”I can’t hear the difference”

So often when I am discussing a potential acquisition of Hi Fi with someone instore and I am suggesting they might look at something better than their stated level of interest they come back with this as a rejoinder.

I can nearly always show them the difference in ten seconds or less.

Often the reason they are in denial is due to age or some kind of hearing related infirmity.

Oddly my actual experience is that people acquire increasing discrimination with age and experience.

Indeed we may respond less well to the classic audiometric hearing frequency sweep test, however there is a remarkable plasticity and adaptability that the brain possesses in processing audio signals that enables often even greater discrimination within what may well be a more restricted bandwidth of operation.

So even if the our conscious response to the rising frequency tone of a hearing test stops at 5KHz rather than a youthful 19KHz it transpires that the developed acuity within that bandwidth is actually greater than that of their younger self.

This came to a head recently for me when I had an old friend come in to assay UHD Blu Ray Players. Marc is of a certain age that he remembers V1s flying overhead in south East England when he was a child and has recently taken up a cruiser motorcycle as regular transport ...

As such he felt that he probably only needed the basic Oppo UDP203 and that the heavy duty audiophile Digital to Analogue conversion on the UDP205 would be wasted on him. (Warning, these fabulous Oppo Players are now a diminishing resource …)

It took him not even five seconds to hear the difference using his own USB recording of something daunting and classical.

Marc is a person of excessive self-analysis who also records concerts for fun (with the full permission and consent of the performers of course) and amongst other things has contributed a 96 page paper to the body of knowledge on hearing aid algorithms and music compression interactions.

Interestingly amongst the sometimes excessive technicalities of his topic the paper comments that 81% of the hearing aid using respondents in their approx median seventies age group said that sound quality of the music recording was extremely important to their experience.

I have a copy of the paper available for those who may be interested. It is a very detailed investigation of the effects of hearing aids and consequent qualitative factors of musical appreciation.

Now Marc is an example of someone who frankly knows too much and has been trained to analyse rather than simply enjoy …

In this sense he is representative of many High Fidelity customers who listen to the equipment rather than the music. The classic example being when we come across that person on their tenth upgrade who … only has five CDs …

Then there is the (usually male) “professional” Hi Fi purchaser who comes into the store with their partner (usually female) and is desperately searching for the differences in bass and treble response on a component with their approved test track whilst their listening “inexperienced” partner simply responds to the change with: “that’s much better, get that one”

Invariably after another two hours of patient listening and analysis by the pro listener, the novitiate partner will be proved to be right …

I suppose what I am fundamentally alluding to here is that there is a lot of our response to music that doesn’t lend itself to superficial analysis of an audio spectrum. The paper I referred to earlier took the approach of analysing the response of the listener to their experience rather than measuring an audio characteristic under the assumption that it was relevant to the listening experience.

Herein lies that fundamental fallacy in much of the marketing around audio and visual consumer products.

We are bombarded with a snake oil numerology of statistics that are brandished by the marketers as indicators of the superiority of their products. A few examples:


Frequency response

Total Harmonic Distortion

Signal to noise ratio


Contrast Ratio

Refresh Rate

None of these “specifications” relates to the actual listening / viewing experience by the consumer or if they are relevant the actual format and parameters of the measurement used are invariably inappropriately applied.

The other side of this coin is that there are pundits who claim that because they can’t measure a difference in a component then obviously any differences that people hear are illusory or an induced fantasy.

This is particularly prevalent in those discussions around the veracity of loudspeaker cable and other less tangible accessories for improving audio quality.

The common argument against loudspeaker cable is that as the differences in resistance and capacitance between two particular cables may not be measureable then any differences that people hear are self-delusional. This is the engineer vs the artist …

I am the first to grant that the background explanatory material behind the design of some fringe cables and audio accessory products would not even pass muster at a Kanye West Flat Earth Society meeting.

However to denigrate brands such as Chord and Nordost in the same breath is to simply ignore the fantastic subjective musical qualitative results these cables and associated products can produce and also ignores the very real engineering prowess and science that has gone into their design and construction.

It seems to me that the fundamental issue here is not how to measure the music but how to measure its effect on us as humans.

I would contend that music is related to our humanity. It is part of what makes us communicative and compassionate and can connect us to our greater selves in time and space. Not for nothing is the musical experience part of our religious rituals.

Indeed it is a sign of the reprobate Orwellian evil that lurks outside proper humanity when a group starts banning a type of music or claiming that it and other art forms are degenerate and corrupting.

The enjoyment of music is one the basic attributes of our humanity. It is a particular privilege to be able to work at something that helps people enjoy it more …

(Cartoons are from Charles Rodrigues work in "Stereo Review" from the 1980's, he was hilarious and biting)