Audio

How to Become an Expert Listener

How to Become an Expert Listener

Recently, I helped my friend Ed set up two audio systems. During the process of dialing them in, I had to walk him through what to listen for in order to hear the improvements because he didn’t know what to focus on in evaluating the sound. It occurred to me that most people don’t.

 

A luxury stereo system or home theater should deliver exceptional sound, of course. But what exactly should you listen for in evaluating, choosing, setting up, and enjoying a high-performance system?

 

(Note: I’m not going to dig deeply here into how to set up various aspects of a system to achieve peak performance, but rather what to listen for.)

 

First of all: A system will only sound as good as its source material. It’s essential to use good demo tracks. Don’t go with a low-bit-rate MP3 file for music listening, for example. Use an audiophile CD or LP, or a high-res download or streaming service.

 

For stereo music evaluation, you can’t go wrong with that stone classic, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s one of the best recordings ever made, thanks to the brilliant talent of Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons. Listing the strengths of this album is like outlining a mini-course in what to listen for:

 

—Deep, articulate bass, a rich midrange, and extended highs

—Accurate timbre of vocals and instruments (except when deliberately processed)

—An expansive sound field

—Wide dynamics, from almost subliminally soft to powerfully loud

—A remarkably clean sonic character.

 

(I’ll expand on each of these various areas below.)

 

A system should have a coherent tonal balance from top to bottom, without any particular frequency range sticking out. You don’t want it to sound too bright in the midrange (roughly the area between 200Hz and 5kHz, where most of the frequencies of the human voice reside) or have weak, recessed bass. With a solo piano recording like Robert Silverman’s superb

Chopin’s Last Waltz, listen for the transitions between the low, middle, and high notes, which should be smooth and seamless.

 

Listen for a clear, “transparent” sound with a lot of fine musical detail. The sound should be pure, without any “grain,” hardness, or roughness in texture. (For example, a flute should sound clean and natural, not buzzy or strident or distorted.) Bass should be articulate, not indistinct. The midrange should have plenty of presence, since that’s where most of the music “lives.” Highs should be airy and extended.

 

Subtleties like the “ting” of the triangle in the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording of Scheherazade (an example of the upper range) or the reverb on Shelby Lynne’s voice on Just A Little Lovin’ (an example of the midrange) should be clearly audible. Although it’s not all that realistic in terms of spatial positioning of the instruments, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue is excellent for evaluating timbre, resolution, and overall naturalness of sound.

For stereo setups, listen for a coherent sound field without a “hole in the middle” (from your speakers being too far apart or not angled in properly) or a lack of imaging and spaciousness (speakers too close together). Depending on the recording, vocals and instruments can be precisely defined in space, left to right and front to back, and the sound field can seem to extend beyond the speakers and maybe even the room. (For some tips on speaker placement, check out these articles from Lifewire and Dynaudio.)

 

However, be aware that on some recordings, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1970s, vocals and instruments can be placed too far off to the left or right. Also, you won’t hear laser-focused pinpoint imaging on a properly-miked orchestral recording—because that’s not what things sound like in real life. And keep in mind that changing your

listening position will have a significant impact on the sound.

 

I once visited the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where they used Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to help determine the differences between speakers. That’s because it’s one of the easiest cuts for people to use in picking out sonic differences.

 

When listening to multichannel movies or music, the sound literally expands, thanks to the addition of center and surround speakers, one or more subwoofers, and, in some installations, height speakers (for example, in a Dolby Atmos system). In fact, Cineluxe has some excellent recommendations for home theater demo material.

 

Listen for a good balance between all the speakers. The surround speakers and subwoofers shouldn’t overly call attention to themselves except when the audio mix warrants it. You should hear a seamless, immersive 360-degree bubble of sound.

 

Dialogue clarity is critical for movies and TV! As such, the performance of the center-channel speaker in a multichannel setup is crucial. (Center-channel volume can be set independently—a very important aspect of home theater system tuning.)

How to Listen—The App

 

I have a confession to make.

 

Instead of writing this post,  I could have been lazy and just told you to check out the Harman: How to Listen app. It’s a training course that teaches you how to become a better listener by pointing out various sonic aspects to focus on, such as specific frequency ranges, spatial balances, and other attributes. Check out this post by Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive for more details.

–F.D.

On another note, it’s a good idea to use material you’re familiar with when evaluating a system, even if it’s not “demo quality,” so you can instantly hear the improvements a luxury system can make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat someone in front of my high-end setup, asked them to pick a favorite piece of music, and then heard them say things like, “I can’t believe the difference! I never knew it could sound like that! It sounds like a different recording!”

 

The best advice I can give is to constantly school yourself to become a better listener.

 

Go out and listen to live unamplified music, whether at Carnegie Hall or a friend strumming an acoustic guitar. Get familiar with the sonic nuances of various instruments. Listen to as many audio and home theater systems as possible, at stores, friends’ houses, and audio shows. Listen to the sounds around you—birds, wind, city streets.

 

Good listeners are made, not born.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

Steinway Lyngdorf’s P200 surround processor

In my previous post, I talked about the intriguing video trends I came across at the recent custom integrators CEDIA Expo in Denver. While there weren’t as many new developments on the audio side, I did notice a few continuing and developing trends throughout the show that will have an impact on the luxury home cinema market. And, unlike some of the premium video solutions on the horizon, these are all things that can be implemented in a home theater immediately!

HIGHER CHANNEL COUNT

While immersive surround systems such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro3D are pretty much de facto in newly installed luxury home cinemas, we need to remember that these formats have been available in the home market for only about five years, and until fairly recently the channel count for most of these systems maxed out at 12 in a 7.1.4 configuration (seven ear-level speakers, a subwoofer, and four overhead speakers).

 

But there has been an explosion of systems that support up to 16 channels in a 9.1.6 array, which adds front width speakers at ear level and an additional pair of overhead speakers. While having 15 (or more) speakers in a room might seem excessive, creating a seamless and truly immersive experience in large rooms that have multiple rows of seating requires additional channels to create cohesion between speakers as objects travel around the surround mix.

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

Companies offering new 16-channel AV receivers and preamp/processorss include JBL Synthesis, Arcam, Acurus, Bryston, Emotiva, and Monoprice. Some companies are even pushing the boundaries beyond 16, including StormAudio, Steinway Lyngdorf, Trinnov, JBL Synthesis, and Datasat.

 

 

BETTER BASS IN EVERY SEAT

Three home theater masters—Theo Kalomirakis, Joel Silver, and Anthony Grimani—presented a full-day training course titled “Home Cinema Design Masterclass,” where they discussed best practices in home theater design. Grimani, president of Grimani Systems and someone who has worked on more than 1,000 rooms over his 34-year career, stated that 30% of what people like about an audio system happens between 20 and 100Hz—the bass region. In short, if a system’s bass response and performance aren’t good, the whole system suffers.

 

But low frequencies are difficult to pull off correctly, especially across multiple seating positions, which is the ultimate goal in a luxury cinema. Good bass is possible for multiple listeners, but multiple subwoofers are always needed. Two subs are better 

than one, three subs are better than two, and four subs are better than three. (But Grimani stated that adding more than four subs actually has diminishing results.)

 

All the best home cinemas feature multiple subwoofers, not for louder bass, as one might think, but for more even bass at every seat. The best theaters deliver slam and impact at the low-end, but are also quick and free of bloat, which is what multiple good subs can deliver.

 

 

ROOM CALIBRATION

In  that same master class, Tony Grimani also claimed that achieving good bass performance almost always requires the correct use of equalization. Virtually every home theater receiver or processor sold today incorporates some form of room-correction softwareeither proprietary like Yamaha’s YPAO or Anthem’s ARC, or a third-party solution like Audyssey. At its simplest, these software systems employ a microphone to measure tones emitted by the speakers, which are used to calculate the distance from the speaker to the listener as well as to set channel levels. The more advanced systems employ equalization and other types of filters in an attempt to optimize how the room interacts with the signal. 

 

Three of the most revered and powerful room-correction systems all hail from Europe: Trinnov Audio (France), Dirac (Sweden), and Steinway Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect (Scandinavia). These systems offer more adjustments, filters, and flexibility that less expensive, more mass-market offerings in order to make any room sound its absolute 

best. (For more on the importance of room correction, read this post by Dennis Burger.)

 

One of the big developments in room correction featured at the CEDIA Expo was Dirac’s new Live Bass Management module. An add-on to the existing Dirac Live correction system, it will aggregate measurement and location data from multiple subwoofers in a system to determine how best to distribute bass evenly across a room. It will also correct low-frequency sound waves produced by the main speaker pair so they’re in sync with the rest of the system.

 

But just having access to the best room-correction devices isn’t enough, as the best luxury rooms are calibrated by professionals who have been trained in acoustics to the Nth degree. This small group of top-tier calibrators travels the world with kits costing tens of thousands of dollars in order to measure, sample, adjust, and tweak the parameter of every speaker and subwoofer in your theater to wring out the very last drop of performance.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.

 

Hold that thought for a moment.

 

In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.

 

As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.

 

As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.

 

And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.

 

As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.

 

Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.

 

So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?

 

There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.

 

But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.

 

A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.

 

It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.

 

This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.

 

I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.

 

And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

In the roughly 17 years that I’ve been an AV reviewer, I’ve covered pretty much every product category. I’ve reviewed video displays, speakers, remote controls, disc players, AV receivers—you name it. And while the products I reviewed covered a wide price range, there was always one category I tried to avoid: High-end audio. Now, I can’t give you an exact price or spec that represented the cutoff where I would pass an audio review opportunity on to someone else. The best way I can quantify “high-end audio” is to say that you know it when you see it. And perhaps that’s part of my concern with it.

 

Eventually my focus moved into the realm of display reviews, and one reason I’m quite comfortable there is because, generally speaking, there are clear, quantifiable steps that distinguish one performance class from another. You can measure black level and contrast, color accuracy, and now HDR peak brightness and accuracy. You can say to someone, “If you really

value [this], then you should buy [that].” “If you mostly use your TV to do [this], then you should save your money and get [that].” Of course you’ll run into products that straddle the fence between budget and mid-level, or between mid-level and high-end, which may make it harder to render a final verdict, but those are more the exception than the rule.

 

That wasn’t always the case, though. I first started reviewing displays in the early days of high-definition. There were virtually no budget HDTVs, but there was certainly a high-end realm, inhabited by brands like Mitsubishi, JVC, and Pioneer Elite. Sitting at the very top of the food chain was Runco, maker of the ultimate high-end TVs and 

projectors. It wasn’t necessarily that Runco displays performed significantly better than other lower-priced options, but they were sold exclusively through dealers that were trained to provide a level of service and support to justify the products’ high-end prices. And that model worked for them. It’s fair to say that Runco owned the luxury market.

 

But then a funny thing happened. Samsung and Vizio came along and proved that you could sell TVs that performed really well for a lot less money. JVC and Epson did the same thing with front projectors. High-definition displays became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, and the brands that couldn’t adapt to this new reality died. One by one the high-end display products just sort of fell away. Even Runco was ultimately purchased by commercial-display company Planar, which tried for a while to keep a presence in the luxury home market but eventually gave up.

 

Sure, names like SIM2 and B&O still exist, but they cater to a very niche market of loyalists. For the most part, the era of the truly exorbitantly priced home video product is dead.

 

That’s not the case in the audio market, at least not to the same extent. This market has faced similar challenges over the past 10 years, as companies like GoldenEar, SVS, and ELAC on the speaker side and Emotiva on the electronics side have proven that you can deliver high-performance audio products for a lot less money.

 

It has certainly been disruptive, forcing some brands out of business and others into the hands of private-equity companies. But big-name audiophile brands like Paradigm, Focal, MartinLogan, Revel, NAD, Anthem, and Marantz are still alive and kicking—and producing great gear at lower price points than ever before.

 

But it poses the question, as the mid-level offerings from these companies get better and better, how can they continue to justify the existence of higher-end lines, especially in the speaker market? How do you quantify the improvement? That has always been my struggle.

 

Sure, you can measure a speaker’s frequency response and sensitivity. You can measure an amp’s power and distortion. There are some performance benchmarks by which to judge a product. But measurements don’t tell the whole story in audio.

 

Personal preference is certainly a valid benchmark. Some people prefer a little fuller bass, a little more prominent midrange, or a more emphasized treble. That’s true of any audio product, no matter the price. (Hey, it’s true in video, too. Some people prefer a less accurate, more exaggerated picture. But unlike with a TV, you can’t offer multiple performance modes in 

a pair of speakers that will significantly alter the sound profile to appeal to different tastes.)

 

As you move into the truly high-end audio realm, the performance conversation moves away from those basic sonic characteristics that are easily defined and more toward elusive qualities like space, texture, and liquidity—words that often make the more technically minded audio fan bristle. What exactly are we describing there? I’m not even sure what liquidity sounds like.

 

Certainly, build quality and design help to distinguish many high-end products. The use of higher-quality parts. A product that has been hand-assembled, or at least individually inspected and approved. Real-wood cabinets. Automotive-grade custom paint finishes. 

 

But even here you reach a point of diminishing returns on your investment. Some of the most eye-catching speakers I’ve seen at recent trade shows include the Focal Kanta No. 2 ($10,000/pair), the Paradigm Persona 5F ($17,000/pair), and the Revel Performa F228Be ($10,000/pair). For me, 

these seem like the pinnacle of performance and luxury, so when I see the existence of $65,000/pair or $100,000/pair speakers, my response is: Why? I’ve yet to hear a satisfying answer to this question, which is why high-end audio is still a category I shy away from as a reviewer. I just don’t get it.

 

I also wonder how much longer it can last. The high-end audio market has proven itself more resilient (or maybe just more stubborn) than the high-end video market, but is the end nigh? One audio reviewer I know has mentioned that the trend at many audiophile shows these days is to create products where exoticism, rather than sound quality, is the apparent goal. He sometimes derides these products as “wacky.” Like, if you can’t convince people to buy something expensive, convince them to buy something “unique” instead. This trend might be even worse, but that’s a topic for another day.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.