Do you need golden ears to appreciate good HiFI? We don’t think so… and here’s why...
Do you need golden ears to appreciate good HiFi? We don’t think so… and here’s why...
I can’t help thinking that there is a still an underlying presumption - formerly manifest in the media, or in advertising or wherever.. that good HiFi (the stuff that costs a bit more) is the preserve of the golden-eared few. I know it’s been said before, and times are changing in some respects, for example with burgeoning Facebook pages discussing these matters - fully subscribed to by people of all ages. Maybe this has a lot to do with the fact that many of the pundits, writers, reviewers, designers, audio engineers and producers have traditionally been, and sometimes still are middle aged (or older) men. Those famous names that keep popping up in the HiFi press or are on the front page of HiFi Websites (like me I suppose!!). Well the thing is that many of those people, technically speaking, can’t hear as well as the music-consuming younger generation that are spending all the dosh! Yet the younger, headphone wearing generation often care less about measurements and the careful crafting of sound that goes into speaker design, the history of that particular type of presentation and how to describe it over others. The off-axis performance of a super-tweeter. They do however care about convenience, lifestyle, credo, functionality and quality! A tough crowd!
Well there are two things going on here.. two conundrums to be posed and two massive generalisations to be made to underpin my point.
There are the first group. Folk with their perfect hearing, folk under thirty five-ish who may not fully appreciate the true potential of their extremely talented ears.. This isn’t a negative poke. They possibly don’t know that they are hearing stuff in a zone that that won’t hear again in a few years time, well before they are ‘old’! And that will be normal! Folk who possibly don’t really care how something has been engineered and developed, or it’s heritage, as long as it ticks all the boxes, it can be delivered fast and it works as described and gets good reviews. To a greater extent they are not the designers, the audio engineers and the top producers - albeit they may have heavily populated Soundcloud with their work! Now I know this isn’t the rule.. and is totally undermined by the likes of Finneas (genius) and some of the great men and women churning out music from both sides of the desk… times are a’changing after all. However you know what I’m getting at.
Secondly the other folk, the designers and engineers of some of the most famous or revered brands of HiFi equipment, I know a few.. They are often somewhat older, at least the ones I have come across.. My age or older. Happy to talk about UFO live in 1982 and spending a lot of time thinking about frequency curves, measuring harmonic distortion, currents, losses, capacitance and in some cases still doing a great deal of soldering! They don’t care too much for streaming or wearing headphones in the street. They see Bluetooth as a compromise, not a convenience. These are extremely dedicated and talented professionals, at the top of their game and whose opinion is considered to be the word of HiFi.
The conundrum is that the second group know how to listen and they create equipment that they can’t fully hear, for a group of people who can hear better than them but who don’t fully listen.
Clearly what we need is more younger people getting into ‘real’ HiFi because they have a skill that I would sooooooo dearly like to have again. A natural attribute that is seems shameful to waste - They have the upper 4kHz of dreams!!
A very nice man was on the phone to me the other day… I was having a discussion with him about the difference between one cartridge and another… He had a new purchase in mind and was undecided which way to leap and had ensconced himself in the middle of a cluster of websites discussing Shibata vs Elliptical and such like… He was older than me, he mentioned his retirement and having more time on his hands, in fact he told me about a turntable he had bought in 1974!! (A very nice one at that!), which he still uses.
Anyways - to cut a long story short, at one point he said to me ‘well this one goes up to 20,000Hz and the other one goes up to 25,000’, as if it was some sort of deal-breaker. I responded by pointing out to him that he probably hadn’t heard anything over 15kHz for some years - so he should try to focus his research on the tone and ‘quality’ of the sound, and try to think about what it was about the sound he had already that he liked - or didn’t. ‘Never chase the numbers’ we say here, after hearing how shockingly good the Graham Slee Majestic DAC can sound through the 48kHz USB input compared to using the other inputs of some far-fetched numbered newcomers!
Anyways - to cut a long story short (again), he was mildly taken aback - and no surprise, people whose hearing is not quite what it was when they were younger seldom notice until something obvious becomes deficit.. like birdsong, or elements of conversation. In fact most people over the age of 50 don’t hear over 15kHz, despite having heard potentially 19 or 20kHz at some point in their young lives.. I did read somewhere that audiologists casually expect loss of 1kHz per decade, and those teenage loitering deterrents outside some public places (they have one outside Morrisons just up the road from Phonostage Towers) typically operate at about 17kHz - clearly aimed at deterring teenagers and not adult shoppers.
SO does this matter? Well kind of.. but not as much as you might think…
It could matter a great deal if you were missing a great chunk of your favourite tunes... or if you couldn’t hear your tweeter that just cost you a packet, or if you couldn’t hear Mariah Carey’s vocal acrobatics any more when they hit the highs (err… maybe not such a great loss?), however this is unlikely to happen. What lives, or doesn’t live, in the domain of the super-highs might surprise you. For instance it might surprise you to know that the highest note on a piano is a meagre and lowly 4186 Hz. And Hi-Hats, well they are a surprisingly low 300-3000 Hz (3kHz). A good smack on a crash cymbal? Well that rolls off around 5-10kHz depending on the size, though resonances, harmonics and ‘air’ can extend to beyond audible range. In fact the highest ever recording of a female voice was from 2019 when Amirhossein Molaei was able to perform a stupidly high 5989 Hz! (Still under 6 kHz).
Have you ever watched Rick Beato’s channel on YouTube? If you haven’t then check it out, he is a revered and very highly subscribed music commentator, producer, social influencer, tutor and more. Rick Beato is well known for his great ear in music, his ability to recreate classic songs and analyse classic sounds. However I did watch one episode where he spoke about high frequencies. He was testing whether or not the difference between Spotify-type resolutions and bit-rates and Hi-Res 24 bit or higher tracks could actually be heard. Rick made no attempt to blag this one! He called on the young ears of his 18 year old assistant to listen to the tracks, openly acknowledging that at 53 years old he can not hear a pure sine wave over 14k - and yet Rick Beato lives by his ears! He literally has millions of subscribers or watchers hanging intently on his observations and recreations. In fact a great many of the great engineers and producers have churned out some real classics in their fifties or sixties or older (think John Leckie and Radiohead).
The truth is that there is very little energy in recorded music over 15khz... Harmonics of some order or other do exist and some very high frequency artefacts or elements of synthesisers, cymbals, some air from acoustic instruments. However the absence of the bits of this that are audible certainly should not prevent anyone having a full and musical experience - full of reverbs, hisses, breathy sounds and all the rest of it!
So what about me? Well... I am 52 at the time of writing. I can just hear a 15kHz tone in one ear and not in the other. I can hear 14kHz in both, however there is more roll-of in my right starting at about 14 that keeps it slightly lower than my left. However I can hear the difference - and describe it - between every piece of kit I hear. I can clearly hear the difference between one cable and another (I used to obsess about it but I got better!), I can very clearly appraise the performance, tone and character of speakers. I comment often on production, effects, instruments, and I have a background in music as well as HiFi.
This begs the question; ‘Can I enjoy music as much as I did when I was younger?’, or I could ask myself if I miss what I used to hear when I was a teenager? Well the answer in the correct order is yes and then no. And here is why…
Today I have had the absolute pleasure of listening to Tubeway Army’s 1978 self titled classic, streamed off Amazon HD at CD quality (it is ‘only’ available at 16bit 44.1kHz). This is coming out of the computer through a not-too-expensive Topping DAC, into Quad 34/405 II amps and then pumped out to me through a pair of Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a mini-monitors. I am sat right in front of the speakers, one at each side of the screen I am using now… They are not blaring out at me, the volume is loud enough to be clear but no louder. Now when I discovered this record when I was about 15 I blimmin’ loved it!! I have loved it ever since… If you have never heard it then listen to it. This was recorded on a tiny budget in a ‘demo’ studio (Spaceward in Cambridge) on gear that the studio owners mostly built themselves to save money. It was recorded in about three days. To this day I still think this record has amongst the best guitar and drum sounds I have heard. The Stirlings really excel. I have never heard this scratchy, microphonic, fighting Les Paul sound so well. It is an enviable tone - a 1970 Les Paul Deluxe, straight into a Marshall with some sort of unknown pedal. This is one of the most revered guitar sounds in post-punk by a hitherto unknown (and still not really widely known as a guitarist) Gary Numan. And those drums…..well that was his uncle!
This is the clearest I have heard this album, sat here right in the middle of these superb speakers - they really suit this music and near field listening like this on the right gear is like x-raying your tunes… you can see right though them - every detail is exposed! When I get my turntable back (it has gone to meet it’s maker - not for ever - he’s repairing it), I will dig out the original album and play it again through the same set-up and see if I can beat this tasty, 3D, crunchy performance!
I have acoustic memory. I can remember the sound of George Michael’s ‘Older’ played repeatedly on a friend's Meridian HiFi into a set of AE1s back in the early 2000s (we used it to test cables) and I still use it as a mental benchmark. Now my memory of Tubeway Army, the sound I experienced as a young man, playing and re-playing this at different times in my life on all manner of HiFi equipment has all got a bit muddled up.. However I can tell you now that this is the best I recall hearing it. I am missing nothing, I am losing nothing. My ears are not as good technically as they would have been then but my perception and understanding are all fully there. What I am missing in kHz I would struggle to identify. I can detect the roll-off in the right a bit however when I am sat back slightly further the left picks it up more and balances things out. These frequencies are at the very thin end of the wedge and if this is such a good sound to me then does it matter anyway? Well no it doesn’t - except maybe on a psychological level, worrying about what I am missing... Or fear of ageing? If I act like one of our dogs (aptly named ‘Gibson’) and live in the moment, then I am truly having a great time!
This tale is about optimism, and a utilitarian right for all to benefit from the good of a good sound. This is also a word of encouragement or anyone wanting to get the best out of their listening experience even though they are getting a bit older. This is for anyone who is worrying about their lost 4 or 5 kHz to the extent that it is affecting their appreciation of their equipment, or their records or their favourite bands. You see it is not just about how technically perfect your ears are. In most cases your ears are enough - or more than enough. You are missing very little, and that small amount is dwarfed by good listening, good gear, great tunes and a good attitude! It is about how you listen and what you listen for and it is about how much you enjoy what you are listening to, because the sound can still improve on better gear when you are 50 and upwards. (I may re-write this as an octogenarian to see if it still applies!). And also don’t forget to listen to the music!! Groove with it! Go back to 1978 or 1998 - whenever - and get into it!
And to answer the question that we started with, ‘Do you need golden ears to appreciate good HiFi?’, the answer is no. You need golden perception, at any age. An ability to understand what you are hearing carries more weight than being able to hear everything yet listening to nothing. Good HiFi is not the preserve of the golden-eared few - it is everybody’s business.
I’m looking forward to uploading my forthcoming piece about ‘How To Listen To Music’. How to learn to get the best out of your listening experience.
And I would love to think that more of the younger generation were able to appreciate their 4kHz of dreams before it is too late!