What am I missing?

January 23, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

What’s the old gag about making sure you’re not missing anything? The one where you touch four corners of a make-believe cross and say: “wallet, watch, spectacles, testicles”.

Humor aside, I find myself wondering how YouTube audio stars expect us to judge the quality of their equipment through means of an audition.

I mean, my friend Martin sent me a link to a fellow’s whacky over-the-top stereo amplifier using a tube bigger than a breadbox. The presenter was rightfully stoked at showing off this wild looking system and then played a track for the audience.

“See what I mean? Can you hear how great this is?”

No. We can’t. Not without a reference.

I am really struggling here. I get the method of an A/B done in this way. If you’ll recall I have done a few of those on our youtube channel and with great success. But those were A/B comparisons.

“Here, listen to this, make a change, now try again.”

Obvious, clear, makes sense.

So maybe I can get some education from our community as to why people think this is a good idea to simply play something and ask us to judge its sonic merits.

What am I missing?

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53 comments on “What am I missing?”

  1. You rightly miss a minimum of comprehensible logic in what people write or show. That’s not what everyone thinks is necessary. People sometimes just emotionally throw out their thoughts or enthusiasm about something and usually the receiving crowd is extremely forgiving in case this doesn’t make much sense or is missing logic. So the sender doesn’t even notice he did something less smart. Where critical feedback is missing, things develop their own way online, often just stopped by the self-awareness of the sender 😉

  2. As you said Paul a point of reference is required and the RMAF 2018 video that you made is the proof,because I can hear a chagne in sound between the two sets of Focal loudspeakers.
    If everything is genuine it’s a fair example,I did have to argue with a friend that a difference could be heard which he did agree with in the end.

  3. I do my internet browsing on an iPad and find the whole concept of online demonstrations quite ridiculous. After all, we spend thousands on our systems and are then expected to notice differences online. Even if I did notice anything I’d hardly be getting the full effect. I appreciate the experience will be different should listeners be feeding the internet through their hi-fi but I prefer to keep my system as clean and simple as possible. Convenience versus sound enters the equation here but I always thought this place was about the sound, (slight cough) the occasional ‘off topic’ being an enjoyable exception.

    Internet demonstrations always make me smile because they remind me of the chap who rings the hi-fi shop asking to listen to some speakers…..over the telephone.

    1. This is exactly where I am parked. I watch and listen to youtube videos on my laptop. My laptop cost less than any single piece of gear in my home audio system. I figure the speakers in my laptop cost $10 or less. I should trust $10 speakers to make sonic judgements. I’ll take a pass on this.

    2. There are some reasonable recordings on youtube and streaming through your hi-fi rig will reveal significantly more information when compared to an i-pad speaker.

      There was a gentleman back in the mid 80s who purchased a single Jadis JA-30 mono block tube amplifier to improve the audio fidelity of his telephone.

      True story…

  4. I think you may be missing something here. Obviously, if you want to compare women you need at least two. But if you see a beautiful woman, who needs another one for comparison purposes? Same with music systems—if I hear a great, beautiful one, the pleasure is mine.

    1. Miranda: “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world. That has such people in ‘t!”

      Prospero: “‘Tis new to thee.”

      William Shakespeare (approx. 1610) The Tempest: Act 5, scene 1

  5. Paul, et. al., when I experience something that moves me, I am excited to share it – typically with my wife. Participants in the audio forums do this with music and video snippets. Many will post “Here’s my system. What do you think?” I see this as excitement and validation, because how else can respond but positively so as not to be rude? Even on my desktop system w/good headphones, I do not play these selections, and I prefer silence to rudeness. Yet I do appreciate questions comparing components or information about a topic! And columns like this that are provocative… Thanks!

  6. I do not agree entirely with what Paul said as it is a comparison with another HiFi system. One should have attended a few concerts to have an idea what real music sounds like and use that as a reference, should we?

    1. It can be confusing at times can it not? A person shuns the comparative measurements in lieu of their own “audible memory” (described much like ‘muscle memory’) as the benchmark of what “sounds good”… And then when confronted by A/B comparisons, the results are discounted in favor of subjective, internal “reference.” And then when confronted by a single source, it’s discounted by that very reason. It can be frustrating to try to sort through the rationals at times.

      1. I don’t find it confusing. Having just got back from 3 hours of rather glorious Verdi, my impression is that audible memory is really quite strong, including on an emotional level. The human brain has an incredible ability to retain voice patterns and tone, many people can instantly recall a voice not heard for decades. The same goes for singers and certain instruments heard on a fairly regular basis.

        Domestic hifi is only really a pale imitation of the real thing, but a familiar voice is as good as any to test for sonic fidelity, which is why so many speaker designers use voice as the ultimate test of their equipment. You know pretty instantly. Measurements are irrelevant and unnecessary, as are A/B tests.

        Many people buy audio because their brain tells them that what they hear sounds real, or what they think real should sound like, and to me that is perfectly valid. Their reality is based on their music memory. Again, that is as good a reference as anyone should need and measurements are not going to change how they feel about it.

        As we all have different musical memory (at least those of us who listen to live unamplified music), Paul is correct that asking someone else’s opinion is pretty pointless.

    2. [SS:One should have attended a few concerts to have an idea what real music sounds like and use that as a reference, should we?]

      IMO YES! Having the exposure and experience of Live Acoustical Performances can empower an individual with a wonderful auditory memory reference of what strings, wind instruments, percussion, keyboards and vocals in a real performing venue can/should sound like! This Is a completely Subjective Reference and since we evaluate All auditory inputs with our Own brains (both live and recalled memory), is as good as it gets!!

      Measurements are great to start with and especially important for those who may not have real world musical encounters and revelations. However, if you are evaluating musical performances of a component/room change, completed system setup or even various recorded sources, a personal and intimate known Reference of what Live Sounds Like would be invaluable to the individual in judging for themselves the accuracy and realism realized toward that reproduction goal!

      1. This is true as far as classical or jazz, but when listening to pop or rock in many cases you’ve heard the sound of the band’s PA system in a particular venue.

        You have no idea what Daft Punk sounds like live, and if you did see them live, you’ve heard the sound of electronics routed through Crown amps connected to Clair Brothers line arrays.

        Is that what you want to reproduce at home? If so, you can likely do it a lot more cost effectively than buying high end home audio.

        What does Kraftwerk “really” sound like? How about a DJ like Fatboy Slim? Are you trying to accurately reproduce the sound of a pair of Technics SL-1200 MK IIs with Stanton 680EL cartridges? The sound of digital files on a laptop being manipulated by software and output from a MacBook Pro’s internal DAC to a mixer routed through amps with a row of subwoofers turned up to “11?”

        It all depends on what you are trying to reproduce; a system that gives you a “you are there” feeling when playing “Time Out” is likely to be different than one that recreates the experience of being inside an EDM dance club.

        1. Thanks for your comments, Bill! You are Absolutely correct…it All depends on what genre of music you are trying to reproduce. Obviously, the vast majority of recorded music I listen to (99%) is Non-Amplified Acoustical performances (orchestral, chorus, vocals, a capella, live jazz nightclub groups, pipe organ, wind ensembles, instrumentals, keyboard, piano/string bass/percussion trios,etc.). For 15 years, I studied and performed in most of these genre groups, thus my discipline and musical taste drives My Ears toward live acoustical music!

          FWIW, Daf-Punk, Chicago and Pink Floyd sound Fantastic (live?!?) on my system! 😉

        2. Bill, you can choose your venue, it really doesn’t matter which, from Royal Albert Hall to the Ryman Auditorium to the Berlin Philharmonie or the top 10 venues rated by Rolling Stone magazine, there isn’t a house without a house system, and the reality of it is this, all of them utilize line arrays to bring the listening experience to the audience. And that includes all genres. Having said that, you don’t have to have SPL’s of >100dB average to enjoy the performance.

  7. I believe some YouTube videos


    can sound good enough to reveal “something” or some certain characteristics that we can hear that makes us want to hear more. It’s certainly not the same as being there in that space and time, but if I had a set or line I was trying to sell I would try to do a demo something like this that would hopefully inspire people to take that next step to find a live demo.
    I have never been particularly interested in Focal speakers but this got me wanting to hear more and definitely searching for the best stream I could find of this Junior Wells track to play back on my system.

    Now I’m going to go out and try to find a good demo of the FR30’s. Maybe Paul should demo this same track for some comparison, but make sure there are a lot of warm bodies in the room to help the sound. I remember going to a customers party and never hearing his system sound so good as it did when his room was full of people!

  8. What I can’t understand is using a link to experience a system. Even if you have a 6 figure video system you’re coloring the link with your system which is already colored be the recording itself. Even an A/B comparison of a change can at best tell you something has changed. I find listening to the sound of links a total waste of time.

  9. It’s the curse of smart technology. Too many people who would never make it at an audio mag can now claim to be a “critic” simply because they have an iPhone camera.

    1. That’s right, just today I saw an unbelievably dilettantish Hi-Fi/music YouTube channel of a young guy with enough followers and tons of feedback and meaningless commenting to wonder about but not a clue of anything.

      When everyone can go public, it gets much harder to get valuable information or to distinguish between good and bad for newbies. It’s even harder for more experienced folks to get information not only scratching the surface.

  10. Paul – I think you were swayed because of the size of the tube. Also, this guy wasn’t asking if this was the best of the best, he was asking if it sounded good/great. I don’t think you always need to do a comparison just to sit down, relax, and listen to a new system unless you are in the market for buying new gear.

  11. If one has had exposure to good produced sound one does not have to carry a reference system with him all the time. One can easily tell whether the new system or component is good or not. Can you imagine what it would look like if every audiophile carried his or her reference system every time they went to listen to a new component or system ? They would end up being the butt of endless jokes. One only needs a reference system if one is comparing something new to it. Regards.

        1. You mean, afford? You can order a custom-made wheelbarrow as big as a house. The largest wheelbarrow is 11.28 m (37 ft) long and has a wheel diameter of 2.81 m (9 ft 2.6 in) and was achieved by Heimatverein Boke e.V. (Germany) as measured in Boke, Germany, on 14 May 2015. The planning and construction of the wheelbarrow took a team of 10 people over 300 hours. 🙂

  12. In so many Youtube A/B comparisons I can tell zero difference between A and B. Both sound equally horrible.

    I can play a DVD on my computer and, except for anemic low bass, the music sounds respectable and enjoyable. I agree with those who say silly Youtube A/B comparisons are useless.

  13. Yeah I think a lot of the YouTube showcasing or A/B testing scenarios are based on imaginary perception from the viewer’s point of view.

    You can’t, with any degree pinpoint sonic integrity or quality over YouTube.
    People just have to imagine how good the audio actually could sound under the right circumstances.

    1. It’s like those TV infomercials where you can’t see any difference in the people’s faces before and after, except the shadows changed with the lighting. Ugly before. Ugly after.

  14. I’ll be the outlier and say that there is still a sense of audio quality that still gets conveyed, as while YouTube can’t demonstrate how good something sounds, it can accurately depict systems that sound BAD.

    You can still detect qualities that make sound excessively bright or bass-shy or DACs that don’t sound in any way like real music.

    You won’t be readily able to detect which high-end DAC presents a better soundstage, but you can hear when a DAC sounds better than a 1980s CD player.

    The best way to put it is a YouTube video can’t show you which components to buy, but it can show you which components NOT to buy.

    Otherwise it at least helps you narrow down which components you should put on your list to audition.

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