Blind Listening Letters part 2

Thanks for the Show
Editor: Just a note to express our gratitude for the High End Show just past. It reaffirmed my belief that your reporting of the changing states of the art is both timely and tuneful. Although we were unable to listen to those few big demonstrations—Thiel, Martin-Logan, Threshold, Audio Research—due to time restrictions, we were able to hear some reasonable demos of their lesser models.

Juli and I both enjoyed the two fringe events we attended most of all—the "Hearing Amplifier Differences" test had the best-quality sound we heard at the show. Hearing the differences between the VTL and Adcom was a revelation. I had no trouble telling which was which, correctly identifying every test, but couldn't record my results due to brain malfunction (didn't read the directions). "Ask the Editors" was lovely and informative, if all too brief.—Paul & Julianne Tatman, Red Bluff, CO

Do audiophiles enjoy music?
Editor: The more I read Stereophile, the more I am convinced that I am not an audiophile. After reading John Atkinson's evaluation of the San Francisco Hi-Fi Show amplifier test, I'm sure!

When I listen to music, I am not looking for ultimate accuracy in reproduction. I am anxiously awaiting an emotional experience. For me, the difference between an Adcom and a VTL amplifier will not affect how I feel about the music. Sure, there is a point where component performance is so poor that you are distracted from the music, but Adcom vs VTL will not make or break my emotional response.

I had a roommate in college who I guess you could call an audiophile. Every night after dinner, he would slowly approach his system, lay his hands on it, and stare at it as if in worship. When he played music, I was never sure if he was enjoying it or merely evaluating the system's performance. When we talked about music, he talked about the components, not about the emotions he experienced while listening.

I'm not really trying to make a point here; I'm just wondering how audiophiles feel about music. They must love some aspect of it. But I wonder if there is a point where the "musical experience" becomes less important or somehow obscured due to unnecessary concentration on the system's reproduction of an event. All I know is that live concerts can make me smile, they can make me cry, and they can give me goosebumps all over. When I want to feel that way again at home, the memories of the performance coupled with a decent recording and playback can elicit the same emotions.—Paul Gowan, San Jose, CA

Listening tests & frequency response
Editor: I've just been reading your and Will Hammond's joint blind listening report in the July Stereophile. As you say, this will probably be sniped at regarding small points of methodology, but overall it seems fine to me. However, I write to offer one suggestion and one comment.

My hunch is that you have probably put your finger on the essence of the perceived differences in terms of frequency responses at the speaker terminals. I guess that this was not revealed in those 1978 HFN/RR tests either because the Quad and Naim amps offered similar source impedances, or because there were two few sessions and listeners to throw up statistically useful data. Anyway, since the whole phenomenon arises from an erratic speaker impedance curve, I wonder what would have happened if you had simply paralleled each speaker with an 8-ohm resistor—or, better still, made up a network of three tuned accepter circuits to offset the three impedance humps, giving a much more nearly flat curve. This would be quite legitimate, as there are loudspeakers around which do offer a fairly flat impedance modulus, so no one could complain about unfair loading.

My other point concerns the relative uselessness of the percussion recording in revealing differences, which I would have predicted. Gilbert Briggs showed many years ago, at his famous Royal Festival Hall demonstrations, that one can get away with murder when it comes to bangs and crashes. He had a recording of clanking chains and other noises on a tugboat which invariably brought the house down with its "realism," even though he admitted that it drove the system well into distortion. Sustained tones, be they vocal or instrumental, allow the ear time to assess what is going on, but drum and cymbal strokes (assuming no actual hard clipping) have gone almost before they arrived. They may be fine for revealing loudspeaker transient defects, but not, I suggest, the elusive subtleties of good amplifiers.—John Crabbe, London, England

Listening tests & musical detail
Editor: Your report on the listening test at the recent Stereophile High End show led me to wonder whether it might not be useful to play the first test component, amplifier "A," twice. Is it not possible that when the same amplifier was used on both runs, people heard what they thought to be differences, but actually only perceived details in the music, of which they had not been aware the first time around? This solution might also be at least a partial answer to Jon Iverson's suggestion (July 1989, "Letters," p.30) to have a "learning phase," so that people are more aware of "what to listen for."—Peter Aizupitis, Arlington, VA

Listening tests & source variations
Editor: In reading your report on amplifier comparison testing ("Blind Listening," July '89), I was struck by the fact that about 62% of listeners heard a difference when hearing the same amp, which is very close to the number that heard a difference when in fact the amps were different. Could this mean that what was heard was not amplifier differences, but source differences? You seem to have assumed that playing and replaying a CD will yield an identical signal. Is it not possible that due to error correction, interpolation, disc-reading errors, etc., that no two digital/analog conversions of a selection will be quite the same, and that an audibly different result can occur?—John Fare, Sepulveda, CA

Listening tests & flawed methodology?
Editor: Your blind listening test had a serious fault. The Hafler preamp would have introduced all kinds of grunge which would seriously weaken the purity of the signal presented to the tube amp. Your small amount of comment as to which is the better amp could not possibly be determined with such a flawed setup. If you had a better preamp, maybe 90% of the people could have correctly identified each amp.

I hope you do a lot better next time.—Gil Lytton, Los Angeles, CA

Listening tests & skilled listeners
Editor: Regarding your blind listening experiment reported in the July 1989 issue, I believe that you have made a major step forward in research strategy without quite recognizing it. Your key finding is that of individual differences among listeners in ability to discriminate between amplifiers. As I see it, there is no more reason to expect that everyone can discriminate the sound of one good amplifier from another than there is to think that everyone can tell the difference between a masterpiece and a merely competent artwork. The ability to make subtle sonic distinctions may be a reflection not only of training and experience, but also of constitutional differences in perceptual acuity and musical talent. It is safe to conclude that additional studies of large groups of unselected listeners would be a waste of time.

Thus the identification of "golden-eared" listeners should be the first step in research. Having identified this small minority through blind tests (with replications to winnow out those who scored high by chance), the more interesting second step in research could begin. The golden-eared group could be given a wider range of amplifiers to compare, and their preferences could be studied in addition to their same/different discriminations. Their qualitative comments about a range of amplifiers would also be of interest. It is likely that there would be substantial individual differences in preferences among golden-eared listeners, despite their shared ability to make subtle discriminations; these differences would also be worth studying. This two-step research project would be extremely time-consuming and costly, but what significant research is not?

As always, "more research is needed," but one implication of existing research is clear. Ideally, prospective consumers who are considering investing substantial sums in equipment should have an opportunity to put themselves in the test in a blind listening situation. They should determine beforehand if the gold in their ears is commensurate with that in their wallets. While the majority of buyers risk wounding their egos by failing to qualify as "golden-eared," they can at least have the satisfaction of counting their unspent money. Sadly, dealers would have more to lose than to gain by offering customers this opportunity. Perhaps such a situation could be established in Santa Fe—always a nice place to visit!—Jon G. Allen, Topeka, KS