[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
August 2000

Finding Your Own Ears

Audio as a hobby, avocation, interest or pleasure-bringing means to an end has its problems. Too many audiophiles get caught in the dragnets of well-established audio niches -- and have the same vulnerabilities that unfortunates who get sucked into cults have, though on a very different level and with very different life consequences, of course. Cults suck people in by giving them a "loving" home with control and guidance -- boundaries on their world that are comforting for these semi-lost people. Those trying to get into this audio thing are just as vulnerable to falling victim to an audio cult. This applies even to those who would never in a million years end up in a social/religious cult. Their guard is down when it comes to something like audio. I mean, how protective of yourself do you need to be? Well, perhaps more than many think might be necessary.

You’re in an audio cult if you got to where you are by letting the writing or talking of others direct you to the particular corner of audio that you ended up in. And believe me, the convoluted and florid writings available in supposed high-end audio and niche enthusiast publications is enough to mind-whack just about anyone who relies only on that type of input for the development of their personal "audio persona." You have read some of that stuff. Did you ever stop to analyze it at all? The lurid text virtually inscrutable in its description of how some five-figure audio component is supposed to sound? Yet when the article is over, nothing that has been said has any relevance to anything you personally know about audio. The author generally does one of two things: trashes some really good product in the process of boosting the subject of the review or makes tens or even hundreds of nice-sounding but empty statements about the product. In both cases, the author will weave some audio mystery around the product’s niche, which he’s probably favorably disposed towards. The romance and satisfaction depicted on the page may attract a certain type of person, making this product and/or niche just what the doctor ordered to bring sonic nirvana at last.

I can’t express in words how absolutely fouled up most people will be if they allow themselves to be carried along by the current of an attractive-sounding audio niche without really knowing what they need or want. I know this from personal experience. For 15 years I let magazines dictate what I bought rather than exploring what it was in audio that sounded good to me. It was a miserable time. I ended up with technically competent products that never worked together to make relatively pleasant music. Once I realized the mistake that I was making, it took another five years to get the first system I ever owned that made me want to listen to music continuously. I invested 20 years "finding my ears." I ended up in my own little corner of the audio spectrum that just makes me wildly happy. That’s an unconscionable loss of time. I hope this article will startle people who are in the same boat enough to get them to realize that they may have gotten were they are in audio not by exploring what sounded good to them, but by studying what was being written and spoken about by the most influential writers, dealers and friends. Snap out of it now; you’ve been wasting time without getting close to "finding your ears."

How does someone in audio "find his or her ears" then? Experience. Nothing works better. Broad exposure to all kinds of systems and products is a major element. Listening to what successful and capable designers have to say about their products. Listening to dealers. Listening to friends. The trick while all of this is going on is to believe nobody. Assume from the beginning that your ideal system is going to be completely unique, perhaps a combination of things that nobody else on earth is using. What you want is input, not brainwashing. Take all of that input without putting any serious weight on any of it. Use it as background research, not as answers. File it all away. Mull it over. And this will take years, not days or weeks. Doing this audio thing at a high level is not something accomplished quickly.

While all of this searching for input is going on, you need something to listen to. You have to have some kind of system so you don’t lose contact with the music, which, I hope, is what is driving you deeper into the "audio thing" in the first place. What’s a seeker to do for that interim system then? First, understand that it is interim. Don’t even try to make it anything wildly special. If you can’t afford to throw money around on system you won’t be keeping long-term, get something modest that works pretty well. Personally, I would recommend something without huge expensive speakers or amplifiers. Perhaps an integrated amp with modest floorstanding speakers. And select this equipment in such a way that you can happily use it in another room when the big rig starts to form up or so that when you sell it, you don’t take a bath. I’d also recommend that this be a mainstream system and not an audio-niche system, and for one big reason: If you get into an audio niche before you’ve "found your ears," you can end up permanently stuck in that niche once the cult-like attachments with like-thinking audiophiles start to build strong bonds. And believe me, this can happen even if the music itself isn’t really what you long to hear -- you can completely overlook being dissatisfied, so positive are the vibes from the niche group.

One of the biggest problems with vocal audio niches is that they suck in impressionable people who have no business being in that niche. These people would be far better served by some other type of audio system. Niche-ers don’t realize that recruiting new members is a terrible thing to do. They see it as evangelizing their bliss. Just as blissful new cult members go out to recruit other new cult members, these blissful niche-ers seek to spread their bliss to others without regard for the real needs of the other person. It's a rare-niche audiophile who will steer a newbie away from his particular niche in favor of some other type of system that might better suit the newbie's expectations. If you find someone like that, I would council paying more attention to him (99% of the time it will be a him) than to most others you get your input from. It’s a wise person who understands that his niche isn’t for everybody. I wouldn’t bear any ill will towards the evangelical niche-ers. They mean well, but they just aren’t often as objective as you might wish.

So what’s an audio niche, you may be wondering? It could be anything really. Panel loudspeakers could be a niche, and within that niche you have electrostatic panels, planar magnetic panels, ribbons and a couple of other sub-types. Tube amps could be a niche with single-ended amps being a sub-niche and specific output tubes being sub-sub-niches. Solid state can be a niche. Feedback can be a niche, especially zero feedback amps (tube or solid state). High-sensitivity loudspeakers are a niche with many sub-niches. Within conventional loudspeakers you can have hundreds of niches based on cone materials, crossover types (or lack of crossovers), driver arrangements, etc. This is certainly not a list of all possible audio niches. It’s intended only to give some examples of what I’m referring to.

All you can do about this if you are at the beginning or middle of "finding your ears" is understand that all of these things, all of these niches, are different. None is better or best for all people. Your job is to figure out where you fit without allowing yourself to be seduced by the romance of certain niches. And believe me, the niches that attract the more romantic-minded people are the ones that tend to be the most vocal and most seductive. You must resist nonetheless. Your goal should be to "find your ears" not to live with someone else’s ears.

But "finding your own ears" and "trusting your own ears" are two entirely different things. I don’t think you really can trust your ears too much when you are an inexperienced listener. You’re too easy to trick; not that experience can prevent you from being tricked, but it is a bit harder to be tricked when you have some experience. In the beginning you should only trust your ears a little bit. You see, audio is like finding a companion or mate. When you’re young and inexperienced, the only thing you may notice that’s different from one person to another is that they all look different. That can be a very important element of attraction, and it’s the only one we use early on in most cases. It’s only with experience that you realize that there are actually different personalities hiding behind the façade. And those personalities, once you understand, can easily over-ride the initial physical attraction. Some of those personalities are too big, some are too small, and some very small number are probably just right -- for you. Your needs evolve over time too. In the beginning, cute and curious might be all you can handle in a relationship. But get into your mid to later years and you have a whole different perspective. Your audio needs will change the same way. Knowing this right from the beginning can prevent years, perhaps decades, of doing it wrong.

Don’t allow yourself to be led to audio solutions and be prepared to evolve your ideas about the ideal audio system for you. Read, listen to equipment whenever and wherever you get a chance, listen to your own system and experiment with it from time to time. Go to hi-fi shows if you can. You can’t believe everything you hear there, but you get an intense dose of different kinds of sound in different sonic environments. Listen to your favorite music a lot -- at home and live concerts. Live acoustic concerts without electronic enhancement (microphones, amps and speakers) are particularly helpful in developing a sense of how real instruments sound. And be very worried if the money you have spent on your music library is a small fraction of the cost of your audio system. There’s a spectrum from "six-figure hardware with six LPs or CDs" to "huge music library with a boombox to play the music on." Seems to me that there’s a pretty good balance somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. You may find yourself temporarily equipment heavy if you are building a system or making a serious upgrade. But this should correct itself over time with more music purchases.

Lastly, protect your ears. Earaches are often signs of infection. Infection can lead to hearing loss and tinitus. Hearing loss will usually start with high frequencies and work its way well down into the midrange if the infection goes untreated too long. Tinitus is a constant ringing or static noise. Not usually terribly severe, it can become in some cases very loud and completely inescapable 24 hours a day every day. This is a hell on earth you do not want to experience for yourself. Overexposure to loud noise can also cause the onset of tinitus. Please treat earaches as very serious health incidents. Use hearing protection when mowing the lawn, using power tools, flying commercial airlines or in small planes, at rock concerts and any other time you are exposed to noise levels 85dB or higher for 15 minutes or more (which is the OSHA standard).

Damage from noise need not cause discomfort to happen. However, if you have ever experienced ringing in the ears from loud sound, you have experienced hearing loss right then and there. The longer it takes the ringing to go away after you are removed from the loud sound, the more serious the hearing loss you have experienced. The best protection I’ve found is $2.50 foam earplugs available in the hunting section of almost every sporting-goods store. The ones I like happen to be light orange in color with eight or ten flat sides. You get a dozen or so for about $2.50. I’ve tried a fancier-looking bright-green foam plug with a smooth outer surface (the orange ones have a very fine-cell, spongy surface) but these seem only about half as effective as the orange ones and you don’t get as many in the package.

Now go out there and build your life-long relationship with your audio system and your music and have a heck of a good time doing it.

...Doug Blackburn


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