Written by 4:03 am Reference Speakers

Different Ears for Different Music?

Roger Skoff writes about how we hear what we listen to…

Do you remember Billy Ocean’s comment that, after however many years of trying, he was suddenly an “overnight success”? Well, something very much like that just happened to me: 

AR-diffears2a.jpgI’ve always kept my Home Theater setup and my “Serious Listening” system completely separate – even to the point of keeping and enjoying them in separate rooms. My music system is in a dedicated, carefully-arranged, and (to a degree) acoustically-treated  sanctum sanctorum (my Sound Room) and, just the opposite, my Home Theater system is just plunked down in my living Room, wherever was most convenient and most visible from the most places, so that anyone who happens to be there can see, hear, and enjoy it. 

When I listen to my Music System, it tends to be a ritual – or perhaps a “production number”, with the music carefully selected in advance; the system properly warmed-up; and my full attention given to what I’m hearing.  With the Home Theater system, it’s nothing like that; I just turn on the set and watch whatever is playing, or if there’s nothing I want to see, I either turn to Netflix or to one the other streaming video services I subscribe to or try to find something more interesting or more suitable to the moment from my library of recorded movies. 

Or sometimes I watch the news. 

Whatever it is, it’s not the sound of my Home Theater system that usually has my attention, but the information or the story or the visuals, and the sound is just part of the vehicle that delivers it… unless there’s something about it that’s either so good; so bad; or so unusual that it quite literally grabs my attention and forces me to notice it. 

And that gets me to my recent discovery: After all these years, I’ve discovered that I listen to different things in different ways! 

AR-diffears4a.jpgReally, that shouldn’t be all that surprising: I’ve always thought that the ideal set-up (at least as far as speakers go) would be to have one set of speakers (my ACA Seraphims, for example) for most of my favorite music (Classical, Jazz, Ethnic, Folk, Blues, C&W, etc.) and another set — a pair of K-horns or possibly Electro-Voice Patricians — for those times when my soul cries-out for Heavy Metal and head-crushing Rock ‘n’ Roll. 

I’m looking for different things from different kinds of music; so why shouldn’t I have different speakers to do what I want? And why shouldn’t I listen to them in different ways? 

That seems to be exactly what I do, and my proof is that I keep on making different discoveries about what I’m listening to and, with my High-End “critical listening” system, what I usually find are new flaws: 

No matter how good my system may be, eventually something about it will reveal itself to be less than perfect and then I’m doomed. From that point on, no matter how much I may try to ignore it, that one thing will become the only thing I can hear about my system, and it will become more and more annoying until  I’m finally forced to rearrange my system or re-do something or buy something to fix it. And then all will be well until my next discovery, when the process will start all over again. 


With me and, I suspect, with other Hi-Fi Crazies as well (Yeah, right– I know you can quit whenever you want to), we’re not seeking perfection. We know that’s impossible. We’re just trying to solve that one last problem, and it reminds me of that old joke about the farmer who says “I’m not greedy for land; I just want what joins mine”.  

With my Home Theater system, what I keep finding is something completely different:   Instead of flaws, I keep being surprised by how very good it sounds. 

Frankly, my Home Theater system wasn’t “purpose-built” for the highest possible performance; it was just put together from whatever I had on hand: The speakers for the right and left channels are Vandersteen 2s. NHT Super Zeros are used for the right and left rear channels and a single JBL 12″ (model unknown) powered subwoofer provides the deep bass.  No center channel speaker is used, and all of the speakers are driven off a Kenwood VR-309 receiver. 

Quite obviously, there’s nothing exotic or even – other than the Vandersteens – really “High-End” about this system. Even so, I keep finding myself noticing things that I wasn’t listening for and never expected to hear: It started with me noticing (and frankly, being surprised by) how good the sound was for so many movies – better, even, than some “audiophile” recordings I’ve heard. Then, again never even dreaming that such a thing might be possible, I started hearing (not always, but often enough) the acoustical background (the “studio” sound”) of the news or talk shows I was listening to, and even  (sometimes) noticed surprisingly good imaging and soundstaging for the “Talking Heads” and their surroundings. 

AR-diffears6a.jpgCertainly it’s possible, and even likely, that those things are just there because I’m listening to my Home Theater system in “Pro-Logic” surround sound instead of to true two-channel stereo, or that the sometimes wonderful and room-shaking bass I’ve also been enjoying is because (as is true) the receiver’s bass boost feature is turned up all the way, but so what? When I’m watching and listening to my Home Theater system, I’m playing an entirely different game than when I’m listening to my High-End system. I’m not challenging my system to convince me that I’m listening to something real; I’m just asking it to entertain me. Maybe that’s why, when it does a particularly good job of it, I can be pleasantly surprised and have happy thoughts about it. 

With my other system, I do hope – because that’s the game we Hi-Fi Crazies play – to hear “the real thing” or at least something indistinguishable from it. The laws of physics, though, make that impossible, regardless of how much time, effort, money, or ingenuity I might lavish on it, and even though I might be pleased or satisfied for a while, I always wind-up disappointed. 

Maybe — just as I’d like to have different speakers for different kinds of music — I should have different ears for different systems. Think how much nicer life would be.

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