Maybe being discerning isn't that good for us?

A topic I touch on now and then, I think about what the average person hears, what I hear, and what it means to be discerning. What good is it for us, our community, and the industry?

I’ll touch on a couple of clear examples. I was at a mass DAC shoot out and spoke with one of the few ladies there. To paraphrase her, she said this:

Only with DACs made in the the last few years can I listen to digital music without getting a headache.

I never had that problem, but we both experienced a significant improvement in sound quality at about the same time. Lets take her statement as 100% true for this argument.

On the other hand, I am completely insensitive to absolute phase issues which some claim to be. I’m also VERY sensitive to room acoustics, which many fellow audiophiles can completely ignore.

Lets assume the following:

  • The lady really did get headaches due to some issue with older DACs
  • There really are people very sensitive to absolute phase.

I’ve also found the concept of machine learning, and neural networks in particular truly fascinating. In areas of medical imaging, in specific areas such as breast cancer detection, neural networks can be more accurate than trained pathologists. In the case of detecting early cancer, discernment has an obvious advantage: More accuracy equals fewer unnecessary procedures, and longer lives, with less cost. Outstanding!!

Now what if, like the trained neural networks, I could teach myself to be sensitive to absolute phase? This is really an analog for a lot of other things like room acoustics, cables, capacitors, frequency response, etc, but lets stick to this.

Am I better off? Did I not in fact just go down a rabbit hole which will cause me more grief and suffering? Was I not better before I could tell positive vs. negative recording polarity?

How do you, fellow a’gonner stop yourself, or choose which rabbit holes to go through? Ever wonder if you went down one too many and have to step back?
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I was listening to Joni Mitchell, Live, Miles of Aisles, double LP, with band L.A. Express

Great early Joni, great songwriting, darn good recording, BUT, the engineer messed with the mix, the weirdness of imaging choices i.e. She is dead center, playing a dulcimer, her voice coming center, her dulcimer from hard right,, other ’movements’ of the kind that were so distracting I found myself not enjoying. ....

I told Donna, sometimes being aware of and appreciating imaging is terrific, in this case, detrimental, I moved to a spot on the sofa, corner of the room, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

I had the same experience with an Oscar Peterson Trio mix, sit in the corner, those guys sure deserved to be hailed as one of the best jazz trios ever. I have a lot of Oscar, most is augmented by excellent recording and enginnering choices.

being aware of when knowing too much is reducing enjoyment is important as you say.

I know some recordings were originally meant to be multi-track mono.

That is, they recorded to multiple tracks, but meant to release the final product in mono. Then stereo came and labels started doing "cheap" stereo recordings by going back to existing recordings and using one channel for a voice, another for an instrument.

I'm not sure how prevalent this was, but I think there's at least one Beatles album like this.
Yes audiophiles are a hopeless bunch always finding fault with most everything rather than appreciating all the different interesting things there are to listen to. Doomed.....

They all just need a pair of Ohm speakers and to forget and just move forward with enjoying the music .....
Maybe having 2 threads a day is not good either.
Allow me to stand this on its head:  for many, things not being too good for us made us aurally discerning.  

I learned this from a very good psychologist that my wife and I saw for marriage counseling (worked very well, by the way - - taught me so much about relationships, and saved our marriage, made it better than ever).  In our sessions it was noted just how finely tuned to verbal nuance my ears are, and how this extends to music and just plain noise realms.  She noted that studies show very hightened listening capability among those who grow up in highly stressful households, because you learn to listen veeerrry carefully for nuance in tone before someone explodes.  These are the people who are annoyed by that damned sound in the room that no one else hears, and they use their localization skills to root it out and stop it.  It sure fit my childhood, and my life experience.  And it has made me wonder how many other audio nuts might not see themselves in that mirror.

Absolute phase is interesting.  To me it is stunningly obvious, and it boggles my mind to think that others cannot hear it.  And cables.  Yes, capacitors.  And component break in.  There's a reason I like to cultivate this hobby.  Thank goodness music is one of the purest joys in life!

And, yes, get some Ohm's and zen out is a good path, too.  (Ooohhmmm!)
Absolute phase is interesting. To me it is stunningly obvious, and it boggles my mind to think that others cannot hear it.

I can’t hear it. At all. From experts I've read, it's all about how the ear mechanically works. It is of course possible some people are sensitive to it, the brain and neural learning are capable of detecting non-obvious signals and using them in ways we don't fully understand.

But ... from all the reading, I'm in the majority.
Now this is a great thread!

Some say 'Ignorance is Bliss'.
Some say 'Knowledge is Power'

There are some people who have pitch perfect hearing. So, hearing a song can either be enjoyable or painful.-Something that the vast majority of humans would be unable to detect. The same song could bring joy to them but not the one with pitch perfect hearing.

The only way I could learn to discern either absolute phase or room acoustic deficiencies is to have someone who is sensitive to those issues provide a comparative demo.
I probably wouldn't be happy listening to many systems after getting to be able to discern such subtle differences, but I would be more informed.

"She noted that studies show very hightened listening capability among those who grow up in highly stressful households, because you learn to listen veeerrry carefully for nuance in tone before someone explodes. These are the people who are annoyed by that damned sound in the room that no one else hears, and they use their localization skills to root it out and stop it. It sure fit my childhood, and my life experience."

Excellent illustration, one that goes for me too. In my case although the tone of a voice might not always be an infallible means of determining someone's nature - so far it's easily been the best one that I know of.
She noted that studies show very hightened listening capability among those who grow up in highly stressful households, because you learn to listen veeerrry carefully for nuance in tone before someone explodes.

I do this to, for the same reasons, in my case, the advice was that I was too sensitive to get the message. That my sensitivity to tone prevented me from hearing the words too. I find that this varies for me depending on how stressed I am, and have to be extra careful when stressed or tired that I'm not misunderstanding.

A good analog, in the positive and negative sense, of us hearing audio equipment. Listening to the foibles may make it hard for us to hear the emotion in the notes.
I too grew up in a very dysfunctional household and can see how that would make one more discerning for that coming blow. That, and it makes one more empathetic to others, situations, and in our case, audiophildom. 

Finely tuned senses lead to hobbies like ours and cameras, mechanics, art and anything that tends to minutiae. From there, the descent into the rabbit hole is a given. 

Also, it just begs isolation so as to enjoy, uninterrupted. This is not to say that all here are here for those reasons, but I am.

As to the novice lady friend who appreciates the newer DACs which parallels the preferences of the experienced listener, I'd say she has the advantage of still hearing things as they should be.

She never had to go through long sessions of listening, examining and questioning her beliefs, perceptions, institutional audio memory, all along second guessing themselves until they could pin down what was right.

The lady friend just happened to come along when it all matured while the avid listener had to go through learning curves and the pain of it all.

All the best,

Erik, the Turtles first lp was recorded with all voices to the left and all the instruments in the right channel.  It could be just the opposite as I haven't seen that lp in over 50 years.  This was great for aspiring musicians.  When they played at the local college, the sound was quite normal and spread across the stage.  XLO Reference Recordings does a vocal out of phase then next track in phase.  You can't miss the difference, the sound disappears between the speakers and spreads farther out left and right.  A very exaggerated soundstage.  
Erik, the Turtles first lp was recorded with all voices to the left and all the instruments in the right channel.

I believe you.  My point was, it wasn't recorded like this, it was cut like this. :) They probably originally recorded it intending to go to mono.  Stereo hit and they didn't have the mixers to do anything else.
I’m not sure I see much of an upside. You don’t usually miss what you’ve never had. Every new level of experience is expensive to me.

The one who hears the cat has to get up and open the door. 
  • "She noted that studies show very heightened listening capability among those who grow up in highly stressful households, because you learn to listen veeerrry carefully for nuance in tone before someone explodes."

I didn't grow up in a stressful household, but I did have a very long career in sales where voice inflections are very important. So many times, buying signals appear in the slightest change in those inflections. When that happens, you know it is time to ask the closing question. 

When it comes to audio, the sales training has served me well. It has been said many times on this site, in different forums, that one of the keys to really enjoying the hobby is not to just listen, but to learn what to listen FOR. 

The early stereo recordings such as the early Blue Notes drive me crazy with the dual-mono they used at the time. I don't like that big hole in the middle, so I just hit the mono switch on the phono stage and enjoy it that way. Out of phase recordings drive me nuts too. In that case, I just hit the phase switch on the preamp and all is fine again.

@erik_squires I really love this question.

I suppose I'd just wonder about how you deal with other situations where you are able to shift your perceptual acuity into high or low resolution.

For example, when I go out for what a friend of mine calls "good-bad Chinese food," we know that we're going there to enjoy some grub, get filled up, have a good time. The food has to be decent but I set my expectations in the right place and I enjoy the heck out of it. And the occasion.

Other times, it's a nice meal for a special occasion or just to "dine out." Then, I'm expecting more, paying more, and judging more. I'm not a food snob or a restaurant critic, but I'm in a situation where I can be more critical without ruining the occasion. The quality of the food is relevant to the occasion.

The point of these analogies is to see what else you or others would add about how their listening might adjust based on occasion or even recording. I love that live Joni album, but it's badly recorded; nevertheless, when "Carey" comes on, I'm jamming with it. I forget the niceties and go with it because the music sets the occasion.


Yes, that was part of my education - - to learn that my finely tuned ear and reactions were over-active and miscalibrated for the normal people in my life.  They worked great in the special circumstances of a profoundly screwed up household, but don't translate so well elsewhere.

I also get that this hobby being mostly an encouragement to solitary experience fits in, too.  Yet my most favorite listening sessions are when another music head wants to immerse together for a multi-hour exploration.  Can't do that often enough!
It's okay to be totally crazed over stuff. Ya just have to know when to lighten up,
 Beatles and others in early stereo had  vocals and instruments divided. I pushed the mono button on the preamp. Way better.
Early stereo recordings did all sorts of crazy things with panning. Some of it had to do with the analog medium itself, tracking etc. Some of it had to do with simply the recordings themselves, as often they were live, all in the same room. In those early days room isolation didn’t exist, so in order to have music not be a complete mess, they would pan relative to position and mic bleed. Often they would put the dry vocal track panned full to one side and the effects panned full to the other, Zepp and the Beatles did this often.

And I would agree, most of us take this whole thing way to seriously. I think to some degree, the sheer amount of $$$ spent in this hobby forces a need to be overly discerning to justify the out lay. It’s very easy to get too wrapped up in all the crap and not just simply enjoy the music for what it is, how ever it was meant to be heard. The other thing I think we get WAY to wrapped up in, is trying to make recorded music sound “live”. That’s just a pipe dream, unfortunately. Systems can sound absolutely fantastic, but they are ALWAYS at the mercy of how the music was recorded, and how it was manipulated. So yeah, we get way to hung up on all this stuff... but really, isn’t that true for anything we are passionate about?
It is irritating sometimes.There's a few albums where sometimes the instrument playing on the right side is suddenly switched over to the left in mid song for no reason.Just when you can picture where each musician is standing it's like he/she popped over to the other side of the stage.I don't (usually) mind so much if a recording is sub par.It's almost like hearing the band or artist in an acoustically bad venue.It's still enjoyable.If I had a crappy system that made everything sound like that I would definitely have a headache.
I had an old car in which one of the speakers would cut out from time to time.Those old Beatles songs were interesting to hear just the vocals or just the instruments.The guitars were playing simple country style rhythms.
@mapman , I'll back you up on your comments overall, But therein lies the rub....sometimes the wrong way....*G*

As the Walsh nut case I am....yes, they do present a fantastic level of imaging in an effortless fashion....sometimes to the determent of the recordings.  Some have the mark of an engineer that knew what to do and how.....the lead There, the drum kit over to the right and back, the vocalist just left of center.....
Then there's the recordings that are as flat as a pancake; everything in the middle, with only minor attempts at 'spread'.  True, typical for older stuff, but even on remasters there's only so much digital magic can render....
As for phase, the way in which I've constructed my 'mutants' (or, as one person noted, my 'steampunk speakers')....(a comment that I actually like, btw...), physical acoustic phase is a piece of cake.
The 'driving' phase, positive vs. negative and the reverse of same can extract or diminish 'details' that I've noted between the mid-woofer and the tweeter,  I can only relate this to the physical difference in their size at this time...
And the subwoofer which deals with the lower frequencies can reverse it's phase with the flip of a switch, so it adds to the fun....*L*

When I'm in a situation where I can get set up in a more 'normal' space I hope to quantify what I can only notice at  this point....
Future fun.....part of the delights of this pursuit...*G*

I come from a 'relatively normal' family, where I felt secure and loved.  Not that I didn't induce stress due to my own attitudes and idiocy, but we all grow up in varied ways....;)

Room treatment?  DAC will have to do for now....

One could say I'm going through a phase....*L*

Enjoy yours,
Interesting thread for sure and as someone new to the forum world but a long time listener, I've never "thought about" absolute phase.   My first blush is that it's not possible to hear but well, apparently it is (to some).  As others have noted, perhaps if one heard a demo of it, then they just might hear it.  There's probably much out there on the topic but to prevent me from reading the chaff, maybe someone could recommend some legit articles on the matter.  Maybe they will help me do a demonstration or test.

Or maybe I dont want to know if it's possible for me to hear the difference. 
Hi   @erik_squires
On the other hand, I am completely insensitive to absolute phase issues which some claim to be.
It's possible you do perceive them—you just don't bother about them...The soundstage seems scattered left & right & some things sound as if they're back to front.

As to the lady's point on contemporary DACs: couldn't agree more!

Women have smaller ear canals than we do. They are more sensitive to frequencies above 3000 Hz. They are also more sensitive to what they hear. At night the tiniest of noises will wake a woman up while we continue to snore on. I think in nature this has to do with their child protection instinct, their early warning system. This is also why they like being up higher (SUVs) They are uncomfortable with loud music because it defeats their early warning system. 
As for the DACs your example is anecdotal. In and of itself it does not mean much. Certainly, DACs have improved. The early CD players were annoying. 
As for phase you have to know what to listen for. It has to do with imaging and dynamics not sound quality(like brightness or bass heavy etc) Hook up one speaker out of phase and listen to what happens. Have somebody behind a speaker hold the leads in place and switch polarity immediately on your demand so you can quickly A+B. The punch disappears and the image collapses. All this can happen to varying degrees at certain frequencies. I think you have to have lived with a system that is phase correct for a while to know when something is off. My speakers are one way ESLs and the subwoofers are corrected in phase and time to match the ESLs (actually it is the ESLs that are delayed) You always tend to compare other system to your own. A big system is going to sound more extraordinary to a person with a small system than a person who already has a big system. If you do not have a system that is phase and time correct it will be hard to notice when other systems are phase and time correct. All of us learn over time how to listen as we gain experience. 
That would certainly explain why women can hear subtle changes to the system or controversial tweaks all the way from the kitchen whereas men have to resort to controlled double blind tests.

Smaller ear canals would also explain why the sound travels faster in women’s ears. Thank you Mr. Bernoulli!  😬
I knew women were more sensitive to high frequencies, never thought about why. Very good supposition I think. I definitely use a lower max vol when listening with Donna than myself or male friends. 

You would love our friend Fran, every time we had our annual big picnic (business and friends), she would position herself right in front of one of my big speakers and any time I passed into that room, she would ask me to turn it down. MOVE SOMEWHERE ELSE FRAN. She stayed right there.
Certain folks smell, taste differently.
Heck certain people train themselves to taste olive oil, wine, etc. 
So why not hearing?
Another factor in a Universe of factors.
"Smaller ear canals would also explain why the sound travels faster in women’s ears. Thank you Mr. Bernoulli!"
It would also explain why those ear canals close more readily, preventing sound from going through.
"Certain folks smell, taste differently."

Vegetarians would never know...

I guess you are not a vegetarian.

Hook up one speaker out of phase and listen to what happens.

There is a misunderstanding. I am more sensitive to speakers being wired out of phase to each other than a lot of other people.

What I am not sensitive to is the phase of the recording, or as some call it, absolute phase.

Certain folks smell, taste differently

It's true, I dislike the taste of vegetarians personally. I can't get past the sense of eating fat Brussels sprouts.

erik_squires OP

Hook up one speaker out of phase and listen to what happens.

There is a misunderstanding. I am more sensitive to speakers being wired out of phase to each other than a lot of other people.

What I am not sensitive to is the phase of the recording, or as some call it, absolute phase.

>>>>>Where is the Polarity Pundit when you need him?
Re 'women's hearing sensitivities' and an 'in house' note...

Spouse enjoys loud music, but could only enjoy it for a limited time...

"Too shrill, it's fine for awhile but annoying after awhile...." in a time of cones 'n domes in our audio diet.   When I first owned AMT drivers, her listening levels and 'length of'  improved. *G*

Since we've both grown older, her HF 'apprehension' has deteriorated as true for most of us.  Levels?  Still likes to crank the knob UP....*L* ;)

Her 'fave' of late is the SMGa Maggies' that are now part of the herd here.
She enjoys their 'detail'. which reminds her of the AMTs'....

Me?  I'm just happy she likes some of the 'toys''s not required that she has the same tastes as me. *G*  We all have our preferences...;)

As for 'phase'. she notices it....

"Why does the stereo sound like sh*t?"  ( I'm doing some re-wiring to check into a detail.....) 

" Well, put back whatever you didn't improve what it sounded like before.  It was better the way it was..."

*G*  I'll keep her.  She's been around my gear for 40+ years now.

She may not be able to describe Exactly and 'properly' What she's noticing, but is a good 'canary in our coal mine'....;)

"She may not be able to describe Exactly and 'properly' What she's noticing, but is a good 'canary in our coal mine'....;)"

Don't take this the wrong way (is there even a right way?), but those can only be the words of a true audiophile.

I think it might be a great read (not to say also brave on your part) if you could somehow persuade her to post her experiences here as a follow up.

I have a realtor who has sent me hundreds of listings of homes sold in my area and I am totally amazed I have yet to see one home with pictures showing two speakers standing in one room of their house.  I have also seen only a few where they have a built in surround system when watching TV and movies.  How can people purchase a $5,000 entertainment center and listen to the TV speakers.  Why don't they realize 80% of the the experience watching movies is sound?  A good example of this is the new movie, Ford Vs Ferrari.  What is the audio industry doing to make people aware of a good sound system as a new platform for entertainment?  Why aren't they running TV commercials to promote their gear and to promote sound?  No wonder this industry is in trouble.  It is their fault and they should not complain about how bad business is.

When you read some of the extravagant claims made regarding the audio of some of the latest high-end LED and OLED screens you can't really blame the owners for not realising that these plug and play products may not be the last word in sonics.

Whether we can blame the ultra conservative audio industry is another matter. For sure there are some awful sounding TVs out there.
Larry,it is all a matter of priorities. 
Geoffkait, look in the mirror:)
Absolute polarity does not matter much. I can change it at will by remote control and as hard as I try I can not hear the difference. But, delay a subwoofer 0.3 ms (about 3 feet) and yikes! Changing the absolute polarity of the subwoofers vs the satellites is an interesting subject. Some people prefer it this way but I think that is because their subwoofers are not phase and time correct with the satellites. With corrected subs same absolute phase as the satellites is always better and I'm pretty sure if everyone here could here it they would agree. 
I suggest you give candling your ears a shot. 🕯
larry5729 ... 

I spent 40 years in the residential real estate business. As a result, I have been inside thousands and thousands of homes. It always amazed me how many homes contained no music and no books. Big-screen TVs? Yes. Video games? Yes. But no music and no books. In that entire 40 years, I only saw two high-end systems. One contained a pair of Maggies, and a Linn turntable with a Koetsu Rosewood cartridge. The other one had a pair of the big Apogees with all-digital, no vinyl.  Go figure

@cd318....*L*  I'll tell her about your compliment.  Whether or not she'd comply with your request.....*shrug*G*  Don't hold your breath....;)

If she's of a mind to do so....Don't ask her to sing.....('slide guitar style vocals, with a tendency to 'flat'....).....

*S*  My dear spouse has lived with various 'n sundry systems over our years.  A few have been regarded as the 'third member' of our homes with regards to their....'presence'. ;)   She's always enjoyed what 'they' could 'do' with the music we've enjoyed together or individually.

Her biggest request is to have a 'default function' in any and all.
A means of 'lighting IT up' and being able to listen to whatever she'd like to hear at the time.  The current 'main system' is complex, geared towards my 'odd Walsh endeavor'.  The others are her 'puter in her office, streaming Spotify or streamcasters.  The 'home system' at this point is broadcast (mostly NPR) FM, and the SatTV or CD/DVD.  No tapes or LPs' however....

This will change in the near future, with a new home. :))  We're both looking forward to it.
The living area will have the Maggies' she likes and an improved version of my 'mutants'....and be able to play tape and LP easily.
Most of my 'toys' will be relegated to a separate room, which I ought to be able to condition and entertain my interests....*G*

Of course, there'll be a link betwixt the two....and both with the 'enhancements' we've both learned to appreciate and enjoy.*S*

Active EQ, subs, 'versatility'...

."....that audio stuff.  If it sounds good, and I can enjoy it without having an instruction manual to Turn It On, I'm good with it!"  (direct quote, BTW...).  My Evelyn, 'closet audiophile'....*LOL*  She'll either like it, or think you've listening to things too loudly... ;)

I think it’s far too easy to be too discerning, even the mere fact of being an audiophile hints at that.

Ultimately it is a question of priorities, if not now, it definitely will be one day.

What matters to you most?

Relationships, children, personal health, financial security, psychological well-being /sense of ease regarding your present or near future, or the fact your system might have a gentle suckout at at 9kHz? 

Life has a funny way of continuously reaaringing these priorities. And for some of us it’s damned difficult to stay ahead of its curve.

But then we don’t really have any other choice, do we?

Right now for me music is a still a great way to give my mind some rest and stimulus at the same time.

Maybe she suffers from Hypercausis.
Can someone explain and provide when they experienced a "gentle suckout at 9khz"?
Thx ..
Detecting absolute phase (polarity) depends on how accurate your speakers are. If you have crossovers placing the different drivers out of phase with one another, the speaker is not phase coherent.  Polarity detection requires a phase coherent speaker to hear the benefits best.  Crossovers can often times be wired out of phase between tweeters and the other driver.
Its why I always look for a first order crossover if the speakers are to have one.  My current speakers are crossover-less and full range..  I hear a difference when switching polarity with either speaker type.  One noticeable area is how the bass impacts the sound. When a bass note should be pushing towards you, reverse polarity will have the speaker pulling instead.
When in correct polarity = extrovert.
When in reverse polarity = withdrawn.
When not a phase coherent speaker?  Schizoid effect when reversing polarity.  What's heard can not be about realism, but rather about taste for whichever effect one prefers.  May get masked depending on how crossover is effecting drivers.  Bass might be better in one setting, but high and mids withdrawn a bit.  
Until I moved into my new home with its high end custom listening room, my wife would not listen to flutes, piccolos, vibraphones or other high pitched sharp transient music.  It hurt her hearing these.  Now, with an extended and controlled frequency sound, she is not adverse to listening for extended periods to any type of music and sound.  Yes, it's a high end system in an even higher end room.  It supports the point that women are more sensitive to high frequencies, especially if there is a brightness to them (dozens of my male friends never had a problem in the old room).  

It's peculiar that playing 78 rpm records translate in a room filling, full sound, as if there are no wall boundaries.  Too often CD transfers have the sound compressed in the middle between the speakers and stacked rather than spread out.  I also dislike early stereo recordings with hard left-right imaging, sometimes with a soloist in the middle.  Despite my great affection for Contemporary jazz recordinsgs, this is the only aspect that I dislike about them.  Many modern recordings, especially classical have the opposite problem of too deep a soundfield with mics set back in an auditorium or chamber music recorded in too large a hall.  
FTR: You don't have to spend a lot of money to have good room acoustics, but it doesn't hurt. :)
The built in activated carbon room walls (16" thick) eliminated any bass problem and I hear my Focus speakers only 3 db down at 25 Hz (it's half the size of my former music room so was limited to 25 Hz).  Plus the room is no longer an issue.  My audio system now sounds high end without costing as much (only the DAC, cabling and tweaks are new, the rest of the equipment is from 1989 to 2006).  
I choose the rabbit holes that maximize the pleasure of my listening experience given a reasonable return of investment. I choose as starting points the #1 weakness in my system taking into consideration the limitations of my listening area. YMMV