What is "critical listening"?

Is critical listening the art of finding nits on a bald head or a is it a hard fought for level of listening acumen and competence that prevents one from buying second rate equipment? If there is such a thing, does it enhance the listening experience or detract from it?

At what point is it safe or correct to self-anoint and wear the mantle of "critical listener"?
Great question, but are you trying to start trouble? Audiogonland is a much happier place when nobody raises any troublesome questions.

I'm not someone who critically listens to a component (or a system). It tends to distract from my enjoyment of music. It usually takes me several weeks to determine if a change I made to my system is positive/negative/nuetral. It comes about via long-term listening satifaction. Then again, I readily acknowledge that there exist music reproduction "artist" who can make these determinations quicker and more accurately than I can. I sometimes wonder if they enjoy listening to music as much as I do? They could, but then again...
Critical listening is what you do when you're trying to evaluate or decide between components. Listening is what you do the rest of the time. We've all been "critical listeners" since the day we started shopping for our first system. How much time you spend on "critical listening" vs. "just listening" is a personal decision. This being a hobby, there is no right answer.
Personally, I think anyone who pays attention and spends some time listening to the art of the reproduction is a critical listener. My wife, who doesn't care at all about equipment, listens critically and can tell when something doesn't sound right (I'm not a mind reader so cannot determine exactly what "right" is for her). Should this type of listening get in the way of pure musical enjoyement? Nope. I really enjoy music on my crappy car radio. But I love music on my home system -- it transports me.

There are probably levels of critical listening -- sort of like a second degree black belt compared to a fifth degree black belt. Heck, I don't know where I am along that path and I really don't much care. I know what does and doesn't sound right to me but have difficulty articulating it in the exact (?) language of the press. That knowledge and language does help focus my listening though. If I remember all my sociology, language is much of the basis of focus. Therefore, a speacialized language leads to a crisper focus. It helps me to read and share ideas because it leads me to a wider focus.

For me, critical listening is a means to an end. From time to time, I focus on and notice some of the shortfalls and try to correct for the ones I care most about. After that, I really just want to enjoy. I try to reproduce jazz most effectively, which introduces some compromises in other kinds of music and that's OK. It's never perfect so why worry so long as the glaring issues are subdued (of course, everyone has their own idea of what the most glaring issues are, but mine are the only ones that matter to me) and don't get in the way.

Good question.
I think one form of critical listening just means dedicated listening - you're listening to music as your primary and only activity, usually in an environment that is set up to provide the best sound - ie, fully utilize your system. Or, perhaps, this is better known as "serious" listening. I like Bomarc's concept of "just listening" as it sounds a lot more light-hearted.

I think there is another form, often used by reviewers and, hence, re-used by audiophiles, of critical listening meaning that you're looking for strengths and flaws, and trying to determine how to maximize the former and minimize the latter. This is more listening to gear than listening to music and, as you suggest, is aking to trying to find nits on a bald head. It undoubtedly detracts from the experience of listening to music because it changes the whole scope and focus. Many reviewers, in an attempt to show their excitement over a particular component while evaluating it through critical listening, admit that they just "got lost in the music" - ie, they started "just listening". Whoops!
Haven't read the above answers, but here is my two cents:
Critical listening is when I switch from music lover mode to audiophile mode. I then listen to the system and use the music as a means to this end. Contrary to that in music lover mode, the system is a means to the end of listening to music and forgetting about the system. In order to achieve that, you have to do critical listening first. If in music lover mode, you suddenly switch to critical listening, something is generally amiss. Cheers,
That's interesting Detlof, cause for me it is the opposite. I am much more a critical listener in music lover mode. This goes beyond the audio system and into live music.

I realized other people noticed back when I lived in Rhode Island. A year when the Philharmonic was auditioning new Music Director candidates, a friend who is on their Board of Directors invited me to every concert that was conducted by a candidate for the position. (Their premium seats). They wanted my feedback. They said I was the one person they knew who was not a subscriber who would be able to rank them properly and be able to explain why. I guess I was like Simon on American Idol (but nicer)!!

As far as recorded music; given a choice between CD-A and CD-B; CD-A has the better sound; CD-B has the better performance. I always choose CD-B.

Shortly saying, it's when you're in critical condition but you still can listen :)
Critical listening occurs when you listen to the reproduction. Musical enjoyment occurs when you listen to the performance. From rain on the roof or birds chirping, from clock/radio or high $$$ system, to live music, the choice is yours to behold.
Sugarbrie, you make a fascinating point, which my thoughts only brushed briefly, when I wrote my post. In the sense you write, I would agree with you: In music lover mode critical listening in fact does not stop, but with me, it then goes right into the music, not into the system anymore and through the years our ears get trained and we learn to develop a language to express what we aurally percieve. I was close to a person, deeply musically trained, who was close to Menuhin and we went all over Europe when he concerted there and I also learnt to my own amazement I must say, that my "critique" was listened to and went over well. But then, mind you, M. was an extremely cultured and polite gentleman in the true sense of the word.....and yes, good sound and bad performance generally makes me angry with frustration but I will listen to Abado's rendering of the Beethoven symphonies, although the CDs are probably amongst the worst, DGG has ever managed to bring out. Cheers,
Do both: listen "critically" at first, using my thinking mind to identify incongruities in how stereo sounds like sound I hear everyday, then, let go of "critical", analytic faculty and perceive musical meaning from deeper symmetry where desire to think about sound fades. Neither mode of perception is "lesser" than the other and both exist on a continuum of perception, so, in our experience, they are not separate (until we separate them by talkng about them). What "lessens" the ability to perceive is when one adheres to an assumption (thinking) that "critical" listening is the only valid means of deriving meaning from music, or, contra, that only trans-thinking listening is valid for saying what music is, or how good a stereo is. Each sight reveals different aspects of a stereo performance.

I think and listen, then I don't think and listen. There is no problem.
ASA: Ca va sens dire! Great to have you on this thread and your point is well made and taken!
To me, casual listening is plopping down in front of an unfamiliar system, listening to some unfamiliar music. And you're really not listening for anything in particular, maybe you're just taking a breather.

Critical listening would be listening to familiar music on a hopefully somewhat familiar system, listening for how a component handles specific nuances that you find, well..., critical.
Detlof! Head down, I can feel them rising over the hill!!

Pbb, are you laughing yet......?
Wonderful dialog! It makes me dig a bit deeper and realize that the two dimensions of "listening to music" and "listening to reproduction" can easily co-exist.

Think about all the dimensions you are absorbing in a live performance. The musicians interacting with one another and the audience, watching the musicians play the tools of their trade, listening to the acoustics of the environment and listening to the music itself. At home, there is the music, the environment and the reproduction. I take delight in noticing how well the sax or bass drum sounds. And I take delight in the music. Everything works together for me. Noticing the capabilities of my system goes hand in hand with enjoying the music itself, just as noticing the character of the musicians in a live performance goes hand in hand with the music. Critical listening goes beyond the appreciation of musical reproducion and is the focus on the reproduction for purposes of diagnosing a system.

In the most negative sense, critical listening can also be noticing the worst aspects of your system whenever you listen -- hopefully, that doesn't happen much. If it does, it's time to change the system, change your priorities or change your drink ;-) Great discussion all!
in my sence the critical listening occurs only for the first few minutes of the tracks i want to check and tune-tweak the system. than goes entire musical enjoyment having assumed that everything is ok.
I thought 'critical listening' is what one does to your friend's more expensive system, while 'enjoyment listening' is what one does with one's own system when you don't have the budget to upgrade.
Ohhh, Asa!? You could just say: "walk into my house, then get out" :-)
6ch: are you and Muralman hunting again through threads?

Now just be a good boy, ok? :0)
Listen to the music with judgements. :-)
Interesting posts! In reality, each poster is DEFINING what she/he means by "critical listening"! Good to know because wee understand each other better. Like Detlof, Bomarc & others, I use the expression for gauging equipment!!! I.e., there, I'm NOT (critically) listening to the musical performance (as per Subaru, Asa, etc) but at a set INFORMATIONAL check-list: a mental process relating to the reproduction ONLY. (BTW, not so often anymore.)

In Subaru's sense, my expression would be "opinion /evaluation of the performance".

BTW, it now takes me some time (10-15 mins), everyday, to settle down, relax & get AWAY from the "reproduction informational" part of listening, the surrounding noise, etc, & just savour the music. I'm too wired lately, I suppose...
THEN, I sometimes reach an "interactive" part: URGING, (shouting at) the musicians / the soloist... Actually, thinking about this as I write, isn't this more akin to watching a football match??? Must be nuts.
Maskes two of us Greg
Good to know I'm not alone, Detlof :)! Bonus for home stereos: you can't do that @ a concert hall!!
Any amplified system begs to be critiqued, be it a "live" rock concert, or second bedroom system. I don't know how many miced events where I had to plug my ears, or back away. Never, thankfully, have I witnessed a home event with such atrocious sound.

There are some home audio maladies that pop out, for instance, a one note bass, excessive grain, or tinny highs. No critical listening is necessary. With some other's audiophile systems, I find I need less critical listening skills, and more diplomacy skills.

I am always grateful to stage techies who create a good PA system. It's a tough job. I love it when I can loose myself in the performance. Ideally, music events wouldn't be ampliphied. Unfortunately, we audiophiles haven't the choice.

It is the recreating of better recorded performances at home, that I put myself into a critical listening mode. Knowing the possible keeps system improvements on an incrementally rewarding path, leading it to where, hopefully, I never have to critically listen again.
Hey Gregm bro, Zen bliss? Hahaha. :-)
Cheers, 6c!
Critical listening would be for me a left brain activity,
as opposed to the right brained activity of just enjoying the music.

...You never know when the left brain is going to pop up and say: "hey wait a minute that sounded unatural or whatever ..."

My 2c :)
Josh: in my case the "left brain activity" calms down when I'm "vibrating" to the music. Then, it doesn't come up!
Here's a philosophical question. To get a good stereo you have to listen critically. After purchasing, the experts give the advise to "turn off" the critical listening and just sit back and enjoy the music.
Bit if you have picked a system by the method of critical listening and one which sounds good when listened to critically, how can you do this? It's a "critical listening system", not an "enjoy the music system" after all.
When I plop down in my listening chair to enjoy a recording, there is no critical listening if everything sounds perfect. If I hear something that's a little "unperfect", the critical listening kicks in automatically. If nothing calls attention to itself that's unpleasant, no critical listening occurs.
Copyright Jon M. Risch, 1991, 2000. All rights reserved.

Don't try to do too many listening trials at one sitting.

Listen to the same section of music, no longer than a minute,
preferably about 45 seconds long, no shorter than 30 seconds. Repeat it for each set of trials exactly. When moving on to a new set of trials (ABA), use a fresh section of music, or rotate several different sections through so that you are not listeneing to the same musical segment over and over, it is too easy to become overlyt familiar and therefore bored with the selection if too many repeats occur in a short time frame.

CONCENTRATE while listening, as listening for comparison purposes is not the same as listening to music for pleasure. You must be in an analytical mode at all times. This will take some practice. Casual listening will not pick up on anything but major differences.

Use a set defined pattern of component switching. Instead of just switching back and forth between components being compared, listen to A, then B, then A. If doing a comparison that will not be reversable (or readily reversable), such as coating a CD with green ink around the edges, use an A, A, then B pattern, or in the case of the CD, listen to it twice, THEN coat it and listen again.

DO NOT keep switching back and forth, A, B, A, B, A, B, as this WILL lead to listening fatigue quite quickly. Listen just a few times VERY INTENTLY, and make them count. Use the suggested method for listening to details below.
If you wish to make this a blind test, have the forced choice X at the end of the chosen sequence, e.g., A, B, A, X. OR A, A, B, X
Obviously, if you wish to perform the comaprison blind, some assistance will be needed.

Do not use switchboxes, tape loops, etc, BUT swap cables or cables to the components. Keep the volume control the same, and switch temporarily to a dead source to avoid any switching transients when swapping cables.

Finally, do not take notes or talk to others during the trails, wait till after the whole session is done, and you have made you choices or written down your notes. Focus on the task at hand during the musical segment playback, and take mental notes of what is going on.

4.4 What To Listen For During Musical Test Passages

4.4.1 General

Focus on specific musical events within the musical segment, such as a cymbal crash or a specific phrase in the vocals, etc. Listen for different aspects at different points within the music, but try to limit your selection of specific items to be listened for a second time around. Beginners should limit themselves to just one or two musical events to remember from test run to test run, until practice has improved their audio memory and concentration. With practice and experience, 3 or 4 musical events can be examined from run to run.

4.4.2 Suggested Specifics To Listen For

Low Level Detail - Listen for the presence of minute details that are on the verge of getting lost in the midst of the rest of the music, such as subtle string noises, hall ambience, the breathing of the musicians, or even air conditioning noise recorded along with the music. These low level details are some of the first musical specifics to suffer with less than top quality equipment.

Transient Impact - Listen to the transient events in the music. Do they have a razor sharp sense of impact? An 'over before they are started' Kind of effect? Or are they smeared and drawn-out in time? Live musical transient events have virtually no smear or blurring.

Bass and Treble Quality - listen to the quality of the bass
and treble, not just how much of it there is, but how clear are the notes and sounds? Solid, tight bass notes with distinct pitch definition are in contrast to loose or boomy bass notes hard to pin down in pitch. There may be an apparent extension of low frequency response, a sense of musical foundation provided that is absent from the other component. Is the treble region sweet, clean and clearly delineated, or is it hard, hashy and distorted? An apparent extension of high frequency response typically doesn't sound like more high frequencies, but as though the music had an airy quality to it.

Stereo Spatial Phenomena - many subjective listening tests will be performed in stereo (or perhaps more appropriate: 2 channel reproduction) and therefore will include some spatial or pseudo spatial information. Theoretically, if both channels are changed by a component in the same way, then very little effect should be noted on true stereo spatial information. However, due to the fact that much of modern music has it's 'stereo' generated artificially in the studio, based on some rather crude level, phase, and time manipulations. it takes rather less deviation from linearity to disturb something even as seemingly solid as the pseudo-monophonic image generated in such manner. Listen for image shifts of back-up vocals, and shifts in the apparent position of a specific instrument from component to component, as well as shifts in the overall soundstage character of the musical passage.

Overall Tonal Balance - This has traditionally been the most questionable of changes to listen for, as a 'simple' linear error, such as a minor frequency response difference, can be responsible for the difference heard. It is, however, the most powerful and useful change to listen for when there is every reason to believe that the frequency response has not been changed to a significant degree within the audio band. Evaluation of most IC chips (those suitable for audio use according to their specifications) would be a good example of this type of situation: substitution of one IC chip for another in an audio component, say the output stage of a CD player, normally will not alter the frequency response significantly. If a change in tonal balance occurs when switching the IC chips in and out of the unit, then it is very likely that the tonal change is due to some difference in the signal handling accuracy other than frequency response errors. Of course, the frequency response should be checked to verify that it does measure 'flat'.

Another example would be listening to interconnect cables. In most modern sound systems, the substitution of one grade or type of line level interconnect cable will not significantly affect the measured frequency response within the audio band, so that if tonal balance changes are heard, they are most likely to be due to some other factor associated with the cable itself, for instance, dielectric effects of the insulators.
It must be pointed out that there are always 'special' cases where the above assumption will no hold, such as an IC chip not truly suited for audio use that actually does affect the audio band frequency response, or interconnects used with equipment with a very high output impedance (some tube gear) that will roll-off the high frequencies with certain high-capacitance cables.