I often have older customers tell me they don't want to spend a lot on gear because their high-frequency hearing is diminished and they wouldn't be able to appreciate the quality it offered. WRONG! To illustrate the point let me recount an experience I had early on in my audio career.
At 18, and just out of high school, I went to work at the local high-end shop (we didn't use that term then, but we handled McIntosh, Klipsch, Marantz, etc., so I guess we'd fit that description today). The owner was a good friend of Paul Klipsch and Paul would visit the shop from time to time. Mr. Klipsch was a pilot and owned a small private plane that he flew regularly. I’m told that instead of using headphones to monitor radio transmissions, Paul preferred a midrange horn (or, squawker as he called it) out of a Klipschorn. I can imagine how loud that must have been to hear the radio over the engine noise! Considering that, and his rather advanced age, I'm sure Paul had "zip-o" for high-frequency hearing.
On one visit, Paul, and the rest of the crew at the shop were chatting and enjoying some tunes when Paul lept out of his chair shouting "Did you hear that? Play that part again!" We cued the cartridge back a bit and replayed the section, again with Paul exclaiming about what he'd heard - the rest of us struggling to perceive what he was describing. After several plays, I could pick up a small amount of distortion that he heard immediately. Here I was - with pristine 18-year-old ears - struggling to hear the minutia that a gentleman approaching 70 picked out in an instant. It was a great lesson and taught me that "hearing" was more of a learned skill than an innate ability determined by physiological assets.
The subtleties that a high-resolution system can deliver should not be thought of as exclusively high-frequency events requiring bat-like hearing to recognize and appreciate. Rather, a great system reveals a multitude of aural delights easily perceived and enjoyed by people with a broad range of hearing. Audiophiles who’ve trained themselves to “listen” easily hear and appreciate the nuance that a high-resolution system can offer. It does not require 20Hz - 20kHz hearing to appreciate and enjoy a high-end audio system.
Developing better listening skills takes practice. And, unlike the piano lessons your mother made you take as a child, this practice is a blast! Simply enjoy listening to your system. The more you listen, the more you will become familiar with the system and the way it conveys the emotion of music and its ability to resolve information. With that knowledge, you'll not only appreciate music to a greater degree, but you'll also have a better handle on which direction to take as you upgrade your system.
Though I've never really thought about sitting with the intent of becoming a better listener, as I think it comes naturally with time, some of the more detail-minded among you may prefer a more structured approach. To that end, I offer an article written by Mr. Peter Cuddy who outlines specific steps to guide you through a listening session.
DEVELOPING CRITICAL LISTENING SKILLS
We have all used tonal terms to describe music reproduction but what does it matter it we have a “full” bass if the bass guitar line disappears whenever the drummer hits the bass drum? Terms like full, bright, and rich usually tell us more about the listening room’s acoustics than the accuracy of music reproduction itself. What is accurate music reproduction? Is it really a matter of one's taste or have all those audio magazines been lying to us all these years? Could you imagine a wine magazine implying that the selection of Thunderbird over Lafite - Rothschild was a valid expression of good personal taste? Obviously, since there aren’t any perfect audio components, taste certainly plays a part once one has developed critical listening skills. You can start developing critical listening skills by asking yourself suitable questions about the music being played. A list of suitable questions follows below:
1. How many people are playing this music? (Check the album’s liner notes)
2. Is it possible to hear all of them all of the time?
3. Are they all playing in tune?
4. Can you pick out the melody each instrument is playing and are they all playing in time?
5. As the notes get louder and higher, do the instruments tend to move about?
6. Listen to the bass line — is it a bass guitar or a double bass? Is it playing a melody or is it all one-note?
7. What kind of guitar is being played? If electric, is it a slide guitar? If acoustic, is the player using a plectrum or picking with their fingers?
8. Is the tympanist using hard- or soft-headed sticks? Can you hear him change sticks?
9. Does the band seem to be playing together?
10. Does it appear as if people are playing instruments or is it more like a sea of noises with no human element that a synthesizer could be making?
11. Can you hear the musicians start and stop playing their instruments or are the instruments playing themselves?
12. Does the singer continue to exist between verses?
13. Is there a rhythm guitar? Is it playing all the time or does it disappear when the rest of the band gets louder? (chances are it will, but it shouldn’t)
14. Is the rhythm guitar as important to the general mood and effect of the music on this component/system as the last one? Was it worth the guy even turning up for the recording session?
15. On a piece of music that starts with a bass guitar line, when the rest of the band comes in does the bass part get quieter?
16. Can you hear the hi-hat when the drummer hits the bass drum or is it obscured?
17. Can one person or instrument get louder without the whole band getting louder? (they should but most mass-market components/systems make it hopeless)
18. Try some choral music (never mind that you don’t like it — this can be an advantage because we tend to be more forgiving of that which we like or know). Do the singers stay the same size all the time — or do they get smaller as more of them sing? 19. What is the overall mood of the music? Is it happy, sad, lilting, aggressive, dreamy...?
20. Are there any backing vocalists? If so, how many? (check album liner notes)
21. Is there any emotion at all in the music? Does it sound urgent or calm?
22. Would you care if someone switched the system off or would it be a relief?
23. Does the music have potential? Can you predict how it’s going to end or do you get the feeling that it will carry on much the same as before? Is it possible that anything remotely dramatic is happening?
24. Should you spend money on this album that you’re listening to?
25. Are you enjoying the music or has your attention drifted back to the sound of the hi-fi?
I hope some of this has been of help and please stop by again. Thank You,
Peter M. Cuddy