Hi-Fi Controversies: Listening

Recently, moths have been named as having the best hearing in the world, in both the animal and human kingdoms

I think about this hobby often: A lot. Recently, the thought that captured my mind was controversy; how is it that a hobby whose purpose is enjoyment so riddled with controversy? My next thought; why not talk about some of them?

So that's what I plan to do. I have no plan as to how many and which we'll talk about and I'd be very happy to hear from you with your thoughts about controversial subjects you'd like to delve into, here.

I would just add one caveat before we get going; thank you. Thank you, all, for your thoughtful and respectful comments on AudioStream. It has been a continued pleasure to read them and I am truly grateful that we can share in our enjoyment here and encounter thoughtful, considerate, and generous people. Thank you.

When discussing controversial topics it may be tempting at times to be less than polite so a gentle reminder that we have a zero tolerance policy for a lack of civility, disrespectful comments, and personal attacks.

How Can Listening Be Controversial?
To suggest that we listen to hi-fi gear we're interested in is to some a mistake. Their idea being something like—our prejudices, preconceived notions, biases, and other human foibles will cloud our perception. Many times hand-in-hand with this position is the supposed importance of removing these foibles from the equation using some sort of blind test.

On another side of the coin, coins in the hi-fi hobby are more than two-sided, people feel that listening, especially over time, to be the best way to determine what we will enjoy listening to.

Who's right?

I'm going to leave me out of this introduction in terms of my beliefs on this controversy (well, sorta), but I will ask a question—for those people who support blind testing, do you or have you meditated? Have you ever tried to quiet your mind, removing all conscious thought, for 20 minutes at a clip? Two times a day for a week? For years?

If you have, you'll have noted that to detach our minds from our thoughts takes practice; it feels unnatural. My point being, the idea that we can remove all biases from the listening experience by removing the knowledge of what we are listening to ignores the fact that our minds are still distracted by thought.

Thoughts? Can we listen to determine what we enjoy listening to? Or do we need to take extra care with our biases when auditioning hi-fi gear?

ednaz's picture

The Buddhist term "monkey mind" - a mind that's unsettled, capricious, leaping from thought to thing to thought - is pretty accurate when describing what goes on inside the head, particularly in email text message instagram Facebook Twitter land. I've gotten to the point of being reasonably proficient at a number of different things, measured by credentials - music (union card), acting (Equity card), auto racing (IMSA license), photography (several shows) - and in every case the last biggest leap comes when you quiet the monkey down. While you are no doubt conscious when performing at the high end of any task, your consciousness is suppressed. I could get out of a car after a two hour shift and remember every corner and pass, but couldn't remember a single conscious thought. Unless I really sucked on that stint, and then I could remember many, many, many conscious thoughts. "Try not, do - or do not."

I'm an inconsistent meditator, but I think it's because I have many things I do for pleasure that require me to get into that suspended state - otherwise I don't enjoy what I'm doing, it's not relaxing, it's as fraught as crossing a NY city street against the light.I know listening to the right music (which is very situationally dependent for me) can put me in that conscious but consciousness switched off. It's why I call it my drug of choice.

I've wondered if that's the state where you can best hear the fine detailed differences that you often talk about. From your post above, I think that's where you're heading. Putting words to thoughts too soon may be how you kill Schrodinger's cat.

Christian Goergen's picture

Worth of discussion? As far as I'm concerned engagement is something that occurs in front of a microphone and beyond ours eardrums. In between there are only sound pressure level differences and voltage differences.

solarophile's picture

Curious about what you're up to Michael. Sure, would love to read your writings on "Zen and The Art of Listening".

Not sure what controversy there is since listening is basically a personal activity irrespective of audio gear and music. Just like nobody's going to be critical of anyone's choice of "Lovely Recordings".

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...since 2005. While my thoughts on listening have progressed, they have not changed, significantly.

So there's plenty to read regarding my thoughts on hi-fi. Some may say, too much ;-)

If you look at just the comments here so far, you'll see there are different views on this topic. I'm encouraging people to share theirs.

solarophile's picture

Yeah, there are many opinions expressed but that's my point. It's all relative how any audiophile "listens" to the music depending on life experience and how a person engages with their favourite tunes.

I might not be a head-banger but had many friends who were back in the day (getting too old now!). Likewise, I see some meditators here - again not for me thanks though I can respect those who feel this is important.

This is no different from the "Lovely Recordings" or the "Download of the Week". Some recommendations I can dig, some don't do it for me. Just don't see the controversy. Like I said, I'm interested in reading about your journey and philosophy, but don't see any actual "controversy". It's just one of those purely subjective things!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...the importance of meditation is not something we "feel is important", rather the benefits of meditation are known, well understood, and documented facts.
solarophile's picture

Meditation is but one of many forms of relaxation.

Benefits vary with the individual in any event.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
That's not a description of the benefits of meditation. But let me ask - what other forms of "relaxation" offer the same health benefits as meditation?

The benefits of waking up in the morning varies with the individual.

24bitbob's picture

..... for me that's a form of relaxation that offers similar benefits as meditation. But I never listen to music or anything reproduced when I walk, in fact I don't consciously listen to anything whilst walking; but I'm quite often startled by the sounds of nature. (I think that's hearing, but it certainly doesn't start off as listening)

On listening to music, I find myself 'dieting' quite frequently, and sometimes for periods of days. By dieting I mean I don't listen to anything, nor search out sounds. Other times I'll 'feast', and it's for those times that I've invested time and money in creating a good sounding system.

Forcing myself to listen I find arduous, and can do so only for short periods of time. With that in mind, my appreciation for what you do Michael, and others who review professionally, shall be declared. God forbid I should have to A/B anything.

Not listening is an essential prerequisite for the joy of listening.

solarophile's picture

Remember, just because something is studied and found to be beneficial doesn't mean other things aren't able to achieve the same! Nor obviously that it's something everyone cares for of course...

Walking? (as brought up by Bob)
Sitting by a park bench watching the waves?
Lying in hammock enjoying the clouds in the sky?
Playing with the kids?
Sitting in a hot tub?
Going for a hike in the woods?
A relaxing massage?
Other spiritual pursuits and disciplines be it Mass or prayer...

Like I said, all subjective and whatever works for the person.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And one which is practiced every day.

I never said that other things are not able to achieve the same, or similar, goals. I simply pointed out that "relaxation" is not the goal of meditation. That being said, playing with the kids, etc, do not offer the same kind of mental discipline so they cannot offer the same benefit.

Whether or not one cares for meditation is at once not the point and is the point ;-)

solarophile's picture

"Whether or not one cares for meditation is at once not the point and is the point ;-)"

Of course, this can be viewed from different perspectives depending on a person's needs, hence the relativity and subjectivity of it all. Which was my original point. Some might desire meditation, some might see prayer, devotions and liturgical acts forms of discipline they prefer. I don't see the "controversy" here.

As for the monks controlling body temperatures and metabolism. That's nice. But let's see their computer audio gear and "Lovely Recordings". Isn't that the main point of this site?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...to explain your inability to have a meaningful exchange, none of which hold any interest for me.

While I have not been keeping score, I'm counting this exchange as strike 3, i.e you are out in terms of my interest in trying.


monkeybrsin's picture

"...endless games of spiritual one upmanship." - Alan Watts

Blond:ish - It Starts Now


Michael Lavorgna's picture
Through meditation, Tibetan monks can raise their body's surface temperature by as much as 17 degrees Fahrenheit while their core temperature remains unchanged. Others can lower their metabolism by 64 percent.
Christian Goergen's picture

ABX -test have not been invented in the audio world. They are, if properly designed and executed, a science-based instrument to retrieve informations about values, you can't measure, because they lie along an ordinal scale (at best). Anecdotal reports concerning listening experiences are not even an instrument. Most people, who reject the use of ABX-test are in fear of loosing their reputation, acquired through ...?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I agree - listening is not an "instrument."
Most people, who reject the use of ABX-test are in fear of loosing their reputation, acquired through ...?
My experience suggests that most people who refer to "most people..." have not spoken to most people ;-)
Christian Goergen's picture

I meant: most of the people I talked to. Never heard a convincing argument against an well designed and executed ABX-test. Given that the object is a comparative judgement of an audible event. Yes, such form of explration can be helpful in reducing our biases if knowledge is the aim of listening. If it's enjoyment, then there is no need in reducing our biases or being concious of them.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

If so, what knowledge are you after?

Christian Goergen's picture

Assume a piano note sheet is an instruction how to play a piece of music. Theoretically the hole piece could be described as a line of acceleration values over the time domain (ignore the pedals for a moment) for every of the 88 keys. Very similar to an analogue cartridge/cantilever motion. The artistic rendition of any piano player could be reproduced and not only in a technical way, provided the instrument is the same. Modify the acceleration values and you possibly increase or decrease the "artistic merit". Knowledge ends here. Science is necessary for the reproduction in this example. I see no possibility to transform or translate the differences in acceleration values into "artistic values". The other side of the coin is not scientific. That does not determine a smaller grade of usefulness, but it affords serious efforts not to be too vague or irreproducible.
What I'm after: more contributions in the audio realm with a clear discrimination between scientific based statements and not scientific based statements.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...that "artistic merit" is an objective valuation?

Forgive me, but I do not find an answer to my question. You say:

What I'm after: more contributions in the audio realm with a clear discrimination between scientific based statements and not scientific based statements.
What will this clear discrimination get you in terms of listening to music on the hi-fi?
Christian Goergen's picture

Ten years ago I bought a integrated amp and a pair of speakers based on enthusiastic reports in a german hifi magazine and I'm still content with them. Last year I' ve been searching a new turntable and started a white spread internet research. During that quest I stumbled over issues like the subjectivist-objectivist argument, reports over the "vital effects" of changing the vta for small parts of a millimeter, the recommendations of hdmi-cables worth a monthly wage and so on. After all, the lectures are more confusing than enlightening. In the end it's all about decision making when you' re planning a purchase. For me it's not possible to travel around, carrying my speakers from retailer to retailer to compare my speakers with other speakers. If you are on a tight budget, how do others decide, what to buy? What a degree of reliance have reports with notes like " more space around the instruments" for the average buyer? If I could, I' d go to a recording studio, my wife an my daughters shouting and whispering at me with their natural voices. Sitting behind the microphone first to listen to the live event, than listening to the monitors in the control room and finally listen to the cd in my living room. This could deliver a slight impression on the quality losses between the steps from event to reproduction. Until I have enough time for such an effort I have to gauge hifi reviews. That's why I'm after clear discrimination. Reviews should bring the reader in position to make a preliminary choice which gear to test and what method is to be applied. And the more articles I read, the more were diminishing helpful. That does not mean to substitute listening with reading.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I agree with much of what you say. I will, however, take exception with this:
"If you are on a tight budget, how do others decide, what to buy? What a degree of reliance have reports with notes like " more space around the instruments" for the average buyer?"
This is a sentence, not a report. The value I get from reading reviews is based on a) reading the entire review, and b) knowing the reviewer's writing.

For example, when I read a review by Art Dudley or Herb Reichert, I do not pick out a sentence or two and run to the store with it. I place what they are saying in context with their work. In these writer's cases, we have decades of context.

One point I'd like to highlight is that some people appear to place zero value on experience and history when it comes audio reviews. While I'm not saying that experience is necessarily a guarantee that a writer's impressions will match yours 100%, experience is valued in most every other endeavor so I have to wonder why it's discounted when it comes to hi-fi.

Also, for me, I am not interested in mimicking "monitors in a control room" since this is simply one perspective and one that has no relation to me, unless I choose to make it have one. I am looking for a system that is musically engaging. I also attend live events and have instruments that I play here, not to mention simply listening to the sounds around me, so i know what I want when it comes to listening to music.

And...thank you for your thoughtful responses.


Christian Goergen's picture

to thank you for the thorough reading and answering of my posts. And .... I made my choice for the turntable after Herb Reichert was so brave to listen to a direct drive ( uhuhu) turntable from japan, made in china (aargh).

ktracho's picture

Maybe it depends on what the purpose is. Some time ago I bought a used Jaguar at a good price. During the time I had it, I really enjoyed every time I would walk up to it, get inside, and drive it, and I was sad when my wife made me sell it. (Too many things were breaking down on it.) If I had based my purchase decision purely on paper specs and objective tests, I may have bought a different car, possibly at a higher price, yet had less enjoyment.

So what's your purpose? If my purpose had been to get the fastest or more reliable car at a given price point, the Jaguar I bought would not have been the right choice.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'd like to think that we all share the goal of the enjoyment of music but this may not be the case.
ktracho's picture

The system I have most enjoyed listening to is an inexpensive push-pull EL34-based amplifier driving old Stax headphones through a Stax transformer. However, I read a review on a BBC-derived speaker that has made me question my purpose. The goal of the speaker design was to recreate the sound BBC engineers heard in their recording studios as closely as possible, and to a larger extent than many other designs, they have succeeded. So as I take a step back and think about what to do with my amplifier that I damaged by using burnt out tubes due to naivete, I need to ponder whether my purpose should be blissful enjoyment, or if it should be tempered with some attempt to faithfully recreate how musical instruments actually sound.

Anton's picture

Sometimes one, sometimes the other!

ktracho's picture

and a TV in another room. My turntable is in the computer room.

Christian Goergen's picture

I wished that I could afford an e-type jaguar. It would be a decision by optical appearance. Transfered to the hifi gear: a mcintosh solid state or accuphase amp and a pair of quad esl 57. But my wife wouldn't let me buy it :).
What was your decision for the jaguar based upon? An enthusiastic driving report in a car magazine. Certainly not. For budget restricted buying decisions are other rules valid.

bobflood's picture

I wish this site would stick to equipment reviews and hard news. We get enough controversy from that without creating it. Lets leave philosophy to the academic realm.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...the great thing is, you can. In the future, when you see a post title that starts with "Hi-Fi Controversies:..." ignore it.

Problem solved ;-)

pdxdon's picture

. I just listened to a Lisa Gerrard sound track while meditating. The volume was less than loud, more than quiet. The music helped me to enter into a deep state and let it wash over me in waves of wonder. It was alive, and flowing, and fascinating. I had never heard the album before, and now it is a favorite.

The system has gotten out of its way and all that is left is the music and the emotions it engenders. It is pure and totally sufficient. I breathed and swam in the music and that is all I wanted or needed to do. It is the immersion into the experience, without multitasking or distraction or boredom.

I think we should strive for "good enough", not the best, not the minimum. Good enough varies certainly about how much the category means to you. If it is a passion of yours and you can fully enter into oneness, then it is good enough. I can get that driving the GTI. I could enjoy it more in a Lamborghini, but I don't need to go that far to be at one with the drive. My system is relatively simple when compared to other high end systems, but it delivers in a way that very few others have.

The music has dimensionality, and flow, and dynamic range, and foot tapping rhythm, and majesty. The bass delivers a strong foundation, the highs shimmer, and float, and voices have a sensuality and delicacy.

The music still has to be interesting and recorded well, and fit the mood I am in, of course. I must be in a state where I can detach from other distractions.

But when it all comes together, it is a magical state, and the system facilitates this.

blang11's picture

To some extent, I understand all the handwringing that goes into evaluating and comparing multiple components. Which one is best? If we're paying a lot of hard earned dollars, we want to know ASSUREDLY that we select the best component for us. I get that. But the more gear I listen to, the more I realize there are so many combinations of gear that will produce enjoyable results for me. I do like to do some A/B, but two components could be so similar that subtle differences reveal themselves only in the long term, and even then who can really be sure about that? That's the point at which I just say good enough and go with my gut. I'm content leaving the uber thorough reviews to the pros (much appreciated).

Not to get too off topic, but this talk of meditation makes me think of Sam Harris’ book Waking Up. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Anton's picture

I can remember when listening was a verb.


Anyway, I look at listening to music on the Hi Fi from the other way around, I think.

I listen to music to see where it will send me. I would hate to have to sit and not let my mind wander during a song.

I leave, come back, leave again, free associate...

I think it's a cool thing, and relates a little to what Herb Reichert said in a recent video - he listens for what a piece of gear draws his attention to.

Certain gear may bring me back for certain sounds it can make, and drive my attention toward different aspects or thought.

I love this part of Hi Fi.

Thanks for a great and thought provoking entry today!

Doak's picture

in record time.
"What is, is."

Michael Lavorgna's picture
..., Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"
— William Shakespeare
rt66indierock's picture

Someone who has advanced training and experience beyond what it takes to be a CPA (or similar profession) can put aside their biases with some effort but it is not necessary for evaluating audio.

This is what works for me. I have eight reference albums I’ve used since the mid-seventies when I moonlighted as consultant in the broadcasting industry. I added The Nightly in 1982. All were effective for me to verify radio station equipment was functioning properly. To fine tune I’ve used recordings of a harmonica, four and six string banjos and Cajun saw fiddling I made myself.

So here’s what happens when I just listen using the probabilities of my profession (public accounting). First I listen to Pet Sounds. It is more likely than not I’m done at this point (51% probability or greater) because the piece of audio equipment fails my most basic listening test. It is probable (greater than 75% chance) listening to the other eight albums will cause any piece of audio equipment to be rejected.

Then I listen to the recordings I made and you might get some equipment that can play a harmonica and four string banjo but not much audio equipment will play a six string banjo or Cajun saw fiddling regardless of price.

Looking the other way at T.H.E. Show last year I could make any room sound good by playing the right classic rock. At RMAF 2016 this skill was tested again because of power and room shape issues.

Finally if a format doesn’t have eight of the nine albums available it is not commercially viable so why bother with it?

Christian Goergen's picture

to judge a reproduction is to produce the recorded sound by yourself. Did you always play the instruments or did it happen, that friends were playing and you listened near the microphone position?

rt66indierock's picture

An interesting thought but my playlist was created initially to verify that broadcasting equipment was working properly. Any test I did needed to be reproducible to management by slipping songs into the playlist. I’m not judging the recording against live I’m using it verify the sound produced by a piece of equipment is not changing the sound. Pet Sounds never existed live and only later was remixed to simulate a stereo recording. The mono version is what Brian Wilson heard because he is deaf in one ear.

If you go to an audio show where Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records makes a recording at her seminar you pretty much know how I made my recordings. Except I use amplifiers because everything I listen to live has amps. I never record myself playing I’m not a musician. Finally I prefer record as if I’m in the audience not on stage.

Anton's picture

"The mono version is what Brian Wilson heard because he is deaf in one ear."

So, mono is the sound of one ear listening?

If you play that recording for Brian on your rig set to mono, where does he say the sound is coming from?

Will his answer be different than yours?

Can a man with one ear hear imaging?

(This is only meant for chatting, not criticizing anything.)

rt66indierock's picture

First the only time I met Brian we talked about Gershwin and roots music. Look forward not back.

Mono is one sound coming from one or more speakers nothing else. So a person deaf in one ear would hear a primary sound from the speaker not blocked by his or head and the other speaker would act like a surround sound speaker. I have had a couple of clients deaf in one ear listen to my office system tell me this over a couple decades. A small sample to be sure but consistent with other people’s experiences helping hearing impaired people enjoys music in their homes. With my system set for mono a person deaf in one says they can hear some depth of image. A rock drum kit is behind the guitars and vocals and from what they tell me very close behind.

Barry Willis in Hi-Fi News & Record Review has written fairly recently about the mess stereo makes for a person deaf in one ear and his mono solution.

For me personally I hear and perceive a mono image a bit in front of my speakers. When I listen live I’m hearing the amps and my brain sums up the information. Any live listening is very mono to me but I spent almost 15 years consulting in the broadcasting industry so I’ve been trained to perceive things so I could recommend solutions to problems.

Anton's picture

Thank you for that great response.

I, of course, will now get one ear plug and go play!

I enjoyed your posts, thanks again.

rt66indierock's picture

Enjoy your testing. I want to encourage a civil discussion of audio. We do that by asking thoughtful questions and receiving thoughtful responses.

Take care

solarophile's picture

"To suggest that we listen to hi-fi gear we're interested in is to some a mistake."

Who's saying this!?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...hydrogenaud.io for starters.

Question: do you read many audio websites or forums?

solarophile's picture

I don't think I've run into that comment exactly. Which is why I'm curious who's saying what exactly!?

Anton's picture

I admit to not being familiar and searching now.

I know Audio Asylum, Audio Karma, Vinyl Engine, and I saw one forum where everybody's sig line was longer than the posts. Every poster had his entire system listed at the bottom of each post.

achristilaw's picture

The hobby is squelched at forums when advertising is used. Legitimate observations are censored, particularly when your findings are out of step with the other corporate cattle.

Anton's picture

Free associating here...

I actually think the minute we start listening in critical fashion about what a given hunk of Hi Fi does, we are a little locked in, forever.

I don't care what y'all say, I know every one of you sits there listening and has a little corner of his/her listening apparatus on constant scan mode for problems, recording quality, etc.

It's part of the hobby.

When we visit an audio buddy's house, we are listening to his/her gear, as well.

And, when you are listening to your own gear with an audio buddy, you listen to your gear more than ever!

Actually, as an audio gear consumer, I am more at risk for fretting about something not sounding great than any reviewer - I picked my gear, it represents my 'ear.' A reviewer can simply say, "That's not a me thing, folks, that's that new DAC I am checking out."

A lowly consumer risks pride of place when people listen to his/her gear. That's a big difference.

Since we are kinda quoting the Bard....Uneasy listens the audiophile that is obligated to his/her gear.

I claim to suffer uniquely.


Moving on....

Blind listening?

Why not?

I do it.

I have my own rituals that probably wouldn't satisfy the DBT evangelists, but having a friend switch out some interconnects, or have me compare two versions of the same recording....why not? The only thing we have to fear is losing our self-created "label" of connoisseurship or expertise.

CD vs. SACD vs. Tidal vs. MQA - blind listening is fun.

If oenophiles can appreciate a wine without being able to see the label, then why not me and audio?

I hope this came across as part of the fun of discussing a controversy and not as being inflammatory.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...I play them my system, i.e. the system I own. So there's no difference between me and anyone else in this regard.

When I listen for pleasure, I am focused on the music not the system.

Anton's picture

Do you find yourself more vigilant of the sound when you have audio visitors?

I admit I do it.

I'm still zen as shit, though.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...when JA came over for the first time ;-)
achristilaw's picture

With enough experience you find coloration's that don't aggravate and mush ahead. I watch the younger budding audiophile stop enjoying the art of music, letting music be the tool for equipment evaluation. Listening only to five or six recordings that flatter the existing system, just playing those selections over and over again. Want a barometer for your attitude about music? Use a small transistor or powered speaker while your in the shower. If you singing along? There is hope for you yet...