Critical-Listening vs. Casual-Listening (and the DBT fallacy)
by, 09-16-2012 at 11:18 AM (2494 Views)
So...I've been working on a treatise, about why I just can't get into Vinyl. But it's been 2 Sundays now, and I can't bring it to a close (stay tuned, lol). So I thought a recent email to an "audiophile" friend, explored an interesting point...and would have to suffice as this week's reflection.
The more I really listen to a lot of gear...and think about the listening process; the more I'm convinced that what we hear really does get clouded by all kinds of mental factors. I mean, that's hardly a revelation; we know that it does. But case in point...as a follow-up to my last entry, about my current 3-amp shoot-out. A Conrad-Johnson mf-2250A has been my de-facto power amp...mated to a C-J ET-3...for some time. The mf-2250A is a fine amp; warm, rich, round..."musical". But I was starting to think that it, paired with the C-J tube pre-amp...it was a bit too much of a good thing; too warm, too rich, etc. The ET-3 was already giving me those desirable traits in spades; I didn't necessarily want a power-amp that exacerbated that.
Next, I tried my first BAT power-amp; a VK-220. When I put the BAT into the system, I liked it "better" right away; I thought it walked a good line between still being very musical...but not overly warm or soft. Now, you always have to be careful with snap-decisions, IMO...when it comes to gear. I liken it to food a lot; if the C-J amp is lobster...rich...then a steady diet of it might have you craving something else. After all that rich lobster, a palette-cleansing sorbet will be a refreshing change. However, it doesn't mean you don't like lobster; doesn't mean lobster isn't good!
So, I was taking a good, long...enjoyable listen to the BAT; really getting used to its sound...but I always had plans to go back and make sure...head-to-head...I didn't really prefer the C-J. While I was in my courting period with the BAT...and the C-J was just sitting on the sidelines, waiting to get back in the game...along came the McCormack DNA-225. I wasn't really looking for a 3rd amp(!), but the price was too good to pass up...and I have respect for Steve's kit (even though it's now manufactured by Bill & Lew).
But the point of this post, isn't to compare and contrast the 3 amps (in fact, I haven't finished the shoot-out yet...only put 2 head-to-head at this juncture); the point is talk about the audition process, and how we listen. Take my own situation: I had 3 quality amps...a C-J, a BAT, and the McCormack. I've really got NO reason to want to like one over the other. Sure...the "objectivists" say we are fooled by our eyes, and pre-disposition about a certain piece. I won't lie; how a piece looks to me does hold some weight (not the ultimate weight certainly...I wouldn't choose a worse-sounding, but better-looking piece of kit or anything). But I like the way all of these amps look, or I likely wouldn't have bought them to start with.
After getting the McCormack DNA-225, I put that into the loop...and wow; it's different from either of the other two. The first thing that strikes me is its huge, clean muscle. But it's probably not as "non-fatiguing" or "musical" as the other 2. It can be a bit "forward", "bright", and perhaps "strident"...certainly on recordings that start off that way to begin with; unforgiving maybe. Much as I like, as dislike certain things about each of these fine amps...I can't keep all three!
As I start the shoot-out, in my mind, the BAT is the amp to beat. So I start by putting the other 2 amps head-to-head first. First up, is the C-J...and it is not what I remembered. Now...coming off the "clean" McCormack, it doesn't seem overly warm; it seems "just right" warm, lol. I guess it's just like I always say...sound (at least for me) means nothing in a vacuum. I have to have something to compare to, to say this is "warmer", this is "cleaner"; this is "better" or "worse". I listened to 24 selected test-tracks, switched the C-J out with the McCormack immediately, and (after letting it warm up for just a spell) listened to the same tracks all over again. Even though, technically they tied with the test tracks (9 I felt sounded "better" on the C-J, 9 "better" on the McCormack...5 "tied", in that I couldn't find anything to really distinguish between the playback, or they both sounded equally good...for different reasons; and one track I threw out, because it sounded equally horrible with both amps!)...when I was really listening...really scrutinizing; the C-J seemed like the "better" amp..."more musical" amp. Again; "warmer", "richer", "fatter", more 3-dimensional presentation.
Now, I actually decided to keep the McCormack...because I thought it was a better match, and offered a sound more like I was looking for; but I know plenty of other "enthusiasts" who would have opted for the C-J. After deciding to keep the McCormack...it's been "warming-up" since (I run one of the Linn Radio streams, even when I'm not listening...so that when I do decide to sit down, things should be at 100%)(and of course, the BAT is still waiting in the on-deck circle). I did some listening last night, and the McCormack actually sounds really, really good. Tight, taut, clean; not overly bright (except, again...maybe on terrible or bright-to-begin-with recordings)...bass for days, of course (lots of muscle there). I think the point is...our "critical" listening, can really render different results from our "casual" listening; and that's a bit deceptive. I always say the same thing about the damn double-blinds; to me, it would be like going to a restaurant and saying "do I want this $100 bottle of wine, or this $30 one"...let me put on my blind-fold, lol. We want the whole experience, as it will happen to us while we're enjoying it. In other words...we do "critical" listening when choosing gear (at least I do), but "casual" listening (just for lack of a better word..."audiophiles" probably really never casually listen, the way those who don't love music or gear, casually listen) while enjoying that gear; and I think they can give us different perspectives.
I guess the point...in summary; is that, just as I don't advocate DBT auditions...because they are not in line with the way we actually listen once the blind-folds come off. Perhaps "critical" listening is not the right way to test new gear either? Perhaps a more "casual", live-with-it-everyday approach is more in order? I always try to do a bit of both, but this latest go-round has shown me how your impressions can be different...even on the same piece of kit...when you do one versus the other. What have you found; what's your audition process?