Are Your Ears Good Enough?
Somebody recently wrote within one of the Facebook audiophile groups to ask if, before going to all the effort and expense of putting together a good high-end audio system, people ought to have their ears checked to find out if they can hear well enough to make it worthwhile.
Does that sound reasonable to you?
Another thing about ears and hearing that's happened to me more times than I can count, and that I suspect has probably happened to you, too, is that I've mentioned – or even played – a recording or some hi-fi product or even a full audio system to a non-audiophile friend, and had him tell me something like " I'm sure that's fine for you, a golden-eared hi-fi buff, but I'm just an ordinary person, so I (whichever the case may be) didn't / couldn't / probably wouldn't hear the difference."
Actually, both the question and that response are wrong, though possibly for different reasons: One of those being that, obviously enough, your own ears are your ears and, while they will most certainly change over time, a) the changes will likely occur so gradually that you – unless you suffer some catastrophic illness or event – will probably never notice the day to day difference, and b) whether they're "golden" or "tin", they'll always be the only way you ever have to listen to whatever sound you listen to.
The other reason is that, for the enjoyment of music and high fidelity sound, not knowing how to listen is a far more important problem than not being able to hear.
Do you remember the old saying about "seeing the world through rose-colored glasses"? That was really about attitude, but what if it were, in fact, about seeing? If you had such glasses, whenever you wore them they would change the color or color intensity of everything you saw by adding a rosy tint. And if, instead of wearing colored glasses, you were born with "rose-colored" corneas, the effect would be identical, but you'd never know it!
What others saw as white, you'd see as white, too – except that the "white" you were seeing would actually be a shade of pink; things that were pink might be indistinguishable by you from those that others saw as white, and all of the other colors of everything else you ever saw would be affected accordingly. The most important thing about it, though, would be that neither you nor anyone else would ever know the difference!
It's the same thing with hearing. All of us are born with factors – even to the shape of our head and the spacing of our pinnae (the visible parts of our ears) – that can affect our hearing; from sensitivity, to frequency range, to directionality. And (sorry to say it, guys) women – the people statistically least likely to become audiophiles – have long been known to have significantly better high-frequency hearing ability than men. In short, all of us are born with our auditory equivalent of colored glasses, and that "color" varies from person to person, and even in a single person throughout a lifetime.
So what does all of that mean? As regards the original question about getting a hearing test before buying a hi-fi system, basically nothing. When we're listening to music, whether live or recorded, we're always listening with our ears, with our same personal hearing characteristics, and, it's not what we hear that matters, but how closely the sound of what we hear from our system sounds to what we hear when we hear live music.
That's it; there is an "absolute sound", but the only standard any of us will ever have for judging it arises from a comparison of our hearing of one thing with our own hearing of another. As long as we can hear at all, the condition, health, or acuity of our hearing is always "the same pair of colored glasses", and testing just to find out what their "color" might be is, except to satisfy our curiosity, of just about no value at all.
What is important, and of great value to our musical enjoyment and our ability to pick or to put together a great sound system is learning how to listen.
One of the other things – besides the "But I don't have golden ears" comment mentioned earlier – that often happens when you first play a good system for the uninitiated is that they'll ask "Where's the bass?". A surprising number of people have never heard real bass; but think, instead, that the LOUD 60 to 80 Hz lower mid-bass of a rock concert or dance club PA system or the great whomping BOOM of some kid's car stereo cruising two blocks away is what good bass is supposed to sound like.
In fact, good bass is never just boom, but always has at least three components. And, if they're there for you to hear, as in a live performance or within a good recording played on a good system in a good room, the more you know what they are and know to listen for them, the more likely you are to hear them and the richer your musical experience will be. Those three things are;
1) The "attack" – the initial strike of a drum or the pluck of the string of a stringed bass instrument;
2) The "spread" – the sound of the spread of the attack energy from the point of attack through the entire drum skin or string; 3) the "body" sound – the vibration and resonance of the entire body of the instrument as it's energized by the spread of the energy of attack.
Other instruments, too, everything from a piccolo to a pipe organ, and from an accordion to a xylophone, all have something similar to what happens with bass; each note played has to start and then fill the instrument – to get its body or internal column of air vibrating – in order to create the resonance we hear as music, and the more we know what to listen for, the more effectively we can judge how good a recording is or how well our system is performing.
Years ago, Anthony Cordesman (known to readers as "AHC" in his capacity as a reviewer for the absolute sound)let it be known that he regularly invited hearing-impaired people to participate with him as a review panel in evaluating High-End audio products. Even though challenged in some aspects of the hearing process, he found that they could still differentiate between better and worse gear and that their contribution was both valid and valuable. Limitation of their ability to hear, according to him, apparently did little to limit their ability to listen, and listening was by far the more important ability.
I agree. Forget the hearing test. If it pleases you, learn to be a better listener. But in any case...