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Sunday-Morning Music

Critical-Listening vs. Casual-Listening (and the DBT fallacy)

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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 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 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 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's been "warming-up" since (I run one of the Linn Radio streams, even when I'm not 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 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?



  1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
    Very nice write-up.
  2. Flac2Dac's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile
    Very nice write-up.
    Hey Chris; I need to thank you for the podium!
  3. Flac2Dac's Avatar
    Jax, that is a great point and one of my contentions, yes. I'm not even sure I covered it in the treatise above, but...I agree the very nature of the DBT, tests our preference for gear in a way that goes against how we listen normally. I've never been involved in one of these so-called double-blind tests...but I can only assume it involves a) songs you're not entirely familiar with, b) snippets of those songs you're not entirely familiar with; c) at least one piece of gear you're not entirely familiar with, d) a room you're not at all familiar with, and e) a time-limit, which is not at all conducive to relaxing and enjoying the music. How in the world, are you supposed to realistically establish a preference or difference under these circumstances?

    I know you've heard this before...but I've always maintained, that if you gave me an ABX switching device; a device that I could hook 2 amps to, and it would randomly switch one or the other. And what I could do...was in my own room, with all of my other gear (my source, my pre, my speakers)...spend a good amount of time, getting to know the ins and outs...the sound, of each amp; with my own music, that I was familiar with.

    Then you put me in this ABX mode, and asked me to identify which was which; I feel fairly certain I could pick this or that, more often than not. The "non-believers"...the ones who throw the term audiophile around like it's a four-letter word (and that's kind of the subject of my next post)...they take that to mean we claim there are monumental differences in those amps we might hear. I don't think so. Look, if I'm doing an ABX test of 2 quality, well-designed solid-state amps...the differences should be subtle. But it's those subtle differences that make for all the better things in life, right? In food, in wine...automobiles, etc (again, more on that in the next topic).

    And not everyone will hear those subtle differences the same way; last time I checked, we "audiophiles" don't vote as a block. I might hear a slight tilt in the mid-range, and not care for it as opposed to a ruler-flat response; and you might like a little mid-range romance, lol. In which case, you'll choose amp A, and I might go for B. I've always told "the other side"...if all amps sounded the same, you'd all own the same cheap solid-state model (they really seem to champion Crown pro-style models). Conversely, if "we" all agreed on a sound...just 180-degrees from what the "scientists" hear...we'd all own, what, Conrad Johnson, lol.