If you've read any of my other articles in this publication or elsewhere, you know that I've always advocated listening as the final basis for any audio decision: Spending your time poring over spec sheets; reading reviews – regardless of how many, by whom, or in which magazine or blog – and even discussing the latest products, systems, or "software", with your friends or fellow audiophiles (even learnedly and with great passion) are simply not adequate substitutes for the evidence of your own ears.
All of those other things can certainly be interesting, and reading about audio and discussing its finer points with your Hi-Fi buddies is one of the better ways to bond, score points and get in some hobby time without ever having to spend any money. The fact, though, is that that's all they are and, when it comes time to actually bring home new toys or decide if you ought to, nothing beats actually listening to what's at offer, preferably in your own home, in your own system.
I went over the issue of "spec sheets" in my last article for Enjoy the Music.com, so there's no need to re-hash them now. Too many are not "spec" sheets at all, but "sell" sheets, written more to impress than to inform. (What, for example, does "20 to 20,000 Hz frequency response" mean without any indication of plus or minus how many dB from "flat"? Or what does an amplifier's "peak" power rating have to do with ordinary listening levels in a typical home environment?). Even if entirely true and stated clearly and in great detail, how – except as a quick "rule-out" of products that you don't want to audition – can a product's specs tell you, without listening to it, what it will sound like in your own system, in your own listening room?
Reviews are very much the same thing: As I've said before, NOBODY – not even the performers who played it or the engineer who recorded it – has any idea what the music actually sounded like to the, often multiple, microphones that were used in recording it. Even the people who were there at the "live" performance (if, in these days of multi-track recordings often assembled after the fact, there even was such a thing) heard what they heard only from the positions of their own two ears; never even possibly from all of the positions of all of the microphones that were mixed to produce the final recording. That means that even the reviewers (remember that I used to be one) who must judge the products they write about have no real knowledge of what the music they play on or through them really sounded like, and must rely on their own preconceptions and biases as to what they ought to sound like in deciding what's good (or accurate or pleasing) and what isn't.
Not only are they listening with their own ideas of what music should sound like, but they're playing the equipment that they're reviewing through their own system in their own listening room, and there's no more guarantee that their room or its acoustics will be the same as yours than there is that their tastes, preferences, and listening biases will be the same. Pick and follow reviewers with care; if you find that you and they often agree, they might be worth following. But if you and a reviewer consistently disagree, find someone else to read. Just because they write for publication doesn't mean that they know any more than you do or that their opinions are any more valid.
That leads, of course, to the idea of talking Hi-Fi with your audiophile pals. (We always just called ourselves "Hi-Fi Crazies"). You know, yourself, whether you and your friends share a common knowledge level and whether, or to what degree their tastes and preferences are the same as your own. If you can learn from each other or share ideas and experiences, good! But even if you're the best of friends, basing your system decisions on their experience may not be the best idea.
To illustrate this, consider that some years ago, before I got into the industry, I and Tony DiChiro (then president of Kinergetics Research, and still one of audio's very top designers) were good friends and "listening buddies", and regularly got together to audition new products as they came onto the audio scene.
Not only did we have virtually identical ideas about sound (I had been a Hi-Fi Crazy since age twelve), but we also had similar systems and virtually identical listening rooms. Both were pretty much the same, in shape and size, partially open on the left side, opening to another room, and, at their far end (near where we placed our speakers), was (again, about the same size for both of us) a dining room. The only real difference between the two arrangements was that, in my room, there was a fireplace-wall between the living room and dining room areas, with pass-throughs on both sides leading to the dining room, and in Tony's, the pass-through to the dining room was at the center (where the fireplace was in mine), with floor-to-ceiling stub walls on both sides.
Tony liked my speakers at the time (Acoustat 1+1s), and, when Acoustat come out with an updated version of the 1+1, both of us ordered sets of the new version on the same day, likely to be made from the same batch, and actually delivered to us, later, on the same day. When they came, we both set them up to burn-in (Acoustats were electrostatics, and used to take a week or more before they sounded right). And later, when my new ones had fully burned-in, I called Tony and asked what he thought of his. He wasn't impressed, and I suggested that maybe a little more burn-in time might be needed.
When he did that and still wasn't satisfied, I went to his house to see if there might be a problem with setup or something. There wasn't. The speakers simply sounded awful, and, to see whether the problem was the speakers or his room, what we did then was to load them up, drive them to my house, and compare them with my own new pair, listening to his speakers in the same position and running off the same system as mine.
They were terrific. They were so good, in fact, that I bought them from Tony on the spot, which was how I came to have (and still do) three pairs of Acoustat 1+1s.
A few weeks later, I got another call from Tony, saying that, after selling me his Acoustats, he had ordered a pair of Bruce Thigpen's magnetic-drive panel speakers, the Eminent Technology Model 4. Those, he said, were wonderful, and he invited me out to listen to them that very day.
When I went and heard them, I immediately agreed that they were something special, and thought that I, too, might buy a pair. Before doing that, though, remembering how different the same pair of Acoustats had sounded in his room and in mine, we loaded the ETs up and took them to my house for another comparison... which they failed: At my house, the ETs sounded just as disappointing as the Acoustats had at Tony's, and all because of what really seemed to be just a small difference in the way our listening rooms were designed.
The point here is that — even coming from people with similar experience and opinions — advice or input on audio subjects can be entirely true, entirely candid, and still, for your own purposes, regarding your own system, to be played in your own room, be either entirely useless or utterly wrong.
The only solution is to actually listen to things before committing to buy them. Keep on reading spec sheets, if you'd like; keep on reading the magazines and blogs for reviews of all the neat new stuff that's coming out every month; keep on talking with your friends about your system and theirs and all the other things you'd love to be able to hear or have or afford; but don't actually make a buying decision until you've actually heard what you've been lusting after. That's the best, and maybe even the only way to make sure you'll always...