Published on September 19, 2007
Critical listening is a key to evaluating stereo equipment correctly and appreciating music in general. It is entirely different from listening solely for pleasure. Evaluation by ear is essential for choosing correctly, because it will tell you where the major differences lie between pieces of equipment of similar description, such as loudspeakers.
It is not easy to tell what sounds good and what does not. Most people may be able to tell the difference between great and poor sound, but they may not know why the difference exists. That is why your ears need to be trained.
As your ears become accustomed to identifying the differences between good- and poor-quality electronics or recordings, your ability to assess the qualities of two of more pieces of equipment, and why some are better than others, will improve.
There are many ways to identify clean, good sound, but one of the best is to listen with a group of people when they are trying out an audio system. Listen to their criticism and judgement but don't necessarily be swayed by them; they could be trying to entice you to buy. Allow your own musical aesthetic to dictate how you evaluate the listening experience. Remember to let the music tell you how well - or how badly - the stereo system reproduces the sound.
Another way is to listen to music in each system available to you, where there is a difference in head units or amplifiers. Decide for yourself which system is more musical, even though your reasons may differ from those of other people. The more audio systems you listen to, the better your ears will become attuned to a strong frame of reference that will tell you whether a system you like has proper sound quality or whether it is adding to or subtracting from the musical experience. Always take your favourite CD along when you want to audition a piece of audio equipment.
To develop your listening skills, listen to the treble, or high frequencies; the bass, or low frequencies; and the middle range. Is the treble effortless, smooth and crisp, or is it grainy, harsh or congested? Good high-frequency reproduction should contain minute amounts of information that make the music real. These subtleties increase your ties to the music. You can better tell the artistic character of the music by listening carefully to the instruments, placing the performers in your mind's eye as your listen.
Does the bass come to you as distinct notes? Does it seem balanced and realistic, or is it boomy and simply vibrating both you and your surroundings? Some people may become confused when assessing low-frequency sound when 60-70 hertz is fed to a loudspeaker that has a 50Hz frequency response. In fact, frequencies below 80Hz will not deliver a "boom" sound, but rather will only vibrate you and your surroundings. In assessing bass sound, you must be able to differentiate between drums and synthesisers, which are completely dissimilar.
As for the middle range, do the voices seem full, or do they sound artificial, with a nasal quality, like someone singing into a tin can? Are they compressed and narrow? In many cases, mid-range frequencies from 400Hz to 3 kilohertz tend to be narrowed, sound artificial and have bad tonal balance. Noticeably, the sound of a trumpet or blowing whistle will sound unnaturally narrow.
Recognising what sounds good before you buy your audio equipment is essential if you want good value for your money.
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