For Newbies: how to listen:swaps/changes

Listening to a system component change, or going out to listen to new equipment, can be confusing to someone who hasn't mastered the art. I would like to start a topic that might get others to note just what THEY listen for/ notice when modding/swapping stuff. So newer students of the art of swapping/modding (and auditioning) can learn.
I usually will listen to whatever CD has my attention lately and a few that I especially like. I WILL repeat the same parts (I don't get bored, I actually find more every time I listen) i listen, noting if any "new" sound is 'jumping out at me (a triangle I never notice as such before, or that it suddenly sparkles so dramatically) or if some sound is suddenly totaly recognizable (a tapping on a glass with a spoon!! in a P J Harvey tune). etc..
Also switching BACK and seeing if it really is different... and quitting if your "hearing" gets tired.
Any others with hints???
(I'm NOT listing all my ideas now so we all don't get bored reading just my hints!!!)
Hi Elizabeth: I have a bit of an odd one for you. If an audition causes me to subconsciously tighten my jaw but sounds good, then something is amiss. This usually signals, to me anyway, an exciting piece of gear or synergy that will not fare in the short/long run and will become fatiguing. I also us the same selection of music for every audition (which drives my wife crazy when I fiddle at home). I will add a song or piece only when I am familiar with it enough to know when each note and instrument is coming up. I focus on notes and percussive strikes as well as the whole of the music. This method really helps expedite the process for me. Also with some auditions I have had to keep reminding myself to analyze the gear. The last of these being a pair of Reynaud speakers, which I purchased immediately afterward. I call these no brainers if I am in the mood for a change and the price is right. If you are seriously interested in something then do all that you can to obtain a home demo as the room, for most of us, is a major part of the system (usually the bad part).
The idea of having a few songs or pieces of music is an outstanding suggestion that I myself follow. Another rule that I have is only changing one piece of equipment at a time. When I put a new piece of equipment in the system my first goal is to try to identify what it does differently. Once I have gotten a feel for what it does, I attempt to determine weather the differences are improvements. Remember, just because something sounds different does not mean that it sounds better. I sometimes think we fool ourselves into thinking that different means better, IMO it doesn't. Determining weather a difference is an improvement can take some time. This is where I move away from the few "audition" pieces of music and start listening to as much different music as I can. While doing this I continue to switch back and forth between the equipment pieces being compared, although not nearly as much. Last working with a good dealer or two can help a great deal. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Tell them what your priorities are and stick with it. If a priority changes, let them know. If the dealer knows what you want to upgrade and knows what your goals and tastes are they can and will help you.
I put whatever component or cable in for a few days, if I find myself wanting to cut it up louder with less fatigue then it works for me. P.J. is a good one to check stuff out with.
Background details is a parameter that helps me to find improvements or losses obtained with changes. I'm not implying that it's the key thing but I have a couple of tracks that have details that pan between LR and if presence is better it's a good sign to check other qualities in the presentation. Take for certain that a change that you make (after the needed set-in time)gives something you don't like ( less presence or coloration in voices) might require other adjustments to judge properly.

I particularly select a track on a CD (a segment of it) and use the repeat feature to check between settings trying to detect main differences to keep into account in longer listening evaluation sessions. Also is a good thing to go back to your previous setting for lengthy listening and compare notes and your emotional reactions to the music.
As Elizabeth noted it's a complex skill that has to be developed, good thread
I'm sure we all have a few reference CD's or LP's that we know very well. I listen to several of them noting any changes I hear in the music. I find that it takes several selections over different sessions to determine the long term effects of the change. This can take place over a few days but making quick judgments can be regrettable. If you are enjoying your music more or hearing things on the recordings that were previoulsy missing then this may be an improvment, however you may need to take the piece out and review the recordings once again to determine if you really are missing the change or not. It may be too small to justify the cost of the change. As mentioned before only make one change at a time. Always make sure the new piece is properly burned in before making a final decision.
What is P.J.? Progressive jazz?
Paula Jean Harvey, not sure how to describe her. Kind of rock on some stuff, but not what you would expect. Really good musicians on all of her stuff. Maybe Elizebeth can describe better.
I will search for her at the record clubs. One of my reference's is "Kepa Junkera" a double CD set of moderm Basque music that uses many different instruments (lots of percussives, even has bag pipes), also a great female vocal on one cut.
Another aspect to listening is to note your initial reactions to the sound as well as to your reaction when you aren't actively trying to analyze the sound. That is, spend some time not thinking, just trying to enjoy. It's been my experience that when something is a genuine improvement, I tend to have a strong favorable impression almost immediately. Focused listening tends to reveal the reasons why. And then I know I have a winner when I unconsciously slip into a revelry just enjoying the music. This feeling is confirmed when I feel a sense of loss after switching over to the less desireable alternative. My latest experience with this was auditioning a different brand of speaker cable at home. Rather than go into my analysis of the difference, I'll simply say I wound up purchasing it because my wife and I agreed: the cable gave a "happier sound".
P J Harvey is not for the Diva queen set. She is BRUTAL and honest/RAW. She can be totally electrifying. She is one of my favorites. You will either be amazed by her or hate her.
Hi Elizabeth; nice thread. (1) It is absolutely essential for tonal balance to be correct and if it's not, no other listening test makes much sense. (2) I listen to vocals-- either male or female, on music that I am very familiar with. They must sound natural to me, and this is a type of "critical listening". (3) I listen for the character of Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (PRT) in the music. In order to get a good sense of this I have to go into relaxed listening mode. PRT must be natural/exciting and make me want to continue listening to the music. (4) I want to know whether or not the change is fatiguing, and this takes some time, hours at least. Of course all this assumes everything is properly broken in. Cheers. Craig.
like garfish, i also favor male and female vocals for auditioning components. i particularly like acapella or acoustic cuts for this purpose. one thing you might look for is a recording by an artist with a wide vocal range. there are detectable points in such recordings where speakers' crossovers are taxed. thus, they offer quick tests, once you become thoroughly familiar with the performance, of coherence in all its forms.
I'm not as theoretical or technical as some of the others, but I agree that both male and female vocals, recorded simply (not pop, rock, or other excessively processed music) are my first test. I also find well recorded piano to be a good test. Wide range in tone, quick strikes and long decays. Definately should be something you are intimately familiar with. Must admit I often make a fairly quick judgment, not very methodical with my free time.
Trust YOUR ears. The best piece is the one that sounds the best to you. Who cares what other people or spec sheets say.
I have a few "test" disks. They change from time to time, but each disk has a distinct purpose. I, like Craig find vocals to help alot. I use Eva Cassidy "Time After Time" to see how smooth the treble is. This disk is not as well recorded as I'd like and therefor the treble can be quite fatiguing, if the treble is harsh or bright here it will clearly wear over time. I use Sara K. "Hobo" for pace. This disk is very well recorded with alot of sudden noises and quick rythems. It also has excellent bass and very good soundstage. If my feet are tapping and I'm not listening for anything in particular, the equipment is working. Patricia Barber "Cafe Blue" is a favorite of mine. The base MUST be tight and focused, even on the deepest notes. If the base tends to flatten out across your floor rather than staying a tight note above the floor, the system is not able to handle the base to the lowest notes. If it does flatten out, take note of when (how low) and use this as a yard stick. (with this as an international site, what does yardstick mean to Redkiwi, Ben Cambell and our other international friends?) He voice should never sound shrill or bright, even in the highest passages. The studio should be pressent, but only if you look for it. The piano should sound true and the strikes on the strings should be apparent if you look for them. For me, if I find myself not looking for anything, just enjoying the presentation the system is resolving everything well. "Nature's Realm" on Water Lilly Acoustics is an "audiophile" standard. This is the disk with the subway running under the church and a system that resolves this has "great" base control. (well that's the audiophiles story) I can feel the train yes, but the real story for me is this is a great disk. The pace and extremes are very good. The sound quality is fantastic, I use this to see if the system can keep up on the loudest most sudden passages. This disk will bring out the worst in amps and speakers. Finally I'm using Duke Ellington "Blues in Orbit" for detail. There is a large group of brass insterments here in three distinct layers of depth. My system is able to pick out the tone variations of three insturments playing side by side the same notes, together, I must listen for this however. The depth and definition of soundstage is evedent. The louder more complex passages should remain unconjested, still have the apearance of individuals playing together. There is also some studio information that will take some looking, but if the system is resolving this you will hear it.
I hope this has helped Elizabeth. It's all a bit esoteric, but the point is you must know the music first, and have music that has pushed you system to it's limits in the past. When I was shopping equipment and setting up my system I found the Chesky "Ultimate Demo" disk to be very informitive. They take you through 20+ areas to listen for and give you examples of when it's working. Thanks for the great thread, J.D.
I received a lot of negative votes for my above post and I just dont understand why. What better advice to give a newbie then trust your own ears. This is a high pressure over opinionated hobby where every product is reviewed to the equvalent of the second coming of Christ and backed by technical specifications that have nothing to do with sound quality. I was not refering to the other excellent posts on this thread and didnt get into what to listen for because it was already covered so well above. When choosing equipment the best piece for you is the one that sounds best to you. Not what a reviewer or salesmen likes.
Hey Perfectimage. I boosted you up. I think some people might have interpreted your post a slap-down, but you obviously didn't intend it that way. There may be some people here who just vote negative on everything.

Anyway, A little over a year ago, I finally decided to buy a NEW high end system to replace my 10 year old stereo. I went to a couple of high end stores and auditioned equipment. I found that I could not really determine if I liked something or not with a two minute demonstration - even with my own music. After a bad experience with a mean retailer, I changed tack and decided to buy used equipment & see what I like.

Most of the high end gear I've owned had something special that no other piece could do. I hear these things after a couple days of listening. Things like the Audio Physic Virgo's refinement & low level detail, or the vt100's 'just right' tube glow. I rate a piece of equipment by how often I want to listen to music. If I happen to have a bad match or something that is screwing up the system, I find that I just don't listen as much. Usually it's something I can eventually qualify. For example the metallic quality of a cd player, the dead sound of some solid state amp/speaker combos, dull cables, or the overly veiled quality of some tube amps. My ears are getting tuned up now, and I can make judgements faster + estimate some system interaction. Generally I will keep two of a given component type for a while, switch them back and fourth every few days, and see what is better. It's kind of neat that I can now 'sort of' match components based on 'described characteristics' and have them beneficially affect the system.

It is very true about a person's taste being a factor. One person might like the MG 1.6's bass speed and coherence breathtaking but dislike the Vandersteen 3aSig's slowness and lack of detail. The next might be thrilled with the bass weight and natural instrument timbres of the 3a, but dislike the lightweight presentation and off-axis thin sound of the 1.6. Both great speakers. I apologize in advance.
I didn't vote Perfect, but I did think you may have missed the point a bit. Your advice is right on, but only after you answer the first part. "What to listen for" I think she wanted what you listen for so that she can take your advice and trust her ears. That's just a guess, but I felt you may have missed her question too. Again, I don't vote without also writing feedback, I still believe the only worth while feedback is a written one, and I think your question, like mine on other threads proves the point. If you just vote negative without feedback the vote isn't worth the time. Sorry to digress, hope this helped perfect. Please don't quite posting, your one of the best! IMO, J.D.