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Listening techniques to evaluate high-end hi-fi systems

Discussion in 'audio' started by Blzebub, Dec 28, 2013.

  1. Blzebub

    Blzebub Banned

    During a recent high end demo, a track I'm very familiar with (Teardrop by Massive Attack) and have heard innumerable times, was played through a "top of the range" hi-fi system. There was pretty obvious distortion of the piano notes in the intro. I pointed it out, and we played the same track on a "mid-level" (but still extremely expensive) system in an adjacent demo room. This system played the same piano notes quite clearly, with no obvious distortion. It also sounded miles better all round.

    I was informed that the top system was, in fact, better than the mid-tier system, and the real problem was with me: I don't know how to listen to music using the correct techniques.

    Hard to know where to go from there! A little frustrating as I think these people are not total clowns. What can you do? Walk away shaking the head ruefully is the option I've chosen. Wallet is intact, and will remain firmly shut where these people are concerned.

    I'm not going to go into specifics as to the systems involved, and it doesn't really matter what they were, but I do find it rather unusual to be told that, in effect, black is white, and I'm colour-blind. I'd always thought "the customer is always right".

    Are there special techniques and if so, what are they?
  2. thebiglebowski

    thebiglebowski pfm Member

    I'd suggest straight out of the door and never go back.

    Expensive or cheap, if it sounds good then that is all that matters. I've heard some expensive systems sound ok and a cheap chinese valve amp sound better.
  3. ports1000

    ports1000 pfm Member

    Are there special techniques and if so, what are they?

    Trust your own ears springs to mind?
  4. Robert

    Robert Tapehead

    That's just how Linn do things ;)

    Or used to, but its interesting to see that things haven't changed.
    I recall in the mid 90s hearing the then top Linn active system in the attic room at Billy Vee. I'd only gone in for a pair of Rega Elas but was hauled up to this attic system to hear 'what I could aspire to own'.
    Well, it just boomed and honked so I said it sounded shite - far too much bass and the active Keltics were overdriving the tiny, poor room.
    So the chap goes and turns down the bass in the Linn Tunebox crossover.
    Ah that's much better says I.
    No you're wrong! exclaims the Linntunedem person - 'I've removed musical information'.

    Definitely - tell them not to be so silly and never go back.
  5. 2 many boxes

    2 many boxes pfm Member

    There are lots of horseshit dealers out there, some of them with very good reputations. Chalk it up to experience, shrug, walk away :) I've encountered a number over the years, unfortunately they outnumber the good ones :(
  6. Hepokatti

    Hepokatti pfm Member

    Two questions come to mind. Are you sure that distortion isnt supposed to be there? Why cant you mention the systems? I thought places like these are perfect to call out overpriced or overhyped products - for everyone's sake. I assume most of us are hobbyists, and if we don't share our experiences, then what else we have besides biased marketing material, reviews and salesmen as our sources of information?
  7. dave

    dave Plywood King

    If bub is referring to the ripping, tearing type distortion similar to cartridge mistracking at end-of-side on an LP then I'd say the chaps in his dealership(?) are past their sell by date when it comes to their hearing abilities. If however he's referring to some sort of tonal aberition then it's a matter of personal preference without the master tape available as a reference.

    Linn's Tune Dem never forgave IM distortion or gross overload that I'm aware of. (It's also possible they are using something else for evaluating hi-fis these days as I haven't bothered keeping up with the firm.)
  8. Warren Day

    Warren Day pfm Member

    I'd say you were doing the right thing.

    There is more to music than just tune, there is texture.

    I've read a great book about listening to music that covered the 4 major aspects of music. The first aspect we notice is the one you mentioned, texture. Yes, there is tune, and also rhythm, but those come from hearing a sequence of notes. However, texture is something you get immediately from the first moment you hear an instrument.

    You were simply listening to the texture of the piano, and whether it was distorted or not. Based on what I learned from the book, I'd say this is one of a few completely valid ways of listening to music.

    There is the question of where this distortion was coming from. Was the system badly setup, or was it genuinely revealing more information. I can't comment, but suspect it is more likely to be the former than the latter. For me, a top system should be better. I've had the experience of a dealer playing me a CD track on 3 systems of increasing price. The album had been very heavily mixed. What was going on musically was only clear on the top system; as this system was best at preserving what was left of the music, buried in all that mixing fog.

    Even musicians are interested in more than just the melody. I've been to a couple of open teaching sessions with a leading violinist. When applying the bow to the violin there are 3 decisions to make, all of which affect, not the musical pitch, but the resulting sound one gets: which part of the bow to use (near handle or further away), how much pressure to apply to the strings, and direction of bowing (up or down). I've also heard her play Vivaldi's Four Seasons live and was astonished at the wide variety of sounds the musicians got from their stringed instruments: different bird sounds, guns, dogs, feet walking in snow.

    What do I do when evaluating a system?

    I silently repeat in my head each note as soon as I hear it. Thus as your brain is actively recreating the texture and pitch of each note as you hear it, your brain is much more aware of each note. The texture of each instrument is clearer, the pitch of each note is more obvious, the melody is much more obvious, as is the interaction between instruments, as is stereo stage location.

    This is a skill. It takes a little practice. But I've found the little effort to be invaluably worth it.

    I learnt this from Ivor Tiefenbrun at evenings he's done in Linn dealers. Classical musicians also use this skill.

    The book I mentioned has expanded my understanding of all music, even though the title (very unfortunately) only talks about one classical composer. The book is "What to listen for in Mozart" by Robert Harris.

    To give you a sense of how brilliantly written the book is, the start of the introduction is reproduced here.
  9. Blzebub

    Blzebub Banned

    Yes I'm sure. We all know what pianos sound like. The systems are irrelevant to the listening techniques.
  10. Blzebub

    Blzebub Banned

    I had a very similar experience with active Isobariks in 1985 at Tonbridge. But this thread isn't about any particular brand.
  11. kenworthy

    kenworthy pfm Member

    The fact remains you are buying hifi to listen to music in your home with your ears, therefore a salesman telling you that you are wrong because system a should sound poorer or better than system b is completely irrelevant and probably disingenuously motivated. I would definitely not deal with a retailer who applied such practices.
  12. Paul R

    Paul R pfm Member

    ISTM a structured way of evaluating hifi has some positives. All pianos sound different, and all piano recordings sound different, but the intervals between the notes ought to be similar. Given there is no reference then a proxy makes sense.

    OTOH it is a very odd thing to do in the first place. It ought to be possible to buy competent gear and just get on with using it.

  13. YNWOAN

    YNWOAN 100% Analogue

    Blzebub, could you please describe this piano distortion in greater detail, how exactly did it manifest itself?
  14. cooky1257

    cooky1257 pfm Member

    What with 24/96 not doing it and now a main dealer telling him he's mutt n jeff, poor Bub, he's having a torrid time at the minute.:p
  15. YNWOAN

    YNWOAN 100% Analogue

    I do think the whole question of 'listening techniques' is an interesting one though and I have certainly encountered audio enthusiasts listening in a number of very different, and yet structured, ways.

    I think many 'music lovers' as opposed to 'audio enthusiasts' listen to the music from a more distant perspective, the equivalent of standing back from the painting and observing the broad strokes, balances and structure - occasionally dipping in to specific elements for closer inspection. On the other hand, aficionados of hi-fi often focus on a specific aspect (or limited number of qualities) and many times this is at the expense of the whole.

    The other classic fault that audiophiles commit is to have a very limited range of music they use for evaluation -often I found this to be a single album, or even a small section of a specific track.
  16. Disbeliever

    Disbeliever pfm Member

    Trust your own ears. Piano & soprano voice are best test for evaluating equipment, if they sound right then invariably everything else will be correct. Classical music is best for evaluation.
  17. 9designs

    9designs pfm Member

    I don't get all this coy posting, "oh I can't say what I heard, where and how" crap.... surely preface it with "in my opinion" if your worried about some liable action !!...

    Anyway, there is only one way to judge it's the Tune Dem, everyone knows that surely ;)
    Joking aside it does assume that things like distortion etc isn't present.

    So was this demo using a digital or vinyl source?
    No way would I think any leading manufactures kit is going to distort the piano on a more expensive system. So either something was incorrectly set up or broken. Or the room had some serious resonant and harmonic issues and was messing up the sound from the speakers.
    The last option is quite possible as few dealers seem to give much credit to room issues.

    I know I sat listening to some top end Linn Klimax350's once, very much off axis, top end was rough as arseholes... (so that off axis sound will bounce around the room).
    Sitting in the correct place the issue had gone....
    Listen to my PMC or Dynaudio's shows they also get the off axis sound much smoother and "correct". So i don't suffer from that issue at home.

    So unless we actually know what the situation was then we can all spout and speculate all day long. That said the dealer was out of order, I'd walk away and find a better more open minded one.
  18. sq225917

    sq225917 situation engineer

    There's no real piano on Mezzanine its all sampled synth. Search out the making of video, they use smaller synths and a full size Yamaha digital. And there is overtone distortion on the left hand progression during the opening, the harpsichord that runs alongside side it also had its own obvious signature.
  19. merlin

    merlin Avatar changed - Town names deemed offensive.

    In fairness to "the HiFi company", Massive Attack LP's do raise a lot of questions.

    Firstly the multitrack for the track contains the following

    Hi String Left
    Hi String Right
    Lezlie Piano Left
    Drums Left
    Drums Right
    Echo break
    Lezlie Piano Right
    Nord Beep
    Pad Left
    Pad Right
    Piano Left
    Piano Right
    Plug one
    Towel Feed
    Vox Left
    Vox Right

    Now can you be sure you know what four separate channels of individually processed piano sounds like when mixed down to two and processed further?

    Of all the bands I listen to, MA probably are one of those most likely to layer the mix with degrees of distortion that open up on a really good system.

    I'm not saying that's necessarily the case here, just pointing out that maybe a more appropriate choice of test subject is out there somewhere.

    Secondly if you were listening to the digital file on their DS moneygrabber, it IS heavily compressed compared to the analogue that I suspect you are familiar with - and it clips digitally during the piano parts. It's perfectly possible that would be more obvious on a better system.

    Having said that, no one should tell someone else how to listen, or criticise what they think they hear if truth be told.
  20. stuwils

    stuwils pfm Member

    I was also informed that I did not know what to listen for by a dealer when i commented that his linn Kan MK1 demo was a little shouty and that the bass was there I just was not listening properly.

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