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Sounds Great vs Great Sounds – A Point of View

by October 17, 2004

Understanding Your Listening Biases


It has been said that there are two possible objectives for an audio system: a) recreate the sound of a past performance with the desire to "transport" the listener to the original venue or b) create a performance in the listening environment that is unique. The line separating the two objectives is wide yet gray. The origin of the line begins with the artist, flows through the recording and mixing engineers, and ends up right there in your listening room where you make the final decision. The joy a musical or cinematic creation brings to you, the equipment you own, and indeed the very nature of the content you consume, is intimately tied to this philosophical position. The object of this paper is not to identify the "correct" goal for audio recreation - there is no "correct." Instead, the point is to bring to the forefront the deliberate contemplation of an entertainment system's ultimate purpose - a purpose this is personal in every sense!

At the risk of an oversimplification verging on a stereotype, I will describe, as best I can, the two positions. What we will find is that the two philosophies have much in common. In fact, many equipment selections and installations can satisfy both camps; however this is rarely achieved in practice because of practical limitations. Understanding how you listen and what you listen for - at a subconscious, instinctive level - will prove very useful in setting up a satisfying audio rig. Whether you want to get off the "upgrade train", or just make a good entertainment system investment the first time, then I hope is that this article will help you determine what you need for long-term satisfaction.


The word "audiophile" has many connotations, even as it has only one definition: a person having an ardent interest in stereo or high-fidelity sound reproduction. The key word is "fidelity." The traditional perspective has the audiophile pegged as a classical or jazz-loving music aficionado who strives to hear exactly what she would have heard had she been at the performance itself. Tonal truthfulness, clarity in detail and realism in micro-dynamic contrast are all key parameters for a satisfying music reproduction system. What is unique here is the focus on recreating an historical event. The classic audiophile places great importance on hearing details such as breath patterns, valve clacks, or the echo and decay of the sound reflected from the back of the performance venue.


A "musicophile", in contrast, listens at an emotional level. Think here of someone enamored with pop music, a listener who likes to play it loud. The music is physical, often accompanied by spontaneous dancing, bobbing and singing. Physical impact, clean frequency extension and macro-dynamic control are likely to be critical. The "musicophile" listener is likely to be attracted to multi-channel music recordings, recordings that are often re-releases of music originally composed, recorded and released in two-channel. Why? Because there is more to hear!


Naturally one should not assume that rock fans are not concerned with sound staging and micro-dynamics, or that jazz fans don't listen loud and dance around. The type of music isn't the key here; it's the end game. A different way of looking at this is "cerebral" versus "emotional" listening. If you enjoy listening to various pressings to determine which has the best sound and the most accurate historical relationship to the artist's intention - if you "attend" a recording by paying full attention to the sound in a manner similar to the effort expended at a concert - you may find yourself leaning towards that "cerebral" camp. On the other hand, if you have music on all the time as a soundtrack to life - if you prefer songs to albums - you probably lean towards an emotional level of involvement. As with so many areas of life, we each have pieces of both - a musical yin and yang - within us.


So how does understanding our inherent predilection towards listening bias affect system component choice? The results are manifest in the level of involvement and the amount of time spent involved in the exploration of the audio and video arts. A system that fails to tickle your monkey-bone also fails to hold your attention. In a nutshell, it's not a lasting investment. There is no correlation to cost involved in this analysis. Let me provide an example.


My home office is a room where I spend plenty of time. When the muse cooperates I have occasionally found myself involved in six-hour-long marathon writing sessions. There is no way for me to spend that amount of time in absolute silence, so an audio rig is a necessity. A few years ago I settled on an NAD CD and receiver combination driving a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 7.2 Anniversary edition bookshelf speakers set on sand-filled Target speaker stands. This small system won't win any awards for its resolution or frequency extension. It paints a fair, though not world-class, sonic image. What it does best is "groove." It's a smooth sounding, highly musical and very satisfying rig that I find let's me listen for three, four, or five hours straight without experiencing listening fatigue.


My main audio rig is a beast from a different jungle. My Levinson No. 39 CD player, Audio Research power amp, Conrad Johnson preamp, Linn turntable and Gallo Nucleus Solo speakers are capable of creating an amazingly detailed, dynamic and transparent recreation of the audio event. When this system is on it is almost impossible for me to do anything other than listen. Because I truly enjoy comparing record pressings, exploring new recordings and listening for all the audiophile attributes so often laundry-listed in the hobbyist rags, I find this system to be satisfying to the point that I haven't changed a thing in nearly four years! To say that my main audio rig would fail to satisfy my office listening habits is understatement. Both are competent, both are musical, but both are as different as can be. This difference extends to my main video rig as well which, while sounding fantastic with multi-channel movie soundtracks, fails to thrill me on stereo music sources.


Does this mean that you can't invest in ONE system that satisfies for audio and video, for foreground and background? No, of course not. The point is that it takes a little more thought, and an understanding of your personal listening biases as they relate to the way in which the system will be enjoyed most of the time. Simple? Yes. Explained by sales associates and discussed in product reviews? Typically not.


Maximize the pay-off of your entertainment system investment by considering the following before you buy:

  • How do you listen? Are you a cerebral listener? If so a system that leans towards detail and accuracy at the expense of ultimate frequency extension may be the best compromise. Are you an emotional or kinesthetic listener? If so, a system with a bias towards smooth, musical sound and an extended frequency range at the expense of that last bit of detail may prove to be the best direction.
  • How long will you listen in one sitting? If you listen to complete concerts or albums in one shot - and tend to listen for an hour or two at a time - then gearing your rig towards the revealing side is appropriate advice. If you have music on all the time, foreground and background, err towards the musical when compromises must be made. Unless you have an unlimited budget, compromises must always be made!
  • Will your system serve double-duty for video and audio applications? The greater the focus is on movies, the greater the need is to guard against listener fatigue.


Remember, a system optimized for a lover of Fellini films and Brubeck tunes will likely not satisfy fans of Schwarzenegger and Pink Floyd.


Make your investment in home entertainment electronics count. Understand your natural listening bias and you will end up with a system that will provide years of satisfaction.


We would like to thank Impact Acoustics for allowing us to reprint this informative article.



About the author:
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A sales and marketing professional, Joe holds degrees in Electrical Engineering and in Applied Business. He has been honored several times within the consumer electronics industry, being selected to serve as a judge for the prestigious Consumer Electronics Association "Mark of Excellence Awards" and having served on the Board of Directors of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association.

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