Calibrating Your Ears

Audiophiles spend countless hours and untold sums of money carefully growing and nurturing their playback systems to an elusive point of final satisfaction, arguably never reached but undeniably ever before them.  While we look for honest equipment that will do justice to the precious music file or record groove, we are largely dependent on our own judgment as to when we get it right.  Equipment reviews and audio show auditions can be of some value, but eventually we must each face the salient question, “Do we want it to sound good, or do we want it to sound right?”  Granted, enjoyment is the whole purpose of the endeavor.  But if we are trying to make our system sound “good”, we are likely comparing it in our mind to some other system that we hallow, and we are trying to close the gap.  The problem with this approach is that, as we mature in the hobby, this standard will likely change.  Each of us is familiar with his own path down this road; witness the awful sound we once celebrated as a milestone of achievement along the way, many years ago.  And listeners are not the only ones infected, hence the wide range of sound quality presented by manufacturers of very expensive equipment, each vaunting their products as the breakthrough to epitome.   It is this process that gives skeptical onlookers the right to call our beloved hobby a “black hole.”

A more noble goal to system development is to make it sound right.  Surely there are objections already, for “right” is a standard that is as varied as are the people who set it forth, isn’t it?  Well, not really.  The key to knowing what is right is found in listening to live, unamplified music.  A small jazz club ensemble or piano recital may be a convenient option.  Better still, one should attend a symphony orchestra in a good concert hall from time to time.  Never mind the cost or inconvenience, if that is how one may think of it.  Afterall, don’t we make much greater efforts to carry on without this “ear calibration”?  The beauty of this ear training is that the sound of acoustic music is much more reliable and universal.  Despite the nuance differences a musician may hear between different cellos, most people will admit that a cello always sounds like a cello.  It therefore functions reliably as a standard or reference.  If we know what a cello sounds like, not the playback of a cello on a bad system but a real cello, we are immediately able to hold our own playback system to the ultimate and unwavering standard:  Sound like a cello!  A word of caution is in order with the use of human voice or piano for this purpose, as they are seldom recorded well enough to be such a standard.  For that matter, bad recordings must never find their way into any serious evaluation.  In this way, as our systems mature with time and available resources, the standard we hold them to remains the same, and this results in satisfying progression toward a dependable and ultimately relevant goal, that music sounds like music.

Remarkably, a system that renders music correctly will sound to some listeners as though something is wrong.  Trained on the artifacts and accentuations of poorly configured systems that are so ubiquitous, these listeners insist that something is missing when the artifacts are suddenly gone.  Truly, the listener must also mature in his expectations, and the years of calibration to compromised sound quality must have time to wane from his audio memory.  But once the process is complete, he will look back with astonishment that he ever preferred the lessor sound product of past systems.  It is, admittedly, a point at which the pursuit of audio nirvana becomes much more expensive and elusive, but it is also the point at which further efforts result in much more lasting and satisfying results.

Mike Vice


Bella Sound

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On a lifelong pursuit of audio excellence.

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Mike Vice