Listening Material: Epic Fail

Listening sessions. What are they really for? Contrary to a belief that’s unfortunately gaining traction, a listening session is not so you can ‘discover new music’, listen to whatever’s trending at the time, or even to hear your favourite music played to its best advantage.

The sole purpose of any listening session, either at a hi-fi show or in a dealer’s showroom—when the purpose of the session is solely to evaluate a component, presumably with a view to purchase—is to enable you to hear how accurately a component reproduces the true, unamplified, unprocessed sound of acoustic musical instruments and human voices. In these days of amplified voices and instruments, that’s becoming harder to do, but it’s not impossible.

The reason for using only acoustic instruments and voices is that in order to judge if any hi-fi component is adding or detracting from sound quality, you need to know what that instrument or voice sounds like ‘in the flesh’. Instruments that require amplification—electric guitars, synthesisers, and so on—are useless for product evaluation because their ‘sound’ will vary from musician to musician, and even the same musician will ‘tweak’ the sound for each performance, so you don’t know how they ‘should’ sound.

So in order to evaluate how accurately a pair of loudspeakers reproduces the sound of a piano, for example, you have to know what a piano sounds like ‘live’. The same is true for acoustic guitar, flute, violin or any instrument… including the human voice. With a human voice, it’s obviously vitally important that the fidelity is sufficient that you instantly recognise who is singing. This is why, back in the early days of audio, one company advertised its products by showing an image of a small dog with his ear cocked, signifying that the fidelity of the system was such that the dog was able to recognise the sound of his master’s voice.

This is why jazz and classical recordings are almost always used for demonstrations at hi-fi shows, because by and large, neither jazz groups nor orchestras are amplified, so anyone who attends classical concerts, or jazz venues would be familiar with the sound of the instruments used in both ensembles types, so when classical or jazz music was played through a pair of speakers, they’d have a definite auditory ‘point of reference’ to judge whether the speakers were accurately reproducing the sound of those instruments. Although amplification (of both orchestras and jazz groups) is now common, it’s normally fairly benign, in that it isn’t used to alter the tone of the music being reproduced, merely its volume. The same is not quite true of amplified vocals, because the tonal quality of the singer’s voice is always affected by the microphone being used to capture that voice, but in this case, you want the ‘after amplification’ tone of the singer’s voice to remain identical after additional amplification by a home hi-fi system.

This evaluation system is not foolproof, because similar instruments sound different depending on which company makes them (pianos, acoustic guitars, violins, cellos etc) but mostly the similarities far outweigh the differences. The same is true of recording venue and recording quality. Both will vary, but the similarities will outweigh the differences, making listening sessions—using recordings of acoustic instruments and voices—the only useful weapon in any audiophile’s armoury. If you use any other type of music to evaluate sound quality, you’re making a serious error of judgement, because doing so will not permit a true evaluation of the quality of the component being auditioned. # greg borrowman