How To Listen
Chapter 1: HOW NOT TO LISTEN
My biggest beef with the audio community at large is that most members never learned how to properly conduct a listening test. Even after decades of being involved in audio. Ego often gets in the way of learning, particularly with those who do have decades of being involved in audio. That is, they’ll perform whatever method they’re used to and won’t listen to anyone’s else’s. Then when they can’t detect differences under test, they naturally assume that there are no differences to be had. Instead of properly assuming their test methodology, or even listening skills, is what is at fault, and that differences do indeed exist. The problem is, if you use faulty test methods to perform your test, just about anything that you compare under test may prove to have no differences. Whether it is an advanced audio device or wires and cables.
Some of the test methods I’ve heard of that make me cringe, include the chap who applied Belt devices around his room, expecting his wife to walk in and comment about the remarkable changes that should have taken place. (Whereas I can change one pair of loudspeakers to another similar pair, and most significant others who have little interest in the quality of the stereo will not realize they’ve been switched unless they notice the change in furniture). Or, more commonly, the guy who applies a technique or product, then removes, then reapplies, all without stopping the music at all. Expecting to hear the “good sound” click on like a light switch and knock him off his feet apparently. (Again, to average listeners, only major changes to the system are likely to be noticed in this manner. Most smaller but important changes that you can make to your sound will not be discerned this way). Then of course there’s the guy who thought he’d play it clever by “sneaking” a “tweak” into a dealer’s showroom and decided that because the dealer or his customers never noticed, it must not work.
DIFFERENCES PERCEIVED (Or, “The Myth Of The Ubiquitous Placebo Effect”)
As I wrote in The Tao of Beltism, differences perceived are differences heard, and placebo’s don’t last. Simple as that. That’s of course not good enough for a lot of people, so they complicate it, by dismissing valid perceptions, and second guessing themselves. Primarily, or usually, because of the nature of the device under test (again, if they can’t understand how something works, there’s a mental block to accepting that it does). Even if they don’t know what they’re testing, people can dismiss valid perceptions they have made, because they aren’t confident in what they heard. That’s normal behaviour, particularly for those who haven’t had enough experience to develop good listening skills. (Those with good listening skills do not require systems with exceptional resolving capability, that’s another myth. For example, I’ve been able to discern the effects of The Freeze Technique off a cheap no-name Nano knockoff “MP4” player, after freezing the cheap Apple knockoff earphones that came with the player. The earbuds only “look” like the Apple equivalent in a photo, but they look, feel and sound like they are worth about fifty cents). Finally, another very common myth about the placebo effect is that placebos have no real effect. “Are Placebos Powerless?”, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates that placebos can and do have beneficial effects.
LISTEN SKILL IS RELATIVE
Although the “Golden Ear” was an audio-zealot created myth (one does not require special physical hearing to have good listening skills), even if we assume that everyone’s hearing is equally capable, not everyone has the same degree of listening skill or knowledge of perception of sound (not to mention knowledge of what is and isn’t musically accurate in reproduced sound). I’m sorry but, that’s a fact of life. It is however, something that many audiio hobbyists don’t want to admit. I suppose professional audio journalists may have an even harder time battling their egos to admit their listening skills are not that great, but one may not suppose that because someone writes about audio or music professionally, that they have excellent listening skills. Listening skills are developed in a variety of ways, usually with comparative testing evaluation experience (as opposed to merely listening to audio). What are “significant differences” to some audiophiles are barely perceptible to others, and simply do not exist to still other listeners (hence the source of many arguments among hobbyists in the audio community about what does and doesn’t have an effect on our sound). All depends mainly on a combination of your degree of listening skill and how well you conduct the test.
Begin your test by repeatedly playing a well recorded CD track (vinyl may sound better, but its a bit too variable) before you do anything else to prepare the test. This gets you accustomed to what your system sounds at the current moment (keep in mind, systems can change a bit from moment to moment). Once you have installed the device/technique you are testing, listen again, then listen without the device under test (DUT). Don’t just listen for “bass/mid/treble” and the usual audio nut nonsense. Try to assess, for one thing, if there’s a change in how you are responding to the music. That is to say, does one trial hold your interest and attention to the music more than another? What about the tone & timbre of instruments? Does one sound more natural than another? Less kinds of distortion perhaps? Darker or brighter? Wider or narrower? More forward or more back?
DIFFERENCES NOT PERCEIVED
If you don’t ever notice any change whatsoever from one test to the next, chances are you indeed do not have great listening skills. Reason having to do with what I said about sound perception changing from moment to moment. This can be due to a great variety of factors, some of which are not in the least bit obvious. Even if you can discern that some things change from test to test, that doesn’t mean tests are invalid. The DUT (device under test) should be creating a change greater than the variation that may occur from tes to test, due to all those many variables that can change our perception of sound. It isn’t just the degree of change that’s important here, but the characteristic of the change. After a while of listening, the DUT should inform you of a unique characteristic that it imparts to the sound, if it does have an effect. It’s this consistency of characteristic (aka “sonic signature”) that tells you the device does have an effect.
Keep switching between A-B style (back / forth) between device installed/device uninstalled, until you can lock on to this “sonic signature” that you may start to become aware of. Identifying the signature (characteristics) of the DUT will give you a reference point in comparing it to the sound without the DUT. Take your time between switches (a couple of minutes should usually be enough, be careful to avoid rapid switching of a few seconds!). If you have installed many devices, such as L-shapes, then remove them all at once when you A/B back and forth, so you are maximizing your chances of hearing differences.
If you can’t hear differences with anything, then that means it didn’t work for you, for whatever reasons. That is not “proof” that the technique is invalid and doesn’t work. It simply means it didn’t work for you. And that doesn’t even mean you didn’t hear it. You did hear it. I say that, because I know that every idea works (I’ve tried them all, and I have very good listening skills, and listen without prejudice. For the most part, others have confirmed them as well). What it boils down to, is if a device does change sound and one doesn’t “hear it”, unless they have physical impairments that prevents them from doing so, it simply means they’re not conscious of it.
Nor am I saying about any of these techniques on the site, that they require special listening skills. I know they don’t, because I have given some of them to non-audiophiles, and they have reported sonic signatures in their feedback that are perfectly consistent with what I know of the effect of the techniques. That’s proof to me that they did hear what they were meant to hear, and didn’t make anything up.
Even if you conclude you can’t hear any differences no matter how many times you go back to compare, you are usually better leaving the Beltian device in place, if it isn’t an inconvenience to do so. Reason being, the effect is real and perceptible by all, even if it isn’t consciously, and even if it isn’t by you. Even if it isn’t known by the listener that they are in place, or what they are to begin with. So you might only become aware of the effect after a couple of weeks or so of listening, upon removing the shapes, and finding then that your sound has indeed downgraded. Which leads us to…..
THE WORKING MEMORY EFFECT
The working memory effect is, in my experience, a very peculiar aspect of The Belt Phenomenon. What I’m referring to is the fact that I, and other Beltists, have remarked upon this effect whereby if you later remove a Belt device after applying it (whether a PWB product or one of the techniques described among these pages), the sound is often perceived as worse than what it was when you started! That’s one way I can tell whether a phenomenon is operating on Beltian principles or Newtonian. Perhaps others may have come upon this effect with regular conventional products, but I don’t recall ever having done so. So it’s important that for any of the free techniques mentioned here, you listen to what it sounds like without the technique in place, and observe if your sound is perceived to be worse than when you started, and if you can perceive a difference once you put the technique back in place. May Belt talks a bit about the effect in this post on the Stereophile forums: Working Memory.
HOW TO LISTEN: DO’s & DONT’s
DO always start a test from the beginning. When you have listened long enough and are ready to make a change, you stop the music, apply the change, then start the same song from the beginning again. Never apply the change, then continue listening, hoping to hear differences!
DO consider using decent headphones to conduct your listening tests. I have always found they help to reveal subtle (but significant) differences far better and easier than speakers can. There are only occasional circumstances where speakers are needed for listening tests. Plus, they give your neighbours a break from having to hear loud music repeated over and over! (And yes, the music needs to be loud enough to reveal small differences, so don’t place the volume at background listening levels).
DO always conduct at least one test with the device removed, to hear degradation changes. With the Belt Effect “in effect”, some people are more sensitive to the sound as it degrades (after the device is removed), than the sound that has improved.
DO restart the entire test from the beginning, if you are interrupted during a test, or you have to leave the room.
DO wait about 5-10 seconds between songs (not less and not much more), if you are testing tracks (ie. mp3/wav files) on the computer. The reason is software and/or hearing mechanism needs this time to “restabilize itself”. Otherwise, sound will degrade further, the more you restart the test without introducing the proper pauses between songs. (Even 5-10 seconds, expect some degradation. Ex.: There’s a difference between a 10 sec. pause and a 2 min. one).
DON’T start your disc player from “pause”. Or if you do, you must remember to start this way for all tests (starting from pause produces improved sound).
DON’T use the previous track function on your disc player to return to the beginning of the track and play music from there. Instead, stop the player and restart the track. (hitting return key to restart the track produces degradation in sound).
DON’T eat or drink during a test (or just before, if you can avoid it).