Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Apples to Apples

I am a member of a local audio club that loves to get together and compare equipment. It is not uncommon for us to toggle between three DACs of different flavors and prices straining to hear the differences. While a great experience and loads of fun with results that can surprise everyone, there is a problem with just getting together and doing this. While some efforts are made to match the output levels between the equipment, this is usually done by ear and is not all that accurate.

Perceptions is differences between product A and product B can easily be attributed to volume levels where the louder of the two will appear to sound "better" (whatever subjective judgement that brings to mind) than the product that was tested at a lower volume level. To really understand what differences there are, one must have trained ears and consistent levels in order to compare apples to apples.
It is well documented that even signals of the same level when masked by other noises can appear to sound completely different from what the original source created. Your mind can play tricks on you and do so with such finesse that you are not even aware it is doing so. Your brain is very creative and crafty when it comes to hearing different things.

Take for example the cocktail party effect.  Here, your brain for some mysterious reason will zoom in on someone saying your name across the room at a crowded party and let you hear it just as if you were joining in on the conversation. Once alerted, you can literally tune out other sounds and focus on what is being said about you. Interesting!

So what about your personal preferences? How does this impact what you "perceive" as better or worse? Does your brain play the same tricks on your impressions that it does at the cocktail party? Yes it does.

What you hear is what you are familiar with; what you do not hear is what your brain screens out. The only way to truly know what the sonic differences are between product A and product B is a prolonged listening test with familiar material from the same listening position at precisely measured and matched levels. Change one thing at a time only and nothing else. This takes time and patience, something in the world of instant gratification few do.

So the next time your first impression of a piece of gear is "that wounds awful," think for a moment about what you are familiar with and what truly "sounds different." Stop and remove your biases and get honest with yourself at a level that transcends money, prestige, color, whatever, and say to yourself, "which sounds more real?"

In hindsight, how many of you have purchased something on your first impression only later to realize that what you believed to be great was in fact not so much? Point made.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.


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