often pointed out that the perfect audiophile hates everything he hears because he can always find something wrong to criticize. The Quad 57's used to run a simple ad that I recall which consisted of a simple pencil drawing. A musician with a cello sits behind a curtain playing while a focused listener sits critiquing the obviously unplugged and not playing Quad speakers.
      While listening to my first big stereo (maggie/tympani) one thought I had was that until that moment I had been going around listening to stereos but here I was listening to music.

  3. Dear Paul,
    Almost laughed my ears off reading this. So very true. I am (mis)using my spouse for all final tippings of the scale. If only clearing preconceptions would be manageable via a relay switch. 🙂

  4. Back in the 70's in L.A. there was a FM program called 'In Fidelity". Really cool. I remember when Peter Walker was interviewed. He was asked if he was working on any new speakers. He said the the human ear hasn't changed in quite some time. All his speakers could do is offer a "window" thru which we listed to music. How many of us know what "real" music sounds like"?

  5. In my young(er) days I pursued "the truth" (whatever that may be) in audio.
    Now that is not important to me anymore.
    I just wanna hear a sound out of my speakers that I like.
    Over the years, for example, I learned that I like the sound much more when I place my (floorstanding-) speakers on a pedestal.
    According to a lot of audiophiles that is "not done".
    But I like it, so I think every audio dealer should do it to make the sound better. Call it my personal "preconception".

  6. -Anecdote alert-

    A few years ago, my wife got home. I was listening to some music. She said "Did you get a new CD?"

    It was my recently acquired pristine 78 rpm set of "The Plow That Broke the Plains." I was already wallowing in the great sound and performance. She topped it off for me.

  7. My experience is, that inexperienced and non-HiFi orientated people on the one hand recognize, when something sounds real, on the other hand their main aspect for good sound is a rich and homogeneous tonality. They have the same criteria for big HiFi as they have for a kitchen radio. No wonder that the Kloss radio sold well for example.

    You can't tell any of those people that a too neutral or even lean sounding component offers more details or soundstaging instead or sounds better with higher quality recordings...they wouldn't like it.

    They recognize when instruments jump out of a pleasant tonality other than when played live. They prefer less dynamics and a presence dip to that and don't mind if this is less dynamic than live. But they also recognize when everything fits.

    I can understand this.

    Musicians (without HiFi experience) are different, they want to hear their instrument in real tonal shape and dynamics..and rich enough at second.

  8. How true, the last time (9 months ago) I changed my speakers, my wife could tell from the kitchen (my room is just below the kitchen) that these sounded better than the previous ones.

  9. Listening expectations, bias, and the like are a nuisance and usually unhelpful. Whenever I try a new piece of gear, I have a logical process in evaluating it.

    1. Can I hear a difference? (not always)
    2. Do I prefer one over the other?
    3. Which one do I prefer?
    4. Why / what is the difference?
    5. Is it worth the cost or to keep it and/or effort to use it?

    Note that what is the difference comes after which do I prefer. Also, usually the question is which do I prefer, rather than which is better. These are slightly different questions. While many of us claim to,strive for accuracy, I suspect that for many the preferred sound may not be the most accurate reproduction of the recording.

    These are just a few of the joys of audiophilia.


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