I should begin by stating there are many things audiophiles should do so limiting them to five is perhaps somewhat less than completely inclusionary. I also suspect many audiophiles have done all of these at some point or another. Oddly enough, none involve meaningful system changes per se. I do feel they will aid some listeners in what their system is or is not doing. They can also help deciding on upgrades or leaving the system as is.
So on with the countdown.
1. Listen to live music.
This suggestion cannot be overstated, and its importance is often neglected. And in our current Covid 19 culture, doing so might be difficult, maybe for many even largely impossible. When times are back to normal, go to a symphony, rock concert, jazz trio in a nightclub, any type of live music. What live music does is sets us, as audiophiles, apart from our systems. It allows us to hear, especially with live, unamplified music, dynamics from the lowest frequency to the highest, clarity and a temporally accurate presentation. Hearing a live rock concert imbues the feeling of power music can impart. Hearing live singers allows us to really hear and understand the subtle nuances in vocals. There is perhaps no greater substitute for an audiophile to hear music performed live and compare that to what your own system produces.
2. Compare your system to a much better one.
Assuming your system is not the world’s best and most expensive, it is a good idea to actually hear what state of the art in audio playback is capable of producing. Very often, this can easily be accomplished at an audio show. When I attend a show, I always eventually make my way to the rooms with the hyper expensive systems or components. Why? Curiosity for one. I also want to hear what that system is doing as compared to the mental image of my own. Granted, having these systems in hotel rooms is a disadvantage, however, I find the overall excellence of these systems very often triumphs over a less than ideal location. Concomitantly, if you know someone with a world class system, it is always a good idea to spend some time listening to theirs. Understand where your system’s strengths and weaknesses lie – only then can you really highlight or correct them.
3. Go to a big box store and listen to mid fi.
This is really easy to do. Every so often, I venture into my local Best Buy and listen to some of the equipment they have. Just as it is important to hear systems better than your own, it is also highly advisable to hear systems whose sonics are less involving, less captivating, less immersive than your own. It is a great way to realize your efforts, your expenditures, and maybe for some, “discussions” with a significant other were not in vain. Doing this simple, cost free thing will likely make you feel very good about what you have accomplished – unless, of course, your system sounds worse than the mid fi system and then, well, I can’t help you.
4. Develop a list of reference test songs.
We are supposed to know what music sounds like on our systems, right? It stands to logical reason we should therefore completely understand the music our systems play. Knowing every song in your music library might be difficult. It is better to start small. I have six songs I know very well. I have played them over and over. I know exactly where the imaging of each song should be in my listening room. I know what the bass, midrange and treble of each one should sound like. Three have vocals and I can readily tell if there is a deviation on pitch and timbre. I know the dynamics of each and the concussive impact when it happens. I know the attack and decay of cymbals, and where I should hear fingers on guitar fretboards. I actually use many songs in my evaluations, but one thing is for sure, unless these six tracks all sound exactly the way I know they should, something is wrong and I can begin to set things right.
5. Stay abreast of new developments and changes in the industry.
Call this part of the hobby, call it continuing education, call it whatever you like. Because our industry is constantly changing and evolving, particularly digital audio, it is very important to keep up with the times. Read audio magazines and web sites. Read reviews, even if the product is not on your radar screen. Talk to audio dealers. All are excellent resources to keep informed about new technologies, new trends and in general what is happening in the industry. Go to audio shows. There is perhaps no better method of actually hearing the components you have read about than an audio show. These shows allow the opportunity to become immersed in the hobby we all so richly enjoy. Yes, there will be travel time and expenses, but I feel the time and cost pales in comparison to what might be learned. Most shows have seminars on a host of subjects moderated by industry leading experts. Shows are a way to meet manufacturers and designers of this magnificent equipment and ask them questions. Again, Covid 19 has curtailed audio shows in 2020, but this will not last forever. Make a plan to attend an audio show when they resume. They can be a whole lot of fun for an audiophile and best of all, they help all of us learn new things about the hobby we didn’t know before.
Are there other things deserving consideration? Unquestionably so. Many other suggestions could certainly be cited. It would be easily possible to make lists of things in any number of categories – system set up, speaker positioning, and room treatments come to immediate mind. Ours is a very complex hobby, steeped in electronics and physics. It can also be a hobby of relaxation and entertainment by the simple act of listening to a song. On some level, as audiophiles dedicated to sonic excellence, there are many things we should be doing. Maybe, starting with these five is a good way to get things going in the right direction.