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The Absolute Sound
Issue 216   October 2011
What is a Golden Ear?
Editorial by Andrew Quint


TAS Issue 216 October 2011  It was in the course of a routine e-mail exchange with TAS music editor Mark Lehman that those two mysterious words came up. We were firming up one of my LP review assignments for this issue and Mark mentioned in passing that he'd listened to one of the 180-gram records on the Tacet label that I'd be covering. He wrote:

"By the way, I just put on the Tacet LP of the Dvorák and, goodness gracious, is it gorgeous — the music, the performance, and the warm, rich, glowing sonics. I don't have a fancy system but it's decent — and I'm not a ‘Golden Ear' type, just a fervent music lover."

I'd not heard the record yet, but Mark was right. Andreas Spreer's recording of Antonin Dvorák's String Sextet in A major performed by the Auryn Quartet, complemented with an additional violist and cellist, really was outstanding in every way. But what did the "Golden Ear" comment mean, exactly? Did it imply that a certain caliber of playback system is necessary to distinguish the best recordings from those that are merely very good? Or that there's a biological difference between the most elite listeners and the great unwashed? Or, heaven forbid, that having Golden Ears precludes being a "fervent music lover?"

I'm well aware that the very existence of the term has provided ammunition to those who maintain that audiophiles are a bunch of snoots, convinced that they have perceptual capabilities beyond others. I once briefly entertained the notion myself that some listeners are endowed with superpowers. Many years ago, my friend Peter came over to hear the large, complex loudspeakers I was using at the time. After about ten minutes, Peter matter-of-factly announced that the binding posts on one speaker were wired out-of-phase. We switched some cables around and the sound improved substantially. When I did trade in the speakers, the dealer confirmed Peter's supposition.

I was impressed. But as I got to know Peter better, I came to realize that there was nothing supernatural about his auditory equipment, that this was simply the voice of experience. To be sure, there are plenty of folks, maybe 4% of the population, who are "tone deaf" — the medical term is amusia. There seems to be a morphologic basis for this: In one study, nine out of ten people with the condition had a specific anatomic abnormality of their brains. These individuals are sometimes described as having a "tin ear" and, perhaps, "Golden Ear" is meant to connote the opposite, a subject with superior neurological wiring.

But are superior discriminatory capacities simply a gift from God? Maybe not. Harmon International has developed computer-based "How to Listen" software to train listeners for research and marketing purposes. According to Dr. Sean Olive, HI's Director of Acoustic Research, this tool teaches non-audiophile subjects "how to identify, classify, and rate the quality of recorded and reproduced sounds according to their timbral, spatial, dynamic, and nonlinear distortion attributes." In other words, it turns mere mortals into Golden Ears.

Peter worked backwards from an aural observation to deduce what was wrong with my speakers: There was nothing more or less to it. Peter is passionately interested in how audio gear works, how mechanical and electrical phenomena relate to what we hear. It's the same idea with Mark L. His knowledge of the classical repertoire is comprehensive and his experience with recorded sound broad and deep. Mark's ability to judge the sonic quality of a recording — quickly and confidently — derives from years of experience and the fact that he cares.

Maybe this is what separates Golden Ears from those of lesser-metallurgic pedigree — attentive listening, experience, caring. You can tell a Stratocaster from a Telecaster from a CD playing in the next room? You're a Golden Ear. You can place which decade a Lester Young solo dates from? Golden Ear. You can differentiate Cincinnati's Music Hall from Atlanta's Symphony Hall on two Telarc recordings? GE.

We make these distinctions because they are important to a highly developed appreciation of musical art and performance. Our ears are gilded not because they came that way but because we've worked to get them functioning at a level better than the average citizen. Sorry Mark, but you are a golden-eared brother, and there's nothing you can do about it. 

--- Andrew Quint


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