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.
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 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.