critical-listening-skills

Good Audio Advice and Critical Listening Skills

[This is an updated version of a commentary written in 2009.]

The latest Mapleshade catalog (Spring 09) has, along with hundreds of recommendations, this little piece of audio advice that caught my eye:

For much improved bass and huge soundstage, put your listening chair or sofa right against the wall behind you. Move your speakers in to 5’ in front of you and 7’ or more apart. No room treatments will yield this much bass improvement.

I literally had to read through it a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. But every time I read it, it still said the same thing, so I know I can’t have been dreaming. This is crazy talk. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Well, it’s not all crazy. There is actually a factually true statement at the end of that paragraph. Yes, it is true that no room treatments will yield as much bass as sitting up against a wall. But why stop there? Bass, regardless of its source, immediately seeks out the corners of the room. That’s where the most bass will always be: where the room boundaries are. If you want to hear the maximum amount of bass your speakers are producing, put your head in the corner of the room down at the floor, where three boundaries intersect. Like the sound now? Getting enough bass are ya?

Along the same lines, for a “huge soundstage” try putting one speaker at one end of the room and the other speaker at the opposite end. Why stop at seven feet? My listening room is twenty feet deep; I can get a soundstage that’s twenty feet across without any problem at all.

I would just have to be dumb enough to think that doing such a thing would be a good idea.

Fellow audiophiles and music lovers, it is not. Let’s talk about why.

Room Reflections

The closer you are to anything that the sound coming from your speakers can bounce off of, right before or right after it reaches your ears, the worse the sound. You want to be as far away from everything as you can be, and this includes not only the back wall of your listening room, but the heads of other persons who may be listening with you. This is easily demonstrated. Have a friend or loved one sit next to you and listen critically to some music you know well. Now have that person leave the room. The sound will always get better (unless something else is very wrong). I have done this experiment many, many times and it only comes out one way: fewer near reflections, better sound.

This is why we have three pair of Hallographs in our listening room. They help control room reflections. Reflections are the main cause of bad sound in most listening rooms. The louder you play your stereo, the worse the reflections get and the more they screw up the sound.

We like to play our stereo very loud — much of the music we love demands it — and we simply could not turn up the volume the way we do without effective room treatments. Your first pair of Hallographs, even just “roughed in,” not tuned precisely the way they can be, will immediately allow you to play your stereo louder than you could before you installed them. (Since the first pair reflect the sound waves directly back to the listener, Hallographs do actually increase the sound level at the listening position, adding energy and dynamics.)

This is a good thing. It’s a clear sign they work.

Sitting Close

Sitting close to the speakers eliminates much of the effect of room reflections. So does wearing headphones. I have never liked either approach to listening; both seem very unnatural to me. And sitting too close is a bad idea from my experience. Now, I can only speak for the sound of large dynamic multi-driver speakers, since those are the only kinds of speakers I’ve owned for the last thirty-odd years. (more…)

Tweaking and Tuning Are Essential to Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Improving your critical listening skills is what allows you to make Audio Progress and collect better sounding records.

Since we play all kinds of records all day, practically every day, as part of our regular shootout regimen, tweaking and tuning are much easier for us to do than they would be for most audiophiles. As I have told many in this hobby over the years, if you don’t do the work, the only person who doesn’t get to hear better sound is you. I can come home to my good sounding stereo — I’ve put in the work — but you’re stuck listening to all the problems you haven’t solved, right?

There’s no problem with an untweaked stereo or an untreated room as long as you don’t mind mediocre sound. If you actually want good sound, you have to learn how to tweak your stereo and you have to learn how to treat your room. Neither one can be ignored. You have to learn how to do both.

And doing both is what teaches you how to listen, which is a skill that’s very hard to acquire any other way. This explains why so many audiophiles have such poor listening skills. They simply never developed them because they never needed them. Think about it: Listening to music for enjoyment requires the exercise of no skills whatsoever.

Such is obviously not the case with tweaking. Tweaking your system requires that you listen carefully and critically in order to make the fine judgments that are essential to making progress. Progress in audio from tweaking often occurs in small, almost imperceptible increments.

Being so subtle, these changes force you as a listener to concentrate, to focus your attention, to bring to bear all your critical listening skills.

Naturally, these skills, like any skills, having been exercised, start to improve, and continue to improve as you continue to exercise them.

Going About It

Everybody knows that practicing and challenging yourself will make you better at whatever you are trying to do. But where have you ever seen those concepts applied to bettering your own audio skills (other than on this web site)? Just how would you go about challenging yourself as an audiophile?

Easy.

Tweaking and experimenting with room treatments is one sure way.

Playing ten copies of the same album back to back and making notes about the sound of each side is another.

Adjusting the turntable sixty six different ways and seeing what the effect is on scores of different records works too.

All these things taught me a lot.

No amount of reading or advice was remotely as helpful as just getting down and messing around with anything and everything in my listening room.

As Van Morrison said: “No guru, no method, no teacher.”

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The Pareto Effect in Audio – The 80/20 Rule Is Real

Ambrosia’s first album does exactly what a Test Disc should do. It shows you what’s wrong, and once you’ve fixed it, it shows you that it’s now right.

We audiophiles need records like this. They make us better listeners, and they force us to become better audio tweakers.

You cannot buy equipment that will give you the best sound. You can only tweak your equipment to get it.

At most 20% of the sound of your stereo is what you bought. At least 80% is what you’ve done with it. (Based on my experience I would put the number closer to 90%.)

This is known as the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, The Law of the Vital Few and The Principle of Factor Sparsity, illustrates that 80% of effects arise from 20% of the causes – or in lamens terms – 20% of your actions/activities will account for 80% of your results/outcomes.

The Pareto Principle gets its name from the Italian-born economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), who observed that a relative few people held the majority of the wealth (20%) – back in 1895. Pareto developed logarithmic mathematical models to describe this non-uniform distribution of wealth and the mathematician M.O. Lorenz developed graphs to illustrate it.

Dr. Joseph Juran was the first to point out that what Pareto and others had observed was a “universal” principle—one that applied in an astounding variety of situations, not just economic activity, and appeared to hold without exception in problems of quality.

In the early 1950s, Juran noted the “universal” phenomenon that he has called the Pareto Principle: that in any group of factors contributing to a common effect, a relative few account for the bulk of the effect. Juran has also coined the terms “vital few” and “useful many” or “trivial many” to refer to those few contributions, which account for the bulk of the effect and to those many others which account for a smaller proportion of the effect. — Juran

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After Years of Searching, We Finally Found an Old Beatles Record that Sounds Pretty Good

The Beatles for Sale

On the Yellow and Black Parlophone label! This is best sounding early label pressing we have ever played. Not a Shootout Winner, far even close, but a perfectly enjoyable copy of one of the best sounding Beatles albums we play on a regular basis.

Before this, the only Beatles record we would sell on the Yellow and Black Parlophone label was A Collection of Oldies… But Goldies. That title does have the best sound on the early label. In numerous shootouts, no Black and Silver label pressing from the ’70s was competitive with the best stereo copies made in the ’60s.

Until now, it was clearly the exception to our rule: that from With the Beatles up through Sgt. Pepper, the best sounding Beatles pressings would always be found on the best reissue pressings.

Here are the notes for the best sounding For Sale on the early label we played in our recent shootout. (more…)

Letter of the Week – “Your hot stampers forced me to work on my stereo and on my room.”

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

Many thanks for your efforts.

Things can sometimes really be easy. I [purchased] medical water from the drugstore, hopefully the best available here in Austria.

Now I know the difference between a Super Hot and a White Hot. After half a minute it was clear. The Super hot of Dark side is really, really excellent but the White hot makes (at least) a step up on every aspect. Will send the Super Hot back shortly.

What I like to mention is:

Your hot stampers forced me to work on my stereo and on my room. Tom is totally right when he says, only work, work and even harder work gives you benefit in HIFI. I think it´s the Dopamine in our heads that drives us for better and better, it´s a great feeling.

I never will be an expert in HIFI or hot stampers, that´s your business. But I can become mediocre or even good, can become a listener who has developed listening skills and has a stereo which is reasonably OK.

The first benefit (beside the sound of your Hot Stampers) I already got: improving my stereo and my listening skills just a bit gives me a lot more listening pleasure on my existing records, and there are a lot, especially in Metal and extreme Metal.

Kind regards from Austria,
Hans

More Letters

Pink Floyd Hot Stamper Pressings Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Dark Side of the Moon


FURTHER READING

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Identical Stampers + New Vinyl = Different Sound?

Reviews and Commentaries for Nirvana

nirvanever
The dirty little secret of the audiophile record biz is that the purveyors of these pressings cannot possibly know with any certainty the quality of the sound of any sealed record they are selling. (Whether they can tell what the sound quality is of any record they sell is open question, and one we would have to answer in the negative based on the hundreds of audiophile pressings we’ve auditioned over the last 40 years.)

They turn a blind eye to the fact that some copies are simply not going to measure up to the sound of the review copy that they auditioned and described.

This is a good reason not to sell sealed records, which, of course, we don’t. But that’s because we’ve done the experiments and found out the things they cannot be bothered to learn.

But wait a minute. Even that’s giving audiophile record dealers far too much credit.  Only a small fraction actually review the records they sell. Most cut and paste a review from the manufacturer and let it go at that. And the few that do write reviews are often so far off the mark that they might as well be talking about another pressing entirely.
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How Can Anybody Not Hear What’s Wrong with Old Pressings Like These?

Record Collecting – A Guide to the Fundamentals

beatlrubbeoriginal

New Paradigms and Old

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the kinds of sonic differences among pressings we describe, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified Audio Expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom.

A reviewer we all know well is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment: (more…)

Thoughts on Becoming an Expert Listener

This commentary was written around 2006, about two years after we started to put Hot Stampers on our website.

For years we’ve been writing commentaries about the sound of specific records we’ve auditioned in order to put them up for sale on the site. By now there are literally hundreds of pages of commentary in which we’ve tried to explain, often in great detail, exactly what we listened for and exactly what we heard when playing these pressings. We’ve tried to be as clear as possible about precisely which qualities separate the better sounding LPs from their competitors — what they do right, and how you can recognize sound that is right .

As we’ve gained a better understanding of records and their playback, we’ve made every effort to share with our readers what we’ve learned. Although the vast majority of these records sold long ago, almost all of the commentary remains available on the blog, to act as a resource for the audiophile who owns or might want to consider buying a copy of the record discussed.

Over the years, one thing has continued to bother me (I almost wrote “vex me”) about this hobby and those who pursue it. I’m frankly still shocked at how unskilled most listeners are. How else to explain all the bad sounding 180 gram pressings so many audiophiles embrace?

Add to the above bad half-speeds, bad Japanese pressings, bad Classic Records, bad 45s and all the rest, and you have a lot of bad sounding records that people don’t seem to have noticed sound bad. How can that be? (more…)

Joni Mitchell / Blue – Play The Game, Not the Album

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises, one we created all the way back in 2007. If you want to learn more about doing your own shootouts this listing has lots of good advice.

In 2007 we mentioned to our customers that we would not be carrying the new 180 gram Rhino pressing of Blue. We noted:

Since Kevin and Steve are friends of mine I won’t belabor its shortcomings. Let’s just say I think you can do better.

Down the road when we’ve had a chance to do a shootout amongst all our best copies, we will be offering something more to our liking. I recommend instead — and this is coming from a die-hard LP guy, someone who disconnected his home CD player over two years ago and only plays the damn things in the car — that you pick yourself up a nice used copy of the gold CD Hoffman mastered for DCC. It’s wonderful.

Some people are already upset with us over this decision, actually going so far as to question our motives, if not our sanity. Without a doubt we feel this will end up being the single most controversial stance we’ve ever taken. I predict that a great number of audiophiles are going to get really upset over our criticism of this new pressing. We are going to get emails like crazy asking us to explain what on earth could possibly be wrong with such a wonderful sounding LP. The writers of these emails will no doubt extoll its virtues relative to the other pressings they may have heard, and, finding no other reasonable explanation, these writers will feel impelled to question both the quality of our playback equipment and — yes, it’s true — even our ability to recognize a good record when it’s spinning right on our very own turntable. (more…)

Rachmaninoff / Piano Concerto #3 – The Highs Come Back

This side one is interesting., I would say that it starts out Super Hot (A++) and within a few minutes becomes White Hot (A+++). The piano is a bit veiled at the start, but within a relatively short period of time that subtle loss of transparency disappears and the piano is RIGHT THERE.

This is not unusual in our experience. The first track on many records can sound dull, and by the second track the highs come back and the tonality is right from top to bottom. Who knows why?

We speculate that the vinyl did not have time to fully heat up the edge of the record, but that’s speculation, something that has almost no value in our (yours and mine) quest for better sounding records. 1A, 1B, first off the stamper, who gives a flying you-know-what. You have to play the record to know its sound.

The rest is BS, proffered by those who are simply too lazy to do the work of actually cleaning and playing multiple copies of an album to know how they sound. 

Side Two

A++, with all the texture and transparency we heard on side one. The strings are PERFECTION — truly Demo Disc quality.

The piano however does not quite have the weight it does on side one, so we knocked a plus off, putting this one at A++.

Only the last quarter inch has the slightest amount of groove damage on the loudest piano peaks. We’ve never heard one that played cleaner all the way through, I can tell you that. [Now we have, plenty of them in fact.]

What an amazing recording! What an amazing piece of music!

More of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

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