Gaining listening experience without spending money

I am always blown away at how many folks on here have experience listening to so many different pieces of equipment. As an average dude loving this rich mans hobby, how does one gain listening experience without blindly buying and trying? 
I am always blown away at how many folks on here have experience listening to so many different pieces of equipment. As an average dude loving this rich mans hobby, how does one gain listening experience without blindly buying and trying?

Beautiful question! Okay so here’s what you do. The list of sonic attributes (all the different qualities of sound you can learn to differentiate from one another) and the list of things that can cause them (warm-up, break-in, vibration, time of day) are so long there’s lots of things to learn and try. These are all great ideas that will get you well on the way to being not just a good but exceptionally good listener. For free!

First search on-line for a glossary of audiophile terms for sound quality. Robert Harley has an excellent one in his book but we’re gonna try and keep to for free. Just read about grain and glare, macro and micro dynamics, timbre, harmonic structure, imaging, focus, depth, air, on and on. Some of them you will recognize, others not so much. Point is to have them in mind, their meanings will become clear in time. To try and evaluate or compare components with no idea of these terms is like trying to read an x-ray with no idea of the underlying anatomy. Anyone can spot the broken bone sticking out. That’s about where most audiophiles are. You want to do better. You can.

Next start paying close attention to your recordings. Not your music. That’s a red herring. Your recordings. Who recorded? Who is the mastering engineer? The average audiophile never catches onto this, probably because the vast majority of recordings are mired in the muck SQ-wise. But the best of them have entire mixing boards completely modded and tweaked to perfection- their personal version of perfection. Listen to several recordings mastered by Doug Sax, anything from Styx to Clair Marlo, after a while you will pick up on his sonic signature.

Some labels like Sheffield, Reference Recordings, have a similar signature sound. Get good at recognizing these differences. A lot of what you are hearing is fundamentally no different in nature than the differences you will be listening for between amps, sources and cables.

Here’s another couple good freebie exercises. These are advanced enough a lot won’t even know about them. You will learn to hear the difference between a fully warmed up system with clean power and a cold one with bad AC. Yes you can learn to hear this. Totally. Easier than you think.

Pick a favorite recording or two, music you really love, and believe to be well-recorded. Get in the habit of only listening to these late in the evening. Preferably the last thing played. After a while, some weeks maybe, you will be well accustomed to how they sound late at night when the system is fully warmed up and the power is as clean as it gets.

So now what you do, some evening- or even better morning or afternoon- turn the system on and play that favorite recording.

If you never noticed before how awful a system sounds when its cold I can just about guarantee you will now! All of a sudden those terms like etched, grain, fatigue, etc will be hitting you smack in the face.

Later on that night, towards the end of the evening, get that same recording out again. Only this time before playing go out and trip all the breakers in the panel. All the ones you don’t need for the system. Now go play. That insane improvement, that my friend is clean power. You will hear it. Guaranteed.

You may be saying to yourself, Okay, this is utter nonsense. And how’s it gonna help me find components? I need components! What a freaking waste of time! Who is this nut case anyway?

Here’s the value. Back in the beginning I did the hard work of driving hundreds of miles listening to everything I could find, dragging it home for audition when I could, dragging my stuff into their store when I couldn’t. Taught myself all the same audiophile glossary terms, read reviews, made mistakes, learned lessons. Almost all of it entirely on my own trial and error.

Back then every single piece in my system got there by home audition. Now 30 years later only the Talon speakers were auditioned, and not at home. Everything else was bought sight unseen based entirely on reviews and user comments. And yet it has been years, many years, since anything bought this way has failed to exceed expectations.

How this happens is because in the process of learning to listen you learn a whole lot of other things as well. You learn a lot of tech talk is pure blather. You learn what matters is listener impressions. Which you know what they mean, having become a listener yourself.

Go and listen. You will see.

As tuberist said you don’t have to be rich. All my systems from a sears silvertone in 1967 through 5 systems to what I have now were all musical and good enough for the rest of my life. I have bought more equipment because my last would quit working and I would get some things fixed but replace some. Get something you like and enjoy the music. If you can go to some audio show, audio stores, listen on you tube, read some audio magazines. But do listen before you buy. If you are serious some internet audio stores let you listen and return if not satisfied. Let this community know you would like to listen to something in particular, and when social distancing is relaxed some on audiogon may let you listen to their system. I have worked for some brick and mortar very high end stores and all my systems sound musical satisfying to me. I get immense satisfaction out of them. Good equipment well put together is important to me, but high cost doesn't mean high sound.
If you’re interested in classical music, start a 30-day trial of the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. It is fascinating to see and hear a piece performed once in 2010, and again with a different conductor in 2017. You may not gain experience about the sound system itself, but this is an amazing way to gain experience about what goes into making the sound that your system reproduces.
“how does one gain listening experience without blindly buying and trying”


I would suggest join a local audiophile club or attend audio shows. The two biggest audio shows in NA (assuming you’re in America) are AXPONA and RMAF.

Not sure if there are any audio shops around you...look them up and see if anything interests you as most of the high end dealers are now operate by appointment only.
Go to live classical or jazz concerts if they ever have them again.