INSIDER OUTLOOK #3: Learn to Listen

Roger Skoff

Roger Skoff writes about how to hear what you’re hearing

If you follow the audiophile internet or even, to a substantial degree, the Hi-Fi press, you know that ours is a hobby of contention. It’s not just that we disagree on which things are better – that goes on everywhere, in every hobby or walk of life, with different people always having different tastes and preferences in just about anything you can think of.

With Hi-fi, though, it’s not always about which products (amps, preamps, speakers, etc.) are better or sound better; in a great many cases, the controversy is about whether they make any difference at all. 

Many years ago, a reviewer for Sounds Like…Magazine did a comparison of different LP record washing fluids which claimed not only that some clean better than others, but that some actually made the records sound better than the same record cleaned with a different fluid. The response from readers was typical of an audiophile audience: Some agreed with it; some disagreed; and some dismissed the entire subject as absurd, claiming that “clean is clean”, and that once a record is dirt and dust-free, no real sonic change is possible.

Any number of other products or practices have met with a similar fate: At one time it was popular to use a green marking pen to draw around the edges of CDs, supposedly to improve their sound. Various seemingly magical things (stickies of different sizes and shapes, brass bowls, wood pucks, wraps, magnets, “mystery boxes”, etc.) have all, over the last many years, been described — some with, and some without explanation — as making audible improvements to system sound. Sometimes people have agreed and sometimes they haven’t, but usually it’s some of both. And when challenges have come, they usually haven’t been about how much difference there was, but about whether there was  any difference at all.

Two other product categories that are the regular subject of audiophile controversy are cable lifters (See my article in the current issue of Positive Feedback Online) and high performance audio and video cables. 

Cable lifters can be practically anything at all that will keep speaker cables from coming in contact with the listening-room floor. (In fact, I actually wrote, in earlier articles, about how to make them, cheap or free, out of ordinary plastic cups). Cables — seeing that I have thus far owned and designed for two world-renowned cable companies (first XLO, and now, nearly twenty years later, RSX ) —  are also something that work, and that I deeply believe in.

So, why, if all of these things (and many more not mentioned) work, don’t people believe in them and take full advantage of them to improve their systems?

One reason might be that some of them really don’t work, and that, as their detractors claim, whatever effects they may seem to produce are either the product of “placebo effect (They only seem to work because we expect them to work) or are just differences, and not really improvements. (Think of all the products you’ve tried that seemed to make your system sound better twice – once when you put them into your system and once when, after using them for a while,  you took them back out again.)

Another reason might be that they do work, but your system or your room acoustics or how or where your system is set up in it won’t allow you to hear differences that are really there.

Or it might be that the differences are real and your system and room are doing a good job of presenting them for you, but that, for whatever reason, the recording(s) that you’ve chosen to listen to don’t include the things that what you’re testing can make an improvement to. (Good examples of this might include testing something that improves imaging and soundstaging by listening to an old monophonic [non-stereo, so no image and no soundstage] recording to test it, or playing something without bells in it to hear how much it improves bell sound.)

It’s also possible (but not likely) that everything’s right about everything, but that there’s something wrong with your hearing. Even that doesn’t seem to be a good reason, though. For many years Anthony Cordesman, one of the absolute sound’s top reviewers, had a listening panel helping him that included people known to be hearing-impaired. He found that their input was worthwhile because, even though they might not hear certain aspects of the music, they were still able to hear differences.

Of all of the reasons possible, one of the most likely is simply that people don’t know what to listen for so they end-up not hearing differences that are actually there. For example, did you know that the sound of a plucked string bass (a bass viol) — one of the most commonly used jazz or chamber music instruments — consists of three separate parts? There’s the initial pluck of the string; the sound of the pluck spreading along the entire length of the plucked string; and, finally, the sound of the hollow wooden body of the instrument as the vibration of the string is passed on to it through the bridge (the part that holds the strings above the fingerboard and the instrument’s face).

On one occasion when I was demonstrating RSX cables to an interested non-audiophile, that particular bit of information was what made the difference: Even after several times of playing the same music selections through two fairly obviously different-sounding cables, he still couldn’t tell them apart. Then I told him to listen for the sound of the string bass and explained what it was that he should try to hear. Once he knew that it was there, the difference became obvious and he agreed that cables do indeed sound different.

Anyone can do the same, and it’s not just the string bass that’s a good thing to listen for in judging equipment or “tweaks”. Everything contributes to the sound.

When you’re listening, can you hear the “blatty” sharp edge of a brass instrument? Can you hear the “woody” sound of a clarinet? Does a cymbal sound like it’s made of brass? Or plastic? Can you hear the singer’s breathing? In a “live” recording, can you hear how many violins there are? Can you hear the rosin on their strings? Or where they’re positioned relative to each other and the rest of the orchestra? Can you hear the size and shape of the recording studio or concert venue?

All of those things are there in a good recording, played on good equipment, properly set up in a good room, and they’re important. Not just for auditioning equipment or judging whether tweaks work or claimed improvements are really there, but for your full enjoyment of the music you love.

Why else did you buy your system?

Learn to listen.