Learn to Listen Before Buying Stereo Equipment

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Train and trust your ears through comparative listening

By Roy Johnson, loudspeaker designer, Green Mountain Audio, Inc.

Learn to focus on the details in recordings and soundtracks -- an especially important process before you purchase new stereo equipment.

Train your ears in three steps

To hear 'the right things' about speakers and stereo gear, one must have the ability to isolate and track individual sounds. Whether you are a newcomer to audio or an audio enthusiast, the ability to track individual sounds can be developed and is always improved with training.

Follow the steps below to learn how to isolate and track individual sounds. You will not only become a more educated consumer the next time you shop for stereo equipment, but you will gain much more enjoyment from everything you hear through your system.

We want you to purposely listen to music on your existing home stereo system for several weeks using music from the list below. Even when you are off in the kitchen or another room, pay attention to the music and how it sounds.

Later, we want you to manage some time alone to listen more critically while sitting in your favorite listening position. While listening alone, we want you to remove any eyeglasses, as those create reflections in the treble that you may think are distortions in either your speakers or amplifier. Close your eyes and wait about 30 seconds for your brain to adapt. After you train your ears to listen to voices, we will guide you through the next stage of listening to your favorite CDs and soundtracks.

Step 1.

Listen to voices, first. Since we all instinctively know the sound of voices, listen to well-recorded singers at first. Select a single-voice CD and a multiple-voice CD from each of the groups listed below. Each is an excellent recording known to have proper tone balance and low distortion.

Single-Voice CDs

  • Diana Krall, All For You, tracks 2, 3, 5 and 9.

  • Eva Cassidy, Songbird, tracks 2, 8, and 10.

Multiple-Voice CDs

  • Fairfield Four, Standing in the Safety Zone, tracks 2, 3, 6, 8, and 9.

  • The Persuasions, The Persuasions Sing the Beatles, tracks 4, 6, 9, and 13.

Diana_Krall Eva_Cassidy Fairfield_Four The_Persuasions

Play the single-voice CD several times and focus on the singer's voice. Remember that no voice should ever be harsh, dull, recessed, forward, bright, edgy, boxy, spitty, hissy, gritty, or boomy. Then listen to the sound of each instrument.

Listen to the multiple-voice CD several times. Try to identify each voice in the presence of the other voices. Can you always determine which singer has the lead? Where is each voice located from left-to-right? How many voices are present at any given moment?

When you have time to listen alone, practice finding the left-to-right location of the singer and each instrument. With your eyes closed, raise your arm and point your hand to the location of the singer and each instrument. Open your eyes and notice where your hand points. This will help you identify and better understand the soundfield produced by your current speaker setup and help you discover the 'depth of image' of the recording.


Step 2.

Listen to your favorite CDs and soundtracks. Now that you have practiced listening for specific voices and instruments, play your favorite songs and listen for clarity and details.

Train yourself to listen to each musician one at a time. Learn to follow each one's contribution, listening for inflections and changes in timing that push the rhythm forward or pull it back. Is a portion of the melody being highlighted by another instrument or voice? Is a counter-melody being played that goes down the scale instead of up? Who is leading the band at any given moment? Do any musicians become lost in the mix? If five voices are singing, can you hear all of them? How many horn or guitar players are there? Are there congas, timbales, or a drummer? What about bongos?


After analyzing your favorite music, notice how your favorite songs make you feel. Does your attention wander during that time? If so, it is an indication that you are not hearing nor feeling anywhere close to what you could be hearing and feeling -- and what the artist intended for you to hear and feel.

With your DVD movie soundtracks, practice listening to the individual sound effects. For example, you should be able to hear that each 'boom' sound of the cannons in the original Pirates of the Caribbean is distinctly different and in what way. What is each one's left-to-right location? Compare those observations to the cannon sounds in Pirates-II.

Step 3.

Give yourself permission to trust your own ears. After you gain the ability to listen to each part of a recording on its own, you will automatically trust your own ears more. Detailed listening takes practice yet leads to more musical enjoyment because it allows you to better appreciate the individual talents of the artists. You will discover that you can easily switch out of this 'detailed listening' mode and experience the entire sound, just as you did in the past.

Rest assured, you will not forget that music is created to be exciting, soothing, invigorating, and provoking. Your system and the speakers should allow you to freely take in the experience. If you find yourself bored, know that it is easy to blame the electronics or recording. However, we know that it is usually the speakers at fault.

Once you have trained your ears to listen to the details of any recording, you will be able to quickly and more effectively choose new speakers and other system gear while shopping. Your ears, mind, and body will instinctively recognize speakers that give you great reproduction, and they will always give you the sensations that come from great performances!