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March/April 2004 Editorial

Trust your ears only! Or not? - Part I

Author: Lucio Cadeddu
Published: May, 2004

Trust your own ears! Your ears won't ever lie. That's what we have always tried to tell you to do. The real problem arises when your ears get used to a particular kind of sound. There's the risk your brain creates an image of the reality that has little to share with the real world.
Let's elaborate this a little bit further with the aid of a recent experience with a friend.

A couple of months ago I visited a friend of mine, a professional musician to be more precise. Music is his life and his daytime job. As audiophile, he is a beginner, an absolute beginner. Many professional musicians simply don't care about their HiFi, that's a fact.
For various reasons his HiFi system was quite strange, consisting of a DIY low-powered tube amp partnered with low efficiency commercial loudspeakers.
This being his first approach to HiFi, after a couple of years, he came to the conclusion that tubes were the only way to listen to real Music. Of course he had zero experience on good solid state gear. We all have friends like him :-) [and others who - viceversa - hate tubes]
After the first minutes of listening it was clear to me that his system was deadly wrong. The amp couldn't drive the low-efficiency loudspeakers, sounding compressed and distorted even at moderate levels. It was simply unable to cope with the lightest dynamic requirements from the source.
In turn, the loudspeakers, being of the "commercial" kind, had a quite prominent high range, with no real bass to speak of. In few words, the system was boring, tiring and unbearable. Surprisingly, he seemed quite happy, instead.
I decided to show him the right way to listen to his Music :-), lending him a couple of good integrated solid state amplifiers and a pair of audiophile loudspeakers. During the first days of listening we was confused, puzzled, unable to understand what was happening to his life :-)
The speakers, according to him, were too "warm" and shut-in, when compared to his previous stuff. He didn't know how to react to the experience of hearing real bass frequencies.
Leaving him with the new gear for a while was the best way to make his brain re-equalize and adapt to the so-called reality.
Only after a month or so I let him plug in the old components back to the system.
He was stunned, to say the least. He couldn't believe he had been listening to that system for years. And what about tubes being the "only way to HiFi"? Now he is a proud owner of a solid state amplifier! Perhaps now he has learned a lesson (the hard way): never judge a component by the way it is designed!
Furthermore, he has learned to NOT let his brain fool his ears again (maybe). Getting used to a particular kind of sound may be misleading, especially if we're dealing with entry-level gear.
Considering he was (and still is) a professional musician, the experience has been more than enlightening to me. Even ears used to the "real" sound of instruments can be fooled by wrong HiFi components or weird components' matchings.
Just let the brain get used to a sound and you're done :-)
Why? Simply because the distance between real and reproduced sound is always HUGE, even with good HiFi components. With lesser gear, the difference with the real world is even bigger. Hence the brain can't help but create two different and separated categories: the real and the reproduced one.
When listening to the (badly) reproduced sound it applies a kind of filter, of equalization so to make everything sound "bearable" at least. It is just a matter of time! Let enough time to the brain to get used to a sound and even the worst system will become "natural"...
Swapping HiFi components frequently and attending many live shows is the way to avoid the mess :-)

The second part of this article will be devoted to another enlightening experience: Elvis Costello singing live and unplugged in a theatre. REALLY unplugged.

© Copyright 2004 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com

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