Are You a Sharpener or a Leveler?

A psychological theory (footnote 1) that I've always been fond of is the one that proposes the perceptual/personality dimension of Sharpening vs Leveling. As defined by the early Gestalt psychologists, Sharpening is an exaggeration of differences, Leveling a minimization of differences. In visual-perception research on this topic, when test subjects were presented with an asymmetrical figure, some later recalled it in ways that exaggerated the figure's asymmetry (Sharpeners), while others minimized or eliminated it (Levelers).

It seems fair to say that—like those who have a strong interest in wine, food, photography, etc.—audiophiles are devoted to exploring subtle differences; generally, we tend to be toward the Sharpening end of the continuum. But even among audiophiles, some will describe as "night and day" a sonic difference that to others sounds fairly minor: these are Sharpeners, whereas the wire-is-wire, bits-are-bits, all-amplifiers-sound-the-same folks are Levelers.

Where does a tendency toward Sharpening or Leveling come from? The first possibility is that being a Sharpener or a Leveler represents an inherent characteristic of a person's sensory system. In technical terms, the difference threshold—the smallest difference that a person can reliably discriminate, also known as the just noticeable difference (JND)—varies among individuals: some have a low threshold (small JND) and are able to discriminate among very small differences, whereas others require differences to be quite large before they can discriminate among them.

No doubt such differences in sensory capacity make some contribution to a person being a Sharpener or a Leveler, but I think it's a minor one. The skills used in evaluating audio equipment are far more complex than those involved in simple experiments in pitch discrimination, and to a large extent they're functions of experience. People are not born Sharpeners or Levelers. A novice audiophile may judge two speakers as sounding pretty much the same, but, having gained experience by listening to a variety of speakers, when that same audiophile listens again to the same two speakers, he or she notices differences that were not obvious before. The tendency to begin as a Leveler and progress to being more of a Sharpener is part of the learning process of becoming an audiophile.

But there is another factor, one that goes beyond sensory capability and skills acquired through experience, which I would call a type of expressive style or personality characteristic. Two people with the same sensory capability, both seasoned audiophiles, may listen to the effect of substituting a certain component in a system, and the relative Sharpener will describe the difference as a "lifting of several veils," whereas the relative Leveler will say that the difference, while worthwhile, is fairly small. Is one more correct than the other? In my opinion, there is no "objective" answer—each person's perception is true for that person. A problem arises only when a Sharpener or a Leveler tries to persuade the other that one is true and the other false.

Is it better to be a Sharpener or a Leveler? I'd like to consider this issue as it applies to three groups of people: audio designers, audio reviewers, and consumer-audiophiles.

In the extremely competitive field of high-performance audio, designers are always looking for ways to improve their products. In developing a new amplifier, a designer may build prototypes with different circuit layouts, use different materials for circuit boards, and try various makes of capacitor at a certain spot in the circuit. Progress is made by accumulating small improvements until they add up to a major one. The audio designer whose attitude is "It's good enough" or "People can't hear the difference anyway" will not succeed in advancing the state of the art. These folks have to be Sharpeners.

You might think the same would be true for reviewers—and, to an extent, it is. We have a duty to our readers to listen for and identify audible differences that may sound slight to the average person but that audiophiles consider vitally important. An audio reviewer who is insensitive to these sorts of differences, or who thinks them unimportant, is like a wine expert who thinks that all red wines taste pretty much the same. (For those familiar with the film Sideways—a favorite of mine—our sensibilities should resemble that of the Paul Giamatti character, Miles, and not that of Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church.) That said, reviewers vary in how they communicate the differences they perceive. Those who tend toward the Sharpening side may wax rhapsodic about an improvement that to most audiophiles is minor at best, whereas those who lean toward Leveling may seem so blasÇ that you wonder if they're suffering from burnout. In considering any reviewer's opinions, the reader must take such tendencies into account. (Of course, neither extreme describes Stereophile reviewers, who are known to be practically perfect in every way.)

And what, Dear Reader, about you? Are you more a Sharpener or a Leveler? If you're a Stereophile reader, then, almost by definition, you must have some significant Sharpener tendencies. You listen to your system critically, make changes in components, and tweak the speaker positions, always listening for those improvements that bring the sound closer to the real thing. When you're comparing components or evaluating the effect of a small adjustment of speaker positions, I think it makes sense to take the Sharpening approach.

But being always in Sharpening mode, listening for the most minute sonic differences, has a downside illustrated by the kind of person who can't listen to music for more than a few minutes without getting up to tweak something in the system, or who buys component after component in the hope of finding the magic one that will allow the system to sound indistinguishable from live music. This is when being a Sharpener has much in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder—and you don't want to go down that road.

My advice: When it comes to selecting components and setting up a system, be as much of a Sharpener as you feel like. But when everything is working more or less to your satisfaction, it's time to switch out of the hypercritical Sharpener mode, become more of a Leveler, and have a good time just listening to the music.—Robert Deutsch

Footnote 1: As a now retired professor of psychology, Bob knows his psychological theories.—Ed.