Becoming an Expert Listener — Challenging Yourself Can Really Pay Off
Scientific American joins forces with Better Records (or is it the other way around?) to share a few ideas, which turn out to have much in common.
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 site, 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? Finally, after years of scratching my head over this conundrum, Scientific American has come to the rescue with an article by Philip E. Ross in the August 2006 issue entitled The Expert Mind. Its subtitle explains:
Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.
The studies have a number of significant findings which go a long way toward explaining the expertise, or lack of it, in listeners. It concludes that experts are made, not born, which means that virtually anyone can acquire the skills to become an expert listener.
But more importantly, the efforts required to reach that expert level explain why many audiophiles have not managed to acquire the necessary skills. These studies show that two requirements must be met. The first is ten years of hard work. This means full time -- not weekends, not a few hours after work to relax, but full time: forty, fifty, sixty hours a week, for years and years.
That amount of effort for that amount of time is "necessary but not sufficient", as the logicians like to say. You can play golf all day every day and never become a scratch golfer. If you want to play at that level you have to work at it. You have to challenge yourself to play better, by whatever means necessary. You must actively approach the game with the intention to improve, not passively approach the game with the goal of enjoyment. That fundamental difference in attitude and effort results in very different skill levels over time.
As you can probably guess by now, I started to see something of myself in these findings. I've been listening critically to records full time for well over a decade, close to two at this point. And many others who work here do the same -- listen critically.
Let's face it, we don't play records all day because we want to. We play them because we have to. It's how we make our living. Life would be a lot easier if we could just be one of those record dealers who throws a title up on his site with a visual grade and a high price and could get it. We can't. Audiophiles come to us for superior sounding pressings, and there's only one way to find those -- by playing records.
What's more, you have to compare any given pressing to others you may have on hand, to see what it's doing right and wrong, where its strengths and weaknesses lay. It's a lot of work. This is how we've learned about records. We can't imagine any other way of doing it. After reading this article, I went back through some of my audio commentary and found this little gem from 2005.
A good record is an education for me too. This is not only how I've managed to learn about the pressing in question; it's the same process that allows me to make improvements in the sound of the stereo. It's learning how to identify what is right and what is wrong with the sound of any pressing -- the same process that helps me recognize whether any change to the stereo makes it sound better or worse, and to try and figure out by how much and in what way.
And the best part is, like the practice of any skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I do it all day, every day. Not because I'm noble or dedicated. I do it because I enjoy it. It's fun. It's the most fun part of this job. Discovering great sounding recordings is a THRILL. It's what this hobby is all about -- music that sounds better than you ever thought it could.
The study corroborated what we already knew to be true. Improving your Critical Listening Skills requires the expenditure of effort, and lots of it.
The second finding of the study was corroborated in the next few paragraphs, wherein I exhorted the reader to challenge himself, to test his skills using records he already owns:
Of course, as I've stated elsewhere on the site, you learn almost nothing from the same record played back on the same equipment. What you must do is learn to listen for differences in the sound, and differences only come about as the result of a change. You have to CHANGE something in the system to develop these critical listening skills.
How about this example: the difference in sound between any two sides of a record. The only change there involves flipping the record over. No new equipment, no tweaks, no shootouts with dozens of alternate pressings. Just flip the record. Almost no record has the same sound on both sides, not the records we sell anyway. Where else have you ever read such a thing? Nowhere else, at least to my knowledge. Because not enough audiophiles and almost no record dealers make the effort to listen critically.
If you can't hear the difference on at least some of your records, it has to be one or both of the following. Either your system is not good enough to resolve these differences, which is sometimes the case, or, much more likely, you simply haven't trained your ears to listen for them. Not listening for pleasure. Listening like it's a job. Critically. Analytically. Try to listen for one quality by itself. Listen for grain, or top end extension, or bass dynamics -- anything, the list is endless. Focus in on that single quality, recognize it, appreciate it, then flip the record over and judge that quality for side two.
Although we make plenty of mistakes, we think of ourselves as experts when it comes to evaluating the sound of records and stereo equipment. (Experts make mistakes; they just make fewer of them.) The studies alluded to above make it clear that anyone can.
But the practical consequences of these findings are that few audiophiles can ever hope to achieve expert critical listening skills. It takes too much time and it takes too much work. Most people are in this hobby for fun. They already have a job. They don't need another one.
Perhaps there's another, better way to look at it. Most people are not going to become scratch golfers, but they can still get better at the game. There is a balance to be achieved between working hard to improve your skills and having fun at the same time.
What has driven me in this hobby has always been the music.
When I play a record I love, I want to be able to hear it right. If I can't hear it right, I don't enjoy it. If enjoying it means finding a better sounding pressing, then that's what I have to do. If it means improving the stereo or room, then I must find a way to make the stereo or the room sound better. This is of course the most frustrating aspect of our audiophile pursuits. It is not often easy to find the right record or make the right change to the stereo or room. But this is the challenge we face if we care enough about the music to want to hear it right.
Let the music be your guide. If the sound of most of the records you play satisfies you, great. If it doesn't, and you want better pressings or better equipment, we're here to help. And if you want to improve your listening skills in order to better your stereo or your record collection, you know what to do.