The golden ear myth

January 2, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I wonder about the origin of the audiophile myth of golden ears.

In my experience, the differences we hear, the quality of the music played on our systems are immediately obvious to any and all newcomers. I have never had anyone tell me they couldn’t hear “the difference” we bring to the table.

So why are we labeled golden eared? What is it that makes us appear to have special powers of audio observation?

Indeed, I have been with people I would consider as having golden ears. Listeners so astute at their craft they can pinpoint problems and point to probable causes.

But do most audiophiles have greater sonic acuity than your average consumer of audio?

I think not. I believe what the difference is that audiophiles have been exposed to better sound and know the difference between the drek foisted off on consumers vs. what good sound can offer.

We have been exposed to what music can sound like when properly reproduced.

That’s a golden experience.

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40 comments on “The golden ear myth”

  1. But some of us have also learned how to do just a little bit of ‘critical’ listening.
    (Home audio retail will do that to you)

    I suspect that those who have to measure everything & believe that our brains play tricks on our hearing…or vice versa, (ie. the aurally challenged) probably regard those that can hear differences in cabling & set-up with some suspicion (maybe even some jealousy)…to them we may appear to have special auditory powers of observation.

    At the last Hi-Fi Show here in Sydney (July 2017) a 65yo guy was pointed out to me as supposedly having said ‘golden ears’.
    Knowing how the higher frequencies attenuate as we age, especially in men & especially after 45yo, I looked at him & said I’m sorry but at his age there’s no way that he can hear anything above 12kHz, if even that, which in my opinion make his ears very much less than ‘golden’.

    But then again, maybe I misheard & I was actually being told that he was in his ‘Golden Years’…
    …”run for the shadows, run for the shadows, run for the shadows in those golden years.”

  2. Golden Ears seems to a conceited myth formed by people with age-impaired hearing. My 20’s kids almost certainly have better hearing than most audiophiles and know good sound not least because they play and listen to real instruments. They certainly have better hearing than me, because I’ve had mine measured and I have the normal age-related decline.

    It’s not that some more sophisticated systems sound better, it’s whether many people actually care. I think the fundamental mistake many audiophiles make is to assume that more than about 0.0001% of the music-loving population have either the aspiration, let alone the funds, to indulge in high-end audio.

    My family consumes a vast amount of music, live and recorded, but the “drek” they use is exactly right for their needs. It is far better than HD or DSD, which they could not listen to anyway, as they don’t have or want the hardware.

    I’ve long been of the view that it is a complete myth that you need good hearing to enjoy music. You only have to look at the age of some of the audiences at recitals and the opera and everyone is having a wonderful time.

    1. Again I refer to the symphony or opera attendance as one of the most expensive naps around!
      Our box allowed us to peer down as the baton was raised and the number of heads bobbing or in full recline vastly outnumbered those looking ahead.
      Well I guess a restful 90 minutes is like having a great time.

  3. Yes, probably a mixture of golden practice and special interest. But I guess also a tiny bit of different predisposition between those who are good at it and those who are average at it.

    It’s polite and politically correct to deny any predisposition, but why the heck should the ability to differentiate audio be different than any other predisposition? Would anybody say, being a better or worse piano tuner or musician is only a matter of practice?

    We’re probably all quite average in audio differentiation, but examples as Paul mentioned might just be a little more skilled besides the more practice.

  4. Well actually there have been golden ears. They were plastic ones given out in the 1980s at the old Chicago CES show. I recall my friend George Bischof was in an exhibit room and there was also a well known British reviewer who wasn’t happy with the sound. He was one of the old gotta have a Linn turntable advocates. And the reviewer made a big stink claimiing the lack of the Linn was the problem with the room. My friend had a golden ear and he finally had too much with the Linn story that day and he took his golden ear and offered it to the reviewer telling him he needed it more than my friend needed it.

  5. The whole golden ear thing can be a myth or it can be true.

    I would suspect that the myth is rooted in the fact that “we yammer on” incessantly about audio. Whether it be on a site like this, or in person when someone can be found to discuss these things with us. Even worse is that those discussions can come across with a certain amount of arrogance and chest thumping when the audio subject is discussed. (Even though the underlying intent may be different).

    Audio is predominantly a male endeavor. It is typically enjoyed best solo with a single seat that is properly placed. There’s probably some deep male physiological reason for the male of the human species need to be alone with no other distractions other than what he chooses to focus on. Audio can provide that perfect respite needed for an hour or so.

    Music hasn’t left society, in fact it may be more accessible than ever.

    What changed is all the things that vie for the attention. The ‘smart phone’, the internet with social media, the large screen TV with almost unlimited content. Surround sound – electronic gaming consoles – and so on. All the other hobbies and demands of life want their share of attention also. Once a certain level is reached the Audio systems DEMAND undivided attention.

    In the end I would suggest that the phrase “proper reproduction” of music is one of those comments that pushes people away. Even those who have spent their lives chasing that goal can’t agree on having ever found the “proper reproduction of music”.

    So those of us who persevere in the home audio realm, we will continue to plod on. I’ve said this many times… 2 channel home audio is an event that I enjoy despite any and all of it short comings. So unless the interest and desire is there for the individual to pursue home audio for proper reproduction, the numbers will be limited.

    Another thought- If one typically listens to music in the background, then why waste time and resources on something in the fore ground?

    Looking back, the peak of relatively good and common place home audio probably happened in the mid 70’s. ( Get out your bell bottoms, tie dyes, & shoulder length hair along with your micro bus. ✌️)

  6. I can only subscribe to what Mike (5.17) and SntbcwS write (3.16).

    Do you like to have the sound(quality) as good as possible (within your budget), OR don’t you give a damn about that soundquality when you play your favorite tunes (99.xx percent of the population).
    It all and only has to do with special interest. Nothing more.
    My 2 children are fond of music. One of them is in a relationship with a musician. They “all” belong to the 99 percent.
    Ha, off topic, reminds me of “99 Luftballons” by Nena.
    The German-language version a big hit many countries, even in the USA.

    1. As far as if audiophiles have some type of superpower hearing, that cannot be true. I think everyone, excluding those with hearing loss or some type of hearing damage, is fully capable of discerning differences. The discerning factors are;

      1) They have been exposed to high end audio
      2) They care enough about music to want quality playback
      3) They are the type of person that likes to understand things at a deeper than surface level and care about differences

      #3 to me is the differentiator, and it’s more a personality trait. If #1 and #2 are only true, then one could just obtain a better system or headphones and be done. Audiophiles aren’t like that. They tinker and work at understanding what causes what. They are constantly working a “problem” that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, and it’s fun (or at least challenging).

      Most true audiophiles I know aren’t just particular about audio, they care in detail about many other things. Just ask Paul about salt 🙂 . They obsess about understanding their golf swing, type of watches, culinary tastes, politics, etc.

      It’s more about the type of person, not the physical abilities of the person.

  7. Paul, no doubt that most people can hear the difference between A and B when there is a difference.

    But I believe it is a matter of degree. Hearing a difference doesn’t necessarily allow one to identify the specific elements of that difference. Being in the audio “hobby” over time provides some element of sonic differentiation for most of us. I consider “golden ear” to be a comical description of that skill.

  8. Thank you, Paul, for weighing in on this topic which comes up so often in the Post comments. I have always discounted posters’ claims of having golden ears through training and experience, and that unless you are exposed to live music at an early age, you will never hear music correctly. Hogwash! Those who claim golden ears may be able to vocalize what they are hearing better than people who are unfamiliar with industry terminology, but just because they can’t describe it doesn’t mean they don’t hear it. Of course, we all hear differently, but to think our hearing discernment is above most others in our age group is wishful thinking and the pinnacle of arrogance.

    It may be that as we age our hearing moves from silver to golden because we are missing a lot of the high frequency content. At some point our hearing becomes leaded. LOL

  9. I’m not sure I’m saying anything different than how others have replied, but maybe I can tell a story that will illustrate: many years ago I was what you’d call a wine aficionado. I used to marvel at these experts who could detect notes of 19th century socks and old rubber bands in one sip of a $450 bottle of something from an obscure vineyard in upstate Rhode Island (OK, maybe upstate France). For a long time I could certainly tell the difference between what came out of a bottle that cost $50 vs. the $15 my wife gave me to spend. But over time, as my knowledge deepened of vintages and grapes and growing regions and winemaking techniques and lots of (too much) experience, i became better at noticing these differences and coming up with my own descriptions. And it significantly increased my enjoyment and became quite a hobby – that damn near wrecked my life,. but that’s another story. Same goes with audio which is a lot safer for me – the more I read, listen to Paul’s podcasts, read what others say,. learn about recording and mixing and technology, then listen carefully to a good system, the better I get at hearing soundstage, nuances in timbre, openness, timing, and yes, the stuff I don’t like that I missed before. I do believe that just as there are people who are born with the ability to taste in a finer way (golden tongues?), there are people who are born to hear with more refinement – but nobody gets to the point they can hear the effect of 19th century socks and old rubber bands without learning and interest.

  10. Some people have more sensitivity and discrimination to pitch, so I suspect there is variability in how easily one would pick up the differences in sound. Also, humans in general are very sensitive to “differences”. it is our experience and cognition that puts a value on the difference.

    1. So true
      If you look at data on hearing research there is always a distribution of findings around a mean score. This variance is common to all psychoacoustic measures. There is variance at threshold as well as many other measures ( loudness, pitch, etc.).

      Some have referred to normal reduction of hearing sensitivity as an expected event as we age. However there have been population studies that reveal normal hearing sensitivity irrespective of the aging process. Our genetics and what we are exposed to over time may claim the responsibility for reduced hearing ability in the golden years. But to accept it as a normal sensory degradation is incorrect.
      I have been involved with listening to music for many years. My enjoyment
      Comes from the scientific aspects of the industry and listening. I’ve owned all types of equipment and to be honest if the music masks my tinnitus
      It’s truly audiophile in quality.
      My other hobby is photography and I have owned all from Hasselblad to Leica to Contax and my all time favorite picture was taken with a Kodak instamatic 126!
      At least we all contribute to support of the economy!
      Happy New Year!

  11. Precisely.

    I have never had anyone NOT hear the difference, and in fact they often say things like “I’ve been listening to that song since it came out and I’ve never heard THAT before.”

    Everyone can hear the difference but not everyone knows what they’re missing, and frankly the ear bud crowd just doesn’t care as they value convenience more.

  12. Golden ears are a fact of life and so are tin ears. Being equal is not the same as being same. The two are different and no amount of rationalization can change the fact. Homogenization of human differences is an exercise in futility because it runs contrary to reality, Regards.

  13. Confession: I don’t have Golden Ears. I have trained my hearing over the years to do, what I refer to as, is take a walk around the stage. I listen to the reproduced vocals, and ask myself, is that correct? Then the individual instruments. Does the piano sound like a piano in front of me? Same with all the other instruments. Then I turn off the switch in my head, and just listen to the music. Some of my friends system do some things well, and other things, not so much. Hi-end hearing is learned, in my not so humble opinion.

    Humbly (yeah right),

    Mongo

  14. Most people will not say “Wow they must have golden ears” they will say the “world has gone mad when people can afford to spend so much money just to hear some music” I for one can enjoy music without spending vast quantities of cash on so called hi-fi gear.

    1. granty,
      I’m curious to know, in your opinion, what is the ‘cut-off’ point, ie. what is the monetary amount between reasonable & excessive to spend on a home audio (hi-fi) system?

  15. You know it is so funny and yet completely coincidental because I just had this exact conversation with my wife this morning. I was muttering to myself just how great my system is sounding these days, especially in light of the small tweaks made recently.
    I told my wife that I don’t hear things with Golden ears, I’m just exposed to music reproduced properly on a more consistent level.

    This post rings loud with truth, Paul. Thank you and Happy New Year. You said things perfectly in this post. Agree with all of it. 🙂

  16. This track must be on repeat. Like others have mentioned, some of us have an innate ability for discernment of the finer things while for others, including me, a few pointers on what to taste, look or listen for don’t go amiss. Practice and experience are also of great value.

    Many years ago now a relative called round so I put on a tune. He was listening to the system like you would a transistor radio so I pointed out the central image and how the wall of sound didn’t seem to be coming from the speakers. He really hadn’t noticed, was quite surprised and hopefully a little impressed. Didn’t make him become an audiophile though.

    Meantime, that poor dog in the picture. Whatever he’s listening to he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. What we can’t tell is whether or not that’s due to a poor choice of programme material or a less than satisfactory sound system. Perhaps he thinks he needs an upgrade, like some new leads.

    Thankfully no jokes about woofers.

  17. I respectfully disagree. In my experience, listening involves the brain. The ability for one’s brain to process Left ear vs Right ear differences is dependent on the individual.

    Just as IQ varies, photographic memory varies, as does the ability to taste and smell so does listening ability. As an electrician, I show up on job sights and find that a lot of people cannot localize sound. The tell me a smoke detector is beeping on the ceiling and when I get there, it’s another device located in a different location.

    Not only that but the ability to hear pitch varies as well. Some people can’t tell if a singer sings a note either flat or sharp.

    Some people’s ability to discern distortion varies tremendously.

    When MP3s first came out I couldn’t stand listening to all the missing and chopped up sound.

    Just as some people are more sensitive to light than others, or even temperatures, the same hold true for sound.

  18. Science has proved it! Golden ears exist — whether born, or more likely trained.

    Best are audio retailers who are listening to a variety of systems every day. Paul is in this group.
    Worst are audio reviewers! Shock horror.

    But it’s true. Dr Sean Olive of Harman has sought out testers who can consistently rate and discern sound quality.

    1. “Worst are audio reviewers!”
      I’m sorry Peter but that statement by
      you is far too general to hold any validity.

      “Dr Sean Olive of Harman has sought out testers who can consistently
      rate and discern sound quality.”…ummm how is that science?
      That’s not science, as you have stated above, that is listening.
      Listening doesn’t involve science, it merely involves listening.

      1. https://www.itu.int/dms_pubrec/itu-r/rec/bs/R-REC-BS.562-3-199006-W!!PDF-E.pdf
        Olive and Tool used standard AB tests with ordinary people as a measurement method and had some useful results. Like any measurement method, subjective evaluation has its limits. Personally, I consider AB tests to be just a rough orientation that can have misleading results. In my experience, most people hear well. But only a handful can formulate what they hear. And then there’s the taste in the game. The average listener prefers qualities other than audiophile. I played a CD for a friend through home theater as 5.1 (complete mess). He liked it more than pure reproduction.

        1. burphy,
          Agreed & I too have found that it’s pretty-much ‘different strokes for different folks’ from my 22 years in home audio retail, ie. subjective.
          There is no right or wrong as it is totally up to personal taste,
          as you have described with your ‘messy 5.1’ illustration.
          I believe that science & measurements are only useful
          at the R & D stage.

          Btw, your link has come up, “Server Error 404
          – File or directory not found”

  19. I may have had a golden ear in my younger years. Two stories: My audio store had a pair of speakers on display. Sounded good but I always wondered if they were not a little vague playing a stereo recording. I moved them around over some weeks until I got the bee in my bonnet and opened both up and checked their crossovers. One crossover had a 6 mf cap and a 12 mf cap. Correct. The other had two 12 mf caps which of course caused the crossover point to be different. Fixed. No longer slightly vague. Second story: I was invited by a speaker manufacturer to listen to a prototype speaker still in the design stage. (The crossover was sitting on top of the speaker and was wired together with wires with alligator clips.) Almost immediately I sensed something amiss but very subtly so. After a minute or two I said that it did not sound quite right, “almost like one tweeter was out of phase.” The designer walked over to the speaker, looked at the crossover and said “you’re right” and moved a clipped wire and all was well. Perhaps I am preternaturally sensitive to phase errors in stereo. Cohesive phase is very important in stereo, you know. We once had some speakers that sounded nice but, to me, always a little vague. I came up with the comment “Well, it’s all there but nowhere.”

    1. I as well seem to me especially sensitive to out-of-phase speakers. When I hear them it is plainly obvious what the issue is, others do not seem to notice as much.
      I think golden ears are as much about listening as hearing, most can hear but golden ears know what to listen for.

  20. I remember repeatedly watching the Yahoo! video “review” of the Pono player (Neil Young’s PonoPlayer: The Emperor Has No Clothes) and thinking that ordinary customers must be the biggest idiots on Earth.

    I bought a Pono when they first came out and they were good. Admittedly not the best DAC in the world but perfectly fine for something portable with performance that easily justified its price point. Definitely a big step up from an iPhone. If I remember correctly, that guy from Ayre who has since passed away—who was an excellent engineer—created the guts of it.

    It makes me think that, by comparison, I must have golden ears.

  21. Dear Paul:

    “… the quality of the music played on our systems are immediately obvious to any and all newcomers….”

    With all due respect, I think you’re wrong.

    This very site – for this very article of yours – is chock full of those who either can’t hear any advantage with high end audio systems – or don’t care.

    I personally know persons who prefer low fidelity sound sources. In one case, the rocking hero chose and owns guitar PA speakers for his system, and the other champion proudly owns and enjoys an ultra low fidelity Admiral radio-TV console.

    Both heard but rejected high end audio systems.

    The typical listener today’s deliriously pleased with monophonic blue tooth sound sources. Even mid-fi component audio equipment’s meaningless to them.

    Consider this: if you’re correct, then your company would be a multi-billion dollar business right now.

    1. One of the fun parts of this part of the website is a place where we can agree to disagree.

      I still stand by my personal experience that there has never yet been a person that didn’t hear the difference. It’s just simply a matter of fact. Even if it doesn’t line up with your experience.

      To your comment we’d now be billionaires, let me suggest another part of the story you might not have considered. The fact that someone hears a difference is one thing. That someone then gives as rat’s ass about it is quite another. Most people go, “wow, that’s cool” and then go about their business.

  22. I’ve watched this column for a time and am finally motivated comment. Anyone no matter who you are or how old you will be able to hear only to the limits of your hearing. I feel the primary difference in my response to high fidelity music is my DESIRE to hear the intricacies of the music. Many people do not listen for the delicacies of the female voice or the sheen of the cymbals. It is also a fact that we cannot fully appreciate something that we have not heard or seen through personal experience. So, we can be limited in exposure but not in appreciation! Personally, my greatest limitation is the ability to acquire that which will allow me to hear to my own limits ($$).

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