The Systematic Approach Blogs by Steve Elford – part 10 ‘Developing Upgrade Listening Skills’

Okay, following on directly from my previous blog, we can start to develop better upgrade listening skills using the principles of transparency and tracking error. If you want to read a more in-depth discussion about what tracking error sounds like, I have gone into more detail here.

We will always get to a point with hifi where simple best buys run out of steam. Going from the most basic budget machines to the start of mid-fi can be done with magazine award winners because we will simply be removing the serious compromises of the cheap equipment. But from mid-fi on up, we need to move from a/b comparison to systematic thinking; listening skills need to move from frequency domain to the time domain with tracking error at the core.

So first of all we should listen to our system in an honest way. Forget about the value of it and our opinion based on pride. Check that the system is set up with good husbandry principles (cables neat, speakers positioned correctly, good listening position). Then pick ten tracks you know well from your collection. These should be mainstream, all sorts of genres and not your ‘best recordings’. And make sure they are quite long and emotional to you – don’t bother with test tracks. Listen to each one right through and when the track ends, make some notes about how harsh or not it was, image width and depth and the ability to follow complex passages easily. And give it a score of how much you would like to listen to it again.

Then arrange to test some new gear for a possible upgrade. Install the new kit both singly and together (you might have three mains leads to test say) and listen to three or four of your ten selected tracks and check for basic presentation. Adjust speaker position if necessary. Then listen again and see if you have gained in transparency by maybe hearing some new information and if tracking error faults have gone down (again, see my notes here). Re-adjust the new components to get the best results at this stage and allow them to settle in for a couple of days. Then go right through all your ten selected tracks and make notes again. Note in particular anything new you notice and also give a new score for ‘listen again’.

Then compare your notes of course. The listen again score is the one that I find interesting as it moves us away from technical listening and into the emotional reward of the track. And this longer process allows your listening to adjust and people are often not aware this is happening until they go back to the old setup – going back can be the point where we clearly hear the levels of tracking error jump back up.

Now this is not the only way of going about listening tests but it is a method that I find helps people to really improve their ability and confidence to assess upgrades. And we can then keep building on that process – this is how it works with the systematic approach. And this is the essence of the Quiescent products. The Quiescent ‘accessories’ are designed to lower tracking error in a system architecture and our main components are painstakingly designed and built with every possible source of tracking error eliminated.

Right, I reckon that’s enough for now. Only to say that our service of home demos, with plenty of kit, aims to achieve exactly these sorts of results.