Am I Bad Listener?

Let me say from the outset that I love audio gear and I love the sound of mid-high end audio. But here's the thing ...

The only part of a system that I can hear a real difference in is speakers. In my system over the past few months I have tested three different amps (a 30W tube, a 150W SS integrated and a 200W SS amp plus a bi-amp configuration), a tube preamp, no preamp (direct to amp via DAC with volume control) and most recently a bunch of different speaker wires (my original Audience Maestros, a DIY Home Depot 10 gauge concoction, Anticables and two other sets of very expensive wires borrowed from a local dealer - some bi-wired & some single with jumpers). Oh, and a series of different IC's.

With the possible exception of the insertion of the tube preamp, I can't really tell much of a difference regardless of what I do. I have had similar experiences at dealers. But switching back and forth between different speakers I can hear huge differences.

I think my system sounds really good but is modest by comparison to many on A'gon - Olive Musica, Benchmark DAC, Minimax Preamp, Meridian G57 amp (sometimes switched for a Classe or Prima Luna) - so maybe that's it. In a modest system the effect of switching components or wires just won't yield huge sound changes. Or maybe I just don't hear in a very detailed manner.

I spend a fair amount of time reading posts here and people claim to have genuine sonic revelations by switching an interconnect or a tube or piece of speaker wire. I love buying the new stuff and giving it a try but I just don't seem to ever hear a sonic revelation and end up re-selling it.

Does anyone share my experience or is there something this sad, pathetic audiophile is missing?
I neglected to list the speakers - Totem Hawks.
Maybe your enjoyment of listening to music is getting in the way of you listening to equipment...........


Sad and pathetic? I think you are one lucky S.O.B. !!!
I wish I 'suffered' from your 'problems'.
Just be happy with what you have and hop off the merry-go-round!

Of course, that's a joke! I have a modest system myself. Much less expensive than yours overall, and I certainly hear differences in digital front ends (cd players, DAC/Transport, etc.) But they aren't huge revelations. It's typically more like an improvement in the perceived soundstage width/height/depth or the ability to better follow a bass line, etc. I don't necessarily hear as big a difference with amps, but my speakers are easy to drive and don't require much from the amp. I hear an even smaller difference with cables.

You might be lucky to not hear every minute change in detail. You can just stop buying stuff and enjoy listening to your system.


you have the critical listneing syndrom. i get it sometimes too. i think we all do. you should just relax and listen to the music and enjoy it. everything will sound much better
Most people can't hear differences beyond speakers and tube/transistor, if that. Don't spend any more money on tweaks for a good while. Speakers, yes, but wires no. You've got good stuff already. Relax and enjoy it. Put your energy into finding recordings that you like.

I've been into audio for about 50-years. The refinement of my listening skills has grown through a series of epiphanies. I started with a great intergrated tube amp by Scott and really clunky Jensen speakers, next came DCM Time Windows, then Bryston electronics with Celesion cab, etc. etc. I'm in the middle of my fourth major reconfiguration in 50 years. (Getting back to vinyl).

Being a serious amateur musician helped me, but I've known many successful musicians with poor listening skills. Over the last 10-years I've written equipment reviews for Just Jazz Guitar, including a relative infamous guitar cord and speaker cable shootout. Like playing basketball, practice helps a lot. It's not all about natural ability. There's lots of training involved.

Being able to hear small differences adds to my enjoyment of the hobby, but it's nowhere near the enjoyment that the music gives me. Without the music there's no point in the hobby. Don't let people prey on your insecurity. Just figure what you want to spend and stay on budget. People will often say to me something like, "I really like what I hear in your system, can you tell me what to do?" I find out their budget, make some suggestions and perhaps steer them to a trustworthy dealer.

you are a lucky dude! While I do not claim to have golden ears, I can tell the difference between components up to a certain level. Perhaps my ear more tin instead of gold! I view this as a blessing for my wallet! Just sit back and enjoy and whatever system makes you happy. After all, isnt that the point??
Does anyone share my experience or is there something this sad, pathetic audiophile is missing?

A lot of the gear you describe is intended to sound correct so it should sound extremely close (often hard to identify in a double blind test). I share your experience that speakers make the biggest difference. The nest biggest thing for me is room acoustics. I am lucky that the vast majority of mid level amps and entry level CD players sound good enough to me. There are differences as you go higher in price but I find that these differences are dwarfed by differences between one recording and another.
It takes time, just like say, appreciating wine. my hearing, I am sure, is worse than in my twenties, but I ascertain differences in things much better now. I also have developed a set of discs for certain things to look for like soundstaging, congestion, etc. However, sometimes that just gets in the way of enjoying the sound. Now I go to concerts and wonder about changes in the acoustics of the hall, or what would happen if they used big ol water cooled tube amps, etc. I say enjoy your system, keep everything the same for a few months, and then change something and see if it makes a difference, if not, how cool, off the audio merry go round goeth you.

My problem is that when I hear a difference, I can't say if it's better. Usually, there's give and take.
ngjocky.. it's why almost everybody I know has a few favorite discs, (I have been using a Diana Krall disc forever) that they know really well. I play something, I hear something different, not sure what it is. So I play it again with the old component, the I switch it again, just listening for that passage, and eventually, if I am lucky I figure out what it is. Then I figure out if I like it. Here is a perfect example, I was trying some Nordost Valhalla interconnects. I heard a wider soundstage immediately vs. my reference, only slightly less deep. But then I kept listening, and there was something bothering me. So I took out a cd called Ucross, and there was no body to the bass relatively. It almost hurt my ears. But for six or seven other cd's, it wasn't immediately noticeable. So do ya want a soundstage, or do ya want fuller bass... or do you ya trash both cables to find the wider sound stage with the fuller bass? And therein lies the crappy part of cables.. the differences are generally subtle, it takes a while to figure out where the diffs are, and then if ya haven't found the perfect cable, ya try again. And then there are the times I am wrong. I remember a very respected reviewer loved some fibre optic cables, loved loved loved. He had them for months I think, and compared them against other cables. Come to find out he liked a very flawed cable, which after an even longer time bothered him, and which measured as it turns out terribly. Sometimes, like when I changed my preamp from a digital preamp, the differences are very apparent, and sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad, and sometimes I'm still not sure which trade-offs I prefer. Confused yet?

Find some tracks that are demanding in different ways. When people move up from a 1500 device to a 2000, or even just to a different 1500 device (or more well chosen 1000 device :) ) it can often not be heard on a 'normal' track. You've got to find the stuff that pushes the system.

Some tracks I use:

Dark Side of the Moon: the place where all the clocks go crazy. There is one in the upper right, how does it fade as the scene progresses? How much punch does it have? How distinct are the many clocks during the climax of that part? What is the soundstaging - can the clock in the upper right be heard above the speaker relative to the other clocks, or just vaguely somewhere off to the right? There are some footsteps right before the clocks (30 sec?) - is the guy distinctly walking around, or are there 'just footsteps'... On a good system you can hear exactly where he is going.

Celine Dion - Power of Love - there are several places on this track where if you have a 'bright' system it will sound horrible - static and a raspiness that is hard to listen to. During the highs where she really goes for it.

XLO reference recording Test and Burn In CD - the last version of 'Stormy Weather' - she should basically be in the room with you. And that saxaphone (is it a sax?) should really float like you are in a different sized room that your possibly relatively small living room and be like a real instrument rather than just the noises it makes. When the sax solo starts it should be shocking how real it sounds, people should perk up and look at eachother in amazement or at least smile a little to themselves.

Shostakovitch's 8th.... Nothing to say - Dynamics!! Wow... Dynamics. I have the Previn/Grammaphone one - others aren't as strong in the highs.

Jewel - Pieces of You - something games - I use this one for something I have a hard time putting into words, 'sterile' sounding vs warm, not sure, but this is a great female vocal - it should be emotional, I get an emotional response from some systems and from others it is dead. I know this is my most fuzzy one...

On a Dynamics note - find a good recording of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and play it in your car system - or a friends car system (if yours is really good) and turn the bass controls up really loud for the loud parts with the Tympani and brass - where it really gets going - it will just be a blur of bass, mid-bass, and upper bass and some midrange noise. On a bad system it will literally just be sound and having nothing to do with X instruments that you can pick out. Most woofers give out very, very quickly here. Then play that minute on your system, and the best one you can find at a local dealer. And do all of these tests at around 90 - 95 db at peak. That minute shows the difference between a lot of systems and their ability to deal with intensity.

Stuff like that.... I can keep going for a while on pieces to listen to on various CDs... Quiet stuff, too, many have a favourite acoustic guitar piece for testing. You should be able to hear the strings plucked and the vibrations that follow in a very clear way. Another adjective for this - air. Basically most audiophiles have 10 or so CDs that they use for these purposes with various 'extreme' (even if extreme is very low volume single delicate flute - extreme in its own way, I don't just mean loud) places. I know one guy who has a few recordings that have key passages at common crossover points for most 3-way speakers, and he looks for coherency at those points to see if the crossover is done well, or if it is bloated or lacking.

You should note that once you are around 4k to 10k for a system, the improvements in 'under 95 db sound' and for 'sound above 35 or 45 HZ' - improvements tend towards more limited and relate to the kinds of adjectives I've mentioned versus sounding fundamentally different. And this is assuming very good choices have been made in the 4k to 10k range, and that the system is well mated to itself and the room it is in. Basically things like soundstage, air, micro detail, etc. etc. become more apparent. And, of course, power handling - notice I mention under 95 db. Over 105 db and below 45 HZ there is a huge (very huge!) difference between 5k speakers, 10k, 15k and 20k. If you can find them, after choosing some tracks and listening to certain minutes over and over a lot after a few months, try some Von Schweikerts at really (ear splitting) levels - there are few speakers that can keep up with them over 105 db at any price level.

So, yeah, a lot of it is a subtle thing for most of us.

Here is probably my best piece of advice. Go listen to some live music. Jazz, or if classical, get seats very close up. Somewhere where you can really see what is going on. Listen to the instruments as you watch the person, and notice how imperfect the actual noise is, and how you can hear the subtleties. For example, cymbals. They don't make one sound, first one part of the curcular part hits on the rim, then more, and then the rest. On a bad system its a single noise (which sometimes, if they person hits it right, it can be), but on good systems those imperfect hits can be heard... Singers lips can be heard just before or after some notes, quick breathes in/out just before or after some notes, extreme detail that is lost on lesser systems...

But, hey, per the above advice I also know people who listen to those 1-minute segments more than they listen to whole tracks or CDs. For me that is missing the point of these systems - but ultimately whatever makes us happy is just fine.

Oh - one more comment - one thing many don't realize is that normal 'rock' doesn't really sound that great on good systems. I mean, some of it with good impact and low end can 'rock' you :)... But I have had friends come over several times with various stuff that is what you often hear on the radio, or heard on the radio 10 years ago, and it all sounded kind of flat and wasn't very impressive.... A little bit of the standard radio music will be great, just depends on how they record it, but a lot of it just doesn't compare to a sonically well put together album and Jazz/classical and some others sometimes put more time into the recording process.
Don't get caught up in the "gear game". You got good components (much better than what I got), and if you're enjoying your music, then don't worry about whether or not "some tube, or some innerconnect, ect" is going to make it sound all that much better (in most cases, not as much as some people would have you to believe). Remember this hobby is about (or should be about) enjoying one's music, and if you let "worrying about how good your gear is compared to others" get ahead of the music, then you'll start losing some of that enjoyment.
You are saying, in all candor, what most audiophiles can't bring themselves to admit: the differences, if any, are extremely small and obsessing over them gets in the way of enjoying the music.

I would leave well enough alone and buy records to enjoy and not analyze and scrutinize.

Welcome to the sane person's audio club!
If you are playing the "switching game", where you listen to snippets of music, then swap in the new component, you are in for severe frustration. That is why triple blindfolded, hands-over-eyes, no peek-a-boo testing is crap. It's the long term listening that yields the important differences.

Listen to component "A" for a day or two while trying to relax with your favorite music, stuff that you are intimately familiar with. Then do the same thing for component "B". Which one moves you? Which one sounds more like what YOU like? It'll come to you. And don't waste time with audiophile approved dreck while listening for chair squeaks and conductor farts. Listen to what you would normally, and listen with the intent of enjoying the music, not dissecting it. You might find that there are more differences than you thought imagineable.

No you are not! Enjoy your system and the music and don't worry about it. Consider yourself lucky that you don't caught up in the constant evaluation of your system; always wondering how to improve it or what to upgrade next.
And, of course, power handling - notice I mention under 95 db. Over 105 db and below 45 HZ there is a huge (very huge!) difference between 5k speakers, 10k, 15k and 20k.

Absolutely agree. A $5K mid range and treble sound can often be as good as $20K or more...the differences being almost negligible. Not so for the bass reproduction....this changes dramatically. Although an entry speaker with much effort put into heavy bass reproduction (to impress) often fails in the mid range miserably (compromises go in the mid range in order to produce a reasonable price speaker with prodigious bass).

You should note that once you are around 4k to 10k for a system, the improvements in 'under 95 db sound' and for 'sound above 35 or 45 HZ' - improvements tend towards more limited and relate to the kinds of adjectives I've mentioned versus sounding fundamentally different.

Fully agree. I would actually say however that there is tremendous improvement in the ENTIRE bass...harmonic distortion from playing ultra LF is a HUGE problem in the bass and it is simply very costly to keep it at 1% levels or less. Cheap bad bass at 30 Hz is WORSE than a speaker that rolls-off at 80 Hz.

My problem is that when I hear a difference, I can't say if it's better. Usually, there's give and take.

Exactly. Apart from the obvious tangible improvements to play correctly at more realistic sound levels a lot of differences at high end boil down to slight coloration here or there. The law of diminishing returns certainly applies.
No pain, no gain. You must suffer to enjoy this hobby. May I suggest self-flaggelation? OK, that's kind of severe to start out...just go to the bank, get a nice tall stack of $100 bills, 20-30 to start. Stop at your local convenience store on the way home and get a few bags of ice. Come back home and fill the tub with ice cold water. Dump the ice in the water. Turn the shower on cold only so it's flowing into the tub of ice water. It's OK if the tub fact it's better. Stand in the tub (no, you don't even have to take your clothes off) and under the shower with your stack of $100 bills an one-by-one tear each one of them to tiny pieces. You can let the pieces fall into the tub to drain and clog up your plumbing if you like. The more suffering, the more the potential for Nirvana once you finally 'get it'. Do this, and you'll have a nice start on the road to repentance for being a bad listener. Later on you can graduate to The Perch™, but lets not get ahead of ourselves now.


You are right on for the most part. Speakers, and their interaction with the acoustic environment (room) accounts for 95% of the sound you hear, good or bad, assuming that the rest of the components are at least mid-level quality.

Tubes vs. Tranistors is another thing that you will hear, though this might require a bit of practice and a revealing system. A 40W push-pull EL34 amp like a Jolida will sound pretty different than a Class A Krell or something. With a well setup system, this is something that everyone should be able to hear. Not to say that all tube amps/transistor amps sound different, but some topologies (like the above) will.

Tied with that, changes in source are pretty audible, especially with analog. Listen to a Rega table with a cheap cartridge, and then a big VPI table with an expensive cartridge. You will hear some major differences here.

Digital sources are mixed bag, and changes are often quite a bit more subtle. Like one of the above posters said, a higher-end digital source can be the difference between being able to easily follow a bassline, or having it kind of getting lost in the mix. It won't be a major "this whole stereo sounds like crap" thing with a cheaper digital player, unless the CDP is really bad. (1989 Circuit City Sony or something)

Like you, I don't hear notable differences between cables, tubes, most tweaks, and SS amps.
Here's a different view:
Several people have made excellent points that I totally agree with. In this particular scenario I'm wondering what type of power filtration system you are using?
For example do you have several (at least two) dedicated AC lines?
Are you using high-end AC outlets?
How clean is the electricity that is powering your system?
I'm not saying that's the cause, however it could be prohibiting you from hearing details and /or differences in the music.
"this whole stereo sounds like crap" with a CDP really bad. (1989 Circuit City Sony or something)

Yikes - I am in your crap category. I have way more expensive CDP's in storage but my tin ears failed to hear a significant difference; simply a slight difference rather than even a modest improvement.

Now I am in panic mode and got my thirty 100 dollar bills out and I'm ready to commence self flagellation!

I am off to Ed Meitner's that will hurt my wallet ;-)
My electricity comes from burning natural gas - so it is pretty clean souding compared to those of you on coal!
I think enjoying audio is a bit like enjoying wine.You really need some basic "how to sample instructions"in order to gain a higher level of understanding of what you should be listening for.

Past a certain point the way in which a system draws you in becomes highly dependent on its abilty to portray precise 3D images.Once you "get this" you should be able to detect quite small changes in your system.

I have heard plenty of expensive systems that simply don't do this properly-and some quite cheap ones which do.

It is hard to explain how to listen to this though.The best way is probably to hear some systems which have strong performance in this regard and ask the owner to point out what to listen for.

Of course a good hi fi retailer should be able to demonstrate this.Indeed they should insist on doing so.
Aside from having the critical listening syndrome, which I've acquired as well, I think you also have developed what most audiophiles( not music lovers)have and that is chasing the elusive "absolute sound" Which basically means you'll never be satisfied! This is unfortunately one of the big drawbacks of this hobby; continually upgrading.
If you are others don't think this is true just look at how many ads are on this site on a daily basis!!
Having said that, I will also say that once you have reached the mid-highend level with your system, in order to improve on that you will generally have to move up another step, possibly two in order to get any meaningful improvement.
So,finally I would say to you look into tweaking. I've found that there're some good not to expensive tweaks out there that are definite improvements. (look at my system setup and some of my threads and responses)

Addendum; listen to the music not the equipment!
wellll, you do sound frustrated by the tone of your inquiry.
as far as i'm concerned, ultra-high-end audio results in two things (sound wise)- surround sound using just two loudspeakers, AND, textural detail, which is present on ACOUSTIC RECORDINGS for the most part. i used to play clarinet in my public school nerdy days (in the band), and my first instrument was wooden and everything, but it cost about $125, and sounded okay for a beginner, which is what i was. when i got to high school my parents, seeing me practice alot without being asked (prodded), bought me a Buffet R-13, which is about as nice a clarinet as you could want (about $400 back then- now they cost 4X as much). rich, chocolaty tones emanated from the bell. the whole tube of polished grenadilla wood vibrated under my fingers. my intonation (pitch) got ALOT better, and i could hit high notes that sounded clean and pretty, not like a controlled squeak anymore. that's textural detail, and you feel it in your body at the same time as your ears take it all in. we also had kettle drums in the back of the band-room, and when the music called for them it seemed the ROOM SHOOK with dynamic power they produced. the snares crackled, the bass drum made me hold onto my chair, and the cymbals would crash and shimmer starting from head level and opening up over the head of the guy playing them in a widening arc. then there was the brass section, the saxes, the sousaphones, etc. etc.
can your system send shivers up your spine? do you keep having to mumble to yourself "jeez that's good"? does time and space loose its hold on you often while listening?
then you have something special, and a pioneer receiver and a pair of plywood speakers will "rock you" but they're not going to take possession of you (without some good weed anyway- who cared back then- no one i knew had any money anyway...) well that's my schpiel, and i'm sticking to it.
For some time I have been wondering about my own enjoyment of the music. I wonder if it doesn’t depend on myself and my own state of mind as much as it does on my system.

There are moments when I realize I’m listening for details, evaluating the gear and the presentation, getting hung up on system faults... these are often times when I’m tense and worried and not ready to relax. I get all analytical and fussy. I couldn’t really listen to the music even if I were paid to do it.

At other times I can let everything go, listen for the musical message and not care about the details of the gear and all the rest.

I think I need both of those states of mind. Because of the fussy moments, I have tweaked the system until it sounds much better now than when I got it. But I’m sure glad there are the other times as well.
Some wise advice from Mark Marcantonio over at "Affordable Audio"

"It’s About The Music
By Mark Marcantonio

One of the dangers of being an audio enthusiast is that it is easy to get carried away thinking only of equipment. How it feels, looks, performs. We get so wrapped up in the boxes themselves that we sometimes forget the reason for owning the equipment in the first place, to enjoy music at it’s best for what we can afford. This is a seasonal struggle for me, as once October hits and equipment comes flying in from the variou manufacturers, I find myself locked into the mechanical.

This year, to keep better grounded I’ve self-instituted a new rule, one cd a day where I do nothing but sit back and listen, just listen. No analyzing, comparing, discriminating, only listening. My awareness of the talent of certain artists has increased exponentially. Secondly, I have found that after these “immersion” sessions my concentration has improved. A side benefit is that in doing so, I’ve found that my critical listening sessions are more focused.

Next time you just want to relax, put on some music, get away from the knobs, buttons, and switches, and just kick your feet up and tune into the music itself. You may just amaze yourself at how good your system actually sounds."
Many thanks for your responses. I have learned a lot through this post. I'm not sure I will get completely off the upgrade/tweak merry-go-round but I will likely try to limit it and find more good recordings that bring out the best in my system.

Thanks again....Ian