How to Hear the Difference in the Home Audition
Just Like the Pros Do It
It is only natural to think of the home audition as The Shootout at the Hi-Fi Corral. You borrow an audio or video component you are considering adding to your system from your friendly, accommodating dealer and bring it home for a few evenings’ A/B comparison. Something like this ensues: bang, bang, bang; back and forth you go disconnecting, reconnecting, cueing up the same five seconds of Bazzini’s “Dance of the Goblins” where Itzhak Perlman sounds like a 33 rpm record played on 78. The optimal test of transient response and inner detail. Your preamp, the one you borrowed; your preamp, the one you borrowed. Okay, now where’s that Telarc 1812 Overture for the bass test. Oh, yes, and the sound pressure level meter to make sure the volumes are dead-on matched between the two. Dang! Forgot to do that with the Bazzini so I guess that was time wasted. Wow, this is a lot like work. But you owe it to yourself if you’re considering shelling out bucks to make listening to music or watching movies more fun, right? After all, this is how the magazine guys do it, no? Compare one component to The Reference on cut after cut until they can distill a description of how the review component sounds. Heck, sometimes they have three or even four components gathered around for the Ultimate Shootout! Maybe you should go borrow some more preamps so you can blow the whole weekend with this audition thing and be done with it once and for all come Tuesday.
What am I Doing Wrong?
Would it surprise you if I suggest that this technique leads to disappointment and disillusionment? Well, it very likely will. Observation shows that what results is usually expressed something like, “Well, gee whiz (to maintain my “G” rating). I’m more confused now than before I started this whole process.” And why would your semi-scientific approach lead to confusion? Shouldn’t it produce a decision-cinching clarity? Either a thumbs up or a thumbs down? Actually, no.
There are a few holes in the theory and the most glaring to my way of thinking is that the A/B comparison tends to put you in the wrong frame of mind, dare I take it as far as saying the wrong side of your brain, to make decisions about how you relax, recreate and enjoy audio and video arts. Think about the last time you had to take a test and how little mental space you had left before and during it for distractions. Like music. Yet you are putting yourself in much the same situation when you perform a series of quick, or even extended, A/B comparisons with your music or home theater system. To the further detriment of the process, A becomes the reference against which B is judged and B serves the same function for A. Throw a C and a D into the mix and you’ve got a Dodge City rife with the opportunity for everyoneto end up with a bullet through the heart at your Shootout. Even the judge, you. Because you are no longer testing the components. You are testing you.
And the harder you try (I call it “squinting your ears”), the farther away the answer seems to get. This is because this part of you, the test-taking you, with it’s number-crunching analytical approach, it’s performance anxiety/flop sweat and it’s deafness to the power of music can’t produce a result so you begin to shut down and lose faith that an answer even matters any more. “If my friend/my spouse/the writers for the magazines/the folks at the hi-fi shop can hear it,why can’t I? There must either be something wrong with me or this is all a bunch of nonsense. I say it’s nonsense!” No, dude. It’s you.
A Solution: Pretend It’s Too Late!
But how else can you do it? Rip up the exam, storm out of the classroom bidding a satisfying farewell to your anxious test-mates and free yourself from the chains of scrutiny. From the moment you leave the shop with the “device no longer under test,” make believe you already own it. Decision made, money spent, no looking back. You now have x amount of time to simulate the ownership experience at home in your system. No giant comparo extravaganza, no inviting friends and neighbors in to quote chapter and verse of what this reviewer said about that piece or doesn’t it clash with your furniture, and NO A/B! Your existing component sits in the closet for the duration.
Here’s the deal. The piece you own has already had months if not years to ingrain its contribution into your mind, your subconscious, your music-listener self. You may not even know you know “how it sounds,” but you do. Simply take it out of your system, PUT IT AWAY, and insert the loaner. Remember, you “already own it;” there is no reason to compare it to your old one which is now “retired.” You are tricking your analytical brain into thinking it no longer has a role to play. Let the sound of your system with this new component in it wash over you and worm its way into your subconscious, just as your old one did, for however long you have it in your possession.
When it’s due back at the shop, remove it and return it without hooking up your system again with the old component first. Go to work, go to school, go on vacation. Do not rush home “while the memory is still warm” and hook up your old system! We are trying to get as far away from the A/B as we can, remember?
When you are ready to listen again, you’re going to have to reinstall your old component. Do it. Do you still enjoy the music? No squinting! As much? In different ways? Are you still happy? Heaven forbid are you happier? You’ll know, believe me.
Some of our happiest customers never have needed a home audition. I know that sounds like heresy to you and you could never live that way, but it’s true. One lucky soul has upgraded his entire system within the last three years, one piece at a time, without ever once bothering to try something at home first. But he always calls within a month to tell us all the enlightening changes which have taken place and how much more he’s enjoying listening. Now that’s an audition result anyone should want.
Originally posted June 2009