In a hobby so rife with magical thinking, it may seem folly to single out one myth as the most deleterious. But when you get right down to it, I don’t think most of the spooky beliefs held by crazier audiophiles actually harm anyone other than the True Believer. If you buy into the notion that four-figure ethernet cables or five-figure power cords truly transform the sound of your hi-fi setup, who are you hurting, really? In fact, you’re probably helping someone make this month’s yacht payment. If you insist upon burning in new speaker wires for 100 hours, whose time are you really wasting other than your own?
There is one myth that’s so insidious and insipid, though, that I do believe it does harm to both our hobby and our industry. And unfortunately, it’s one of the most pervasive: the notion that some people have “golden ears.” That a select group of audio enthusiasts and journalists have magical listening abilities outside the reach of the average listener. That their superpowers give them a certain privilege as tastemakers because they simply hear things you cannot, so you just have to take them at their word that this speaker or amp or cable riser is special in a way that mere mortals can only accept as an article of faith, OK?
I’m far from the first person to call out this hogwash for what it is, and I certainly won’t be the last. But I think it’s time we stopped treating this idea as a harmless personal delusion and recognized the real damage it does. But before I make that case, let’s step back and speculate about why this myth persists.
The myth’s fingerprints
I have, at times, been accused of having golden ears myself, but there’s one particular accusation that illustrates, I think, why our hobby refuses to shake the notion that some people have enchanted hearing abilities. This was perhaps eight or nine years ago, and I had just wrapped up a review of a peculiarly awful A/V preamp from a manufacturer whose products I’ve long respected. Its biggest problem was that the midrange was somehow both muddy and edgy, which had the effect of making dialogue in films and vocals in music borderline unintelligible at nearly any listening level.
The manufacturer balked and blamed my amp. My editor freaked out a little bit and asked if I would do some additional listening. But we had to put that kerfuffle on hold for a week because it was time for CES in Las Vegas. During that show, my longtime friend and work wife Darryl Wilkinson attended a listening session with me in the Venetian suite of one of our favorite speaker brands. They were showing off some relatively new tower speakers that I had already heard at another hi-fi show a few months before.
Mere seconds into the demo, Darryl leaned over to me and whispered, “Bubba, am I crazy, or do these speakers kinda sound like shit?” I shook my head and whispered back—as quietly as I could whisper, which apparently wasn’t very—“No, I’ve heard these before. They sound great. That awfulness you’re hearing sounds exactly like the problems I’m hearing with this new [redacted] preamp I’m reviewing. I bet if you go open that cabinet door, that’s what they’re using.”
Darryl—whose D&D alignment is undoubtedly chaotic good and who’s always up for a bit of mischief—proceeded to strut over to the gear cabinet like he owned the place. He threw open the door, and lo and behold, there sat the exact model of A/V preamp I thought I was hearing. I immediately heard a “Wow!” from behind me and turned around to see an editor for a competing publication, who explained that they were also reviewing the same preamp and that he had, until that moment, been skeptical of the reviewer’s subjective listening impressions. Everyone else in the room (except for Darryl, who knows better) looked at me as if I had turned water into wine.
There was nothing magical about my observation, though. I was simply in the right place at the right time. I’d spent the better part of the preceding decade reviewing countless dozens of A/V preamps, most of which sounded remarkably similar. And I had spent hours a day for the preceding few weeks listening to one that sounded uncharacteristically . . . uh, different.
If you put that same preamp in front of me today in a blind test, would I still be able to call it out by model number? I don’t know. Maybe? That’s beside the point. The point is, I wasn’t able to identify it then because I’d been bitten by a radioactive bat, but rather because at the time nearly all I did was review A/V preamps and AVRs, and this was the first one I’d heard in a while that had a truly distinctive sound.
Looking around that CES listening room, though, I couldn’t shake the notion that this is exactly how cults get started.
OK, but what’s the harm?
Like many of you, I’m sure, I love arguing about audio on Facebook. And given that I generally represent Team Objectivity in such arguments, I’m often met with responses to the tune of “What do you care if I believe in [insert spooky belief here]?” As I alluded to in the intro, there is some merit to that clapback. Why do I care if you use green Sharpie markers on the edges of your CD collection or extol the virtues of NOS DACs in 2022?
But this silly business about golden ears does legitimate harm to our hobby. For one thing, it’s the source of almost every other myth, as best I can tell. Want me to show my work with a thought experiment? Let’s say a reviewer has become intrigued by some idiosyncratic speaker design or audiophile hack. He writes a review that discusses revelatory improvements in “inner detail,” whatever the heck that means (I honestly have never been able to get a straight definition). If the bedrock of our hobby were truly scientific, as it should be, every other reviewer would read those impressions and then do controlled (at the very least blind or level-matched) listening tests to see if they, too, heard such improvements.
But here’s the kicker. The most terrifying phrase that any audio enthusiast or journalist can speak or type is “I didn’t hear a meaningful difference, and if I did hear a difference, I honestly can’t say it was better or worse.” Because to say such a thing would be to admit that the claimant might have golden ears and you don’t.
That’s a hypothetical example, mind you, but I’ve run into real instances in which this facile notion has driven people away from our hobby. Some years back, I made the acquaintance of a friend of my daughter who expressed some interest in what I do for a living. “I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a good stereo system like the one my dad had,” he told me. “But I don’t know.”
I could feel that “I don’t know” doing a lot of heavy lifting, so I pressed him. What was his barrier to entry? Was it money? Space? Time? Analysis paralysis? He finally confessed: “Well, I’ve listened to a lot of music on iTunes and a lot of music on CDs, and I honestly can’t tell much if any difference, so I feel like real speakers and real amps and stuff would just be wasted on me.”
When I told him that no one could hear much if any meaningful difference between a really well-encoded 256 VBR AAC file and a Red Book version of the same master, it was almost as if I’d committed heresy. But it also gave him permission to maybe dip his toes into this whole hi-fi thing.
Another young acquaintance sometime later had been exposed to the same overblown rhetoric, but instead of responding with feelings of inadequacy, he woke up and chose violence, writing off our entire hobby as one big scam. “You old guys tell me that Spotify sounds like garbage at the same time you’re trying to sell me an amp that costs more than I pay in rent for a year. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re right; why would I spend so much money on this stuff if the supposed improvements in sound quality are only perceivable by a handful of crazy old half-deaf dudes?”
It’s about experience, not superpowers
Look, I’m not saying that either of the young men referenced above was correct. But each had some good points—especially the latter. I’m approaching my 50th birthday, and I recently took my annual self-administered hearing test. My high-frequency hearing now Thelma & Louises straight off a cliff at right around the 15.8kHz mark. A decade ago, when I first started testing my own hearing regularly, that cliff was closer to 17.6kHz. So maybe take that into account when you read hardware reviews from us old fellers.
But also consider this: we codgers have probably auditioned quite a few tons’ worth of audio gear, and a lot of us have put the time in to learn a thing or two about speaker design or amplifier topologies or—you know—how digital audio works, which for whatever reason remains a mystery to far too many people. We know from experience what it sounds like when a midrange driver isn’t properly sized or properly positioned or if the crossover point between the mid and tweeter was pulled out of a hat.
So if you’re interested in taking your first steps into the world of high-fidelity music reproduction, there’s hopefully a lot you can learn from the experience we old-timers have built up over the years. But please ignore the silverbacks among us who try to pass off their experience as some arcane ability that you’ll never be able to acquire, all because they’re chasing celebrity in a niche field of interest. They know not what they do.
Or maybe they do know, and they just don’t care that they’re either scaring off or infuriating the next generation of potential hi-fi enthusiasts.
. . . Dennis Burger