Pet Peeve #4: “You Have To Decide With Your Own Ears!”
Some form of that statement has to be the most common sentiment on internet forums. I have to plead guilty to having said it many times myself. Why is it so often stated? Most likely, because it seems so obvious. Surely you can’t trust reviewers to know what you like; heck, some of those posters don’t even trust us to be able to hear. The other reason is that it’s true. The problem is how difficult it is and sometimes not even possible.
There are several flaws in that platitude, though. I’ll talk about some of them but without a doubt the biggest one I had no idea about until I became a reviewer. So, I put it as number one on the list.
- Sometimes it takes a darn long time to figure out which component you like best. I could illustrate this with lots of different components, but let me start by talking about turntables. I have had three great turntables in for review in the last four months. Two of them I could easily come to a conclusion about whether I liked them as good as my AMG V12 with just a couple of weeks of listening.
The third turntable, the TriangleART Symphony SE with their Osiris tonearm, was in my system for about three weeks before I put the AMG back in. At around the tenth day, I would have told you it might be the best turntable I had ever heard. I would have said “might” because I have learned that ten days is a little soon to make a decision when two components are both as good as the SE and the AMG. Around two and half weeks into the review, I had questions. I knew The TriangleART had the most incredible WOW factor I had heard from my system, which by the way has a pretty darn good WOW factor already. There were three areas where I wasn’t sure if it was as good as the AMG. First, I wasn’t sure if it unraveled complex works as well as my AMG; second, I wondered if it was retrieving quite as much information from the groves, and third I wasn’t sure which had the best micro-dynamics.
The only way to know this was first to find a place to put a big 200-pound turntable. Then, I had to get someone to help me move it so I could put the AMG back in. Well, I was right on all three points, but the longer I listened to the AMG, the more I began to wonder if I was missing the WOW factor, the huge soundstage, the incredible quietness, and bass of the Symphony SE. So, you guessed it I’m going to have to put the 200-pound table back in my system. Then I’m going to have to remove my cartridge and reset up the Osiris tonearm with my cartridge. I haven’t done this yet, so I can’t tell you the final verdict; you will have to read the review.
Now, I went through a similar rigmarole about four times trying to decide between the Wavac EC300B amp and the Pass Labs XA30.8 amp which involve almost 200 pounds of amps between the two. This took about four months to figure out. In the end, the decision was made because I missed what the XA30.8 did when it wasn’t in the system. Yes, I could hear the areas where the EC300B was better, I just didn’t miss it when the XA30.8 was in the system. Hopefully, I will be able to use this criterion with the two turntables.
OK, by now I hope you see the fallacy with simply saying to someone you have to decide with your own ears. Before I was a reviewer, I never got to keep equipment long enough to make these kinds of decisions. I mean who loans anyone a $24,000 turntable for two or three months so you can decide with your own ears.
Now here is the good news, with either the amps or the turntables no one could go wrong with either one. Well, with the amps, that depended on your speakers, but still you get the point.
- Beware of the WOW Factor! Especially with speakers. I have discovered that often when I am simply wowed at how good a speaker sound, a few weeks later the very thing that wowed me begins to get on my nerves. As much as we all like to be wowed, in the long run, most of us like the most natural and realistic sound we can achieve. Incredible bass is wonderful until it seems to be there on every recording. Likewise, a huge soundstage is nice unless you can’t hear the small space and air around each guitar string. Well, you get the idea, be careful of that which WOWs you right off the bat.
- I lived in rural Alabama for a few years and then a small city in Georgia for many years. I had to travel to Atlanta, Auburn or Birmingham to hear any high-end gear. Then I would hear it in showrooms with gear that I did not have at home. From that, I had to decide if I thought it would sound good in my system. Then I had to hope a dealer would let me take it hours away to my house to make a decision, or I just had to hope.
During that time I worked with some wonderful dealers like Mike Shotts in Auburn and Jim Smith in Birmingham. They both had me over to their homes to hear gear as well at the store. Still, I never had the kind of diverse opportunities that someone in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Los Angles area or New York City have. There were no audio societies close enough to attend meetings. As far as I know when I was in rural Alabama, I was the only audiophile in the county. When I lived in Columbus, Georgia, I knew there were a few from what I heard at the local McIntosh dealer. Still I never got to know any of them enough to go over and hear their gear.
So, I’m back to my pet peeve, how the heck was I suppose to let my own ears make a decision? My ears never really got a chance to hear the gear in a relevant situation and surely for not enough time?
So What is the Average Audiophile to do?
This was the problem I faced for most of my life as an audiophile. So I came up with a few ways to try to improve my odds. Now that we have the internet and sites like Audiogon or Ebay there are a few other things you can do.
- Listen to live music and develop a love for it, if you don’t already. The pickings were slim when I lived in Wagarville, Alabama. Still, there were all kinds of country fairs, outside concerts and some churches have great live music; some have terrible music as well. Yes, most of the music at the fairs and outdoor concerts played bluegrass. Guess what, I developed a love for good bluegrass. Even living there, with effort I could go and hear classical music, Broadway shows and on rare occasions, Jazz. Now both hearing live music and hearing good equipment was more difficult there than when I lived in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but it could be done. So, make the effort if you learn to love live music you will enjoy this hobby more, and you will be able to tell which equipment you prefer more easily.
- Make an effort to get to know some other people who love music and even a few who love audio equipment. You need people you can talk to and learn from. When I was in rural Alabama and Columbus, Georgia, I still had audio buds in Texas who I talked to on the phone and learned about new things I needed to hear. It was while I was living there that I met a few audio friends who I have now known for over 30 years. One lived in Auburn, another two lived in Birmingham and a couple in Atlanta.
When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area I met many more audiophiles and some of them became audio buds and I learned from them as well. Email and cell phones mean that these days you can even have audio buds all over the world. A word of warning, while I like audio forums they have become very mean and you have to take what is said on them with a whole salt shaker full of salt, not just a grain. I’m not saying not to visit them; they are places where you can learn a lot and get a lot of questions answered, but just be warned.
- You need to visit lots of dealers. I know that may mean traveling, and I know some of them are only in it for the money and seem only to be looking for wealthy customers. Still, my experience is that most dealers are in it for their love of the hobby. I love the new tendency toward dealerships in the dealer’s home. Systems set up in living rooms and dens sound more like what they may in your home. Often these dealers will spend more time with you, but they often don’t carry much diversity of lines or as much inventory.
I have to also admit I miss the kind of small dealerships I used to visit in high school and college when I lived in Texas — dealerships where you could hang out and hope older audiophiles, you know people in their 30s maybe some real old guys in their 40s, who knew more and could afford more to come in. I got to know one older guy in Dallas who let me go over to his place to hear his stacked Quad ESLs. I was impressed with the sound, but I was blown away by his record collection. He had an eight foot high, fourteen-foot long custom, built-in LP cabinet with sliding glass doors in the room right behind his listening room. It was completely full of LPs and reel to reel tapes.
I know there not nearly as many dealers these days, but find some. Also, make an attempt to attend some of the regional audio shows; they will help you accomplish number two. We all need audio mentors and audio buds.
- Read! I’m a reader; I love books, magazines, and journals. I read a book or two a week. By the way, they never have anything to do with audio. So, I admit I like to learn through reading. I hope you notice that even though I’m a reviewer, I didn’t put reading at the top of the list. Still, I have to admit long before I wrote my first review, I was an avid review reader and still am. When I was in high school, I read High Fidelity, Stereo Review, Audio, and Gramophone. Then my freshman year in college I discovered Stereophile and then The Absolute Sound. They were journals without advertising back then. I learned so much back from J. Gordan Holt, HP, JWC and the other writers of that time.
So, how does one learn anything useful from reading reviews? The first thing I would suggest is to read a lot of different reviewers. See which ones you enjoy reading. I like to read Jules Coleman, Jeff Day and Art Dudley. I’ve read them long enough to know how to interpret what they say. It doesn’t matter who I like, it matters who you like. Maybe more importantly, someone who seems to value the same things you do in an audio system. Read others just to find out about equipment and hopefully for entertainment value.
The most important thing about reading reviews is to remember it’s not the first thing you do to learn what to buy, but it can be helpful. I would never buy anything just from a review, but I have found many things that have helped me enjoy music more from reading reviews. I’ve learned things about setting up my system, setting up my room, cleaning LPs and equipment I want to hear and eventually purchased.
- One last thing, which is not because it’s less important, but because it is one of the things you can do after you have done the first four: Over the years, I have either purchased used or found some way to buy at dealer cost. I started this in high school by going to work part-time and for free for a stereo store. I have provided free work, free data processing, and investment money all to buy cheap. Today buying good used equipment is so much easier due to Audiogon, Audio Asylum, Craig’s List and eBay. Years ago we had to put it in the back of Stereophile, on Audio Mart or in the newspaper classifieds.
So here is the last point: In the long term, it is often worth the money to buy a component you have thoroughly researched used and live with a while, and if it’s not what you like you can turn around and sell it for close to what you paid for it. For some products, that’s the only way you are going to know if it’s what your own ears have decided. Then for many products you get a 30-day return policy. If you have the time to really work on it; you can usually make a really informed decision in that time.
Well, I have rambled long enough. Hope you can keep your ears happy and keep on boppin’ to the music.
Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden
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