May 12, 2021

Listen to live music

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loud-musicBy Paul McGowan From PS Audio

Hearing adjustments

I had mentioned in an earlier post how our hearing gets used to a certain sound and we adjust to that as normal. One of my readers posted what I think is a very insightful comment on that very subject.

Here is the biggest credibility problem: hearing adapts. You can’t judge accuracy of a reproduction system unless your hearing is well acclimated by daily listening to the absolute standard: physically generated music, with no mics, wires and speakers in the room, just musicians using their fingers and lips to make sound.

One of my audio gurus, Siegfried Linkwitz, gave a talk at the AES convention a few years back which castigated audio engineers for NEVER listening to live music. The people who judge tests like CD vs. SACD listen to speakers all day, every day of their professional life and NEVER go to acoustic concerts. Even if they spend a few minutes in the studio listening to real music being played, the setups are typically one to three musicians at a time, or musicians in separate rooms, and all studio rooms are carefully deadened to increase separation!

This means that AUDIO ENGINEERS ARE DEAF TO THE SUBTLETIES OF MUSIC PLAYED IN A ROOM. They were raised listening to speakers and never learned what real music sound like.

I found this to be an excellent comment, one that helps explain why some listeners find it easier than others to distinguish different levels of reproduction. The best listeners I know of are also those that often go to live music concerts. And I don’t go enough myself. Our memories of the real thing fade and adjust over time.

Not only is it imperative to expose yourself to live music as often as possible, but there are other benefits as well. Attending live music events supports musicians, gets you out of the house, and is just downright enjoyable.

I plan on doing more. You?

For more on this story go to:

Two replies on website worth re-publishing:
paulsquirrel April 29, 2016 at 1:39 am #

This argumentation sound most logical at a first reading. But at least 16 hours per day our ears are exposed to and trained with all kind of environmental sounds. Thus it should be explained why our ears need a specific training for music. I rather assume that the recording engineers are trained to listening via headphones to closed miked instruments. Thus this specific group of listeners might lack the experience of “normal” listening and might have developed specific filtering algorithms. 🙂 I admit that there is the effect of developing preferences for a specific HIFI sound as produced by tubed amps in combination with horn loudspeakers. Those you prefer this sound normally cannot stand the sound from ordinary speakers.

BillK April 29, 2016 at 4:04 am #

Yes, there’s a preference and there’s also the fact that you become trained to things most others don’t notice.

For example, for about twenty years my main speakers were the incredible Apogee Caliper Signatures. Not perfect, but yet very resolving and they throw a soundstage that’s huge and beautiful. But the side effect of living with radiators that fired forward and back is virtually every iother speaker, including many highly reviewed ones, sounded immediately like cones in a box. To this day, I can walk into 95% of the rooms at RMAF and hear the speaker cabinets affecting the sound.

The other thing I heard was what I call “beaming” – where if say, a trumpet is being played all alone in one channel, with many dynamic speakers you can identify it not as being a trumpet coming from over there, but a sound coming from THAT DRIVER, right THERE.

However, I also found there were some very good speakers that did not suffer from this. Wilson Audio speakers at the Sasha level or above are immune, but the very well reviewed Sophia? Nope, cones in a box. Sonus Faber Stradivari or Amati Anniversario? Wonderful, but the well-reviewed Elipsa? Nope, I can hear the trumpet is coming from the midrange driver, THERE. The tweeters on every B&W make themselves instantly known.

Then it hit me why these incredibly well-reviewed speakers had this effect, and it’s because most reviewers have spent a good chunk of their lives listening to cones in a box, and the speakers in question were VERY GOOD cones in a box. If all you’ve done for decades, you can hear when the cones in a box sound good, and you grow to ignore being able to identify a particular speaker driver, because you don’t know how magical it is when the effect is GONE.

I often wonder if the reason many have no interest in high end audio is they have never heard how good sound CAN sound. I have had people listen to recordings they have been intimately familiar with over the time span of decades hear them on my system and within minutes turn to me , mouth agape, and have said “I never knew it sounded like that” or “I’d never heard THAT in there before” – not unlike the way before the advent of CD, most had never heard that on many recordings with orchestra, you can hear music stands and musicians creaking in their seats or tapping their feet. What had been obscured is now, obvious.

However, what also was first made clear to me at a mid-1980s Stereophile Hi-Fi show that brought in a chamber music group to play completely WITHOUT AMPLIFICATION is that even the best stereo system is completely terrible compared to the sound of live musicians playing live.

What’s truly sad is that we are now also have another problem – even at the best symphony halls in the world, we no longer know what the sound of a Symphony Orchestra is… but we know what one sounds like as reproduced by the hall’s PA system. We may have seen our favorite artists on tour, but we don’t know what THEY sound like, we know what their tour audio system sounds like. Artists like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain and Michael Bublé all rely on Auto-Tune when performing LIVE so as to provide customers with the “best musical experience.” The sound of a vocalist, all alone, with perfect pitch, playing an unamplified acoustic guitar can now only be heard in basement rehearsal halls and on some Nashville street corners. Even intimate Jazz clubs have the piano and sax miked and reproduced on speakers (often of dubious quality) throughout.

So what is the experience we’re trying to reproduce, and does it really exist anymore? Many groups now all perform individually and everything is done in a digital audio workstation; some groups have never even MET one another, they just each perform their parts at home and send them to the producer who makes a record out of it. The days of Presley or Sinatra performing in a studio with their band or even a full orchestra behind them, in the same place, at the same time is over.

When we want to reproduce live sound, are we trying to reproduce our favorite artist playing a stadium show with racks of road speakers driven by Crown amps? When we want to reproduce that jazz club, do we want to reproduce the sound of their mid-fi system? When we want to hear what we heard at that live rock venue, do we want to hear what the front of house guy had EQed things as because he lost all hearing about 13 KHz long ago after doing gigs at 130db night after night without hearing protection since 1992?

Now we have generations of youth growing up hoping that when they see their favorite artist in concert, they hear the same compressed to 20 dB of dynamic range, “phasey” sound they’ve been listening to on their “Mastered for iTunes” tracks. They’ve never heard good sound, and even if they were dragged to a high end showroom, they’d put on their 128 Kbps MP3 of an artist that has been compressed, normalized and generally beaten to a pulp so that it literally sounds no different on a mbl Radialstrahler than on their ear buds.

The funny thing about this is that of late, one of the redemptive things about vinyl is that, to use Taylor Swift’s album 1989 as an example, the vinyl LP actually sounds BETTER than the CD as it has more dynamic range and hasn’t been as drastically EQed.

This is all a long-winded way of saying if the goal of high end audio is to reproduce the original sound, or the duplicate a concert hall, then today the goal is to properly reproduce the overly compressed 130 db sound of Crown amps driving Yamaha and Peavey road speakers.

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever put on a 1961 Sinatra LP, the beauty of that music and that orchestra that somehow they managed to capture on the master is simply breathtaking, and ours may be one of the last generations to care.

Quick story: For decades, Mannheim Steamroller’s “Fresh Aire” records were used as demo material for stereo stores, and the original Fresh Aire CDs were , while not perfect, quite beautiful (but sounded nowhere near as good as the LPs.)

When they recently released their “30/40” collection, they “remastered” all the tracks – which now are over-compressed, devoid of any actual dynamic range and fatiguing to listen to.



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  1. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article! It’s the little changes that will make the greatest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

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