The Dumbest Thing Reviewers Say

I almost did it myself. I was listening to "King Contrary Man" from The Cult's Electric, through Phonak Audéo PFE 232 in-ear headphones while sitting in a 757 somewhere over Colorado, trying to get an idea of how well Phonak's PerfectFit design blocks out airplane noise. In the rather primordial bars that follow the guitar solo, I noticed that singer Ian Astbury's yelps, which are nearly buried in the bombast, come in a few beats earlier than I'd previously thought. Somehow, even though I've been listening to Electric since its 1987 release, I'd missed this detail. And for just a fleeting moment, I thought:

"Wow, through these headphones, I'm hearing things in my favorite music that I never heard before!"

If you've read a lot of audio reviews, you've surely read many similar sentences. Seems like a strong testament to an audio product's quality, doesn't it? The ability to find new sonic attributes and events in the music you've owned for years makes buying almost any piece of fancy audio gear appear to be an economically and aesthetically prudent decision.

But I can tell you how to get the same experience for free. Here's how you do it:

1) Put on a recording you're familiar with but haven't heard in a year or two.

2) Listen intently, focusing on something that normally wouldn't grab your attention, like the bass, rhythm guitar, or piano accompaniment.

You noticed some detail or subtlety you never heard before, didn't you? Want to do it again? If your system has tone controls, turn up the treble a few notches and repeat step 2, perhaps focusing on snare drum, hi-hat, or acoustic guitar. Once more, you'll notice something you never heard before.

Hearing things you never previously noticed in a recording could indeed indicate that the audio system you're listening to is a good one. Certainly, a set of good speakers driven by high-quality electronics will let you hear more of the details in a piece of music than, say, an iPod dock would.

But with any recording of musical instruments played by humans - and especially of wind and string instruments, which tend to be more expressive and less conducive to perfect performances than, say, electronic keyboards are - there are so many subtleties present that you could listen for years and keep hearing new things, even through the same audio system. Plus, the more you learn about audio, music, and recording, the more your brain will be able to "decode" what it's hearing, and the more new things you'll notice. I still occasionally hear new things in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," more than four decades after I first heard it and three-and-a-half decades after I learned to play it on guitar.

Hearing things you never noticed before can even indicate that you're listening to a bad audio product. If your new system boosts one part of the audio spectrum, it'll bring certain instruments to the fore, and you'll hear subtleties in the performance that you never noticed. It'll be fun for a little while, but the sound won't be natural and you'll probably start to hate it. And I bet that even if you return to the system you were using before, you'll still hear that little subtlety you'd previously missed.

So while it's nice to hear things in your favorite music that you never heard before, such an event is not a reliable indicator of the quality of an audio product. It's a built-in feature of the world's first audio processor: the brain. Fortunately, you get one for free.

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