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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
September 2000

What It Was Like

In issue 4 of our E-Mag, we publish the results of our first blind-listening test. But the introductory text of that article and the ratings don't tell the whole story of the day we spent at Canada's National Research Council listening to speakers but not seeing them. My blind-listening experience was more rich than I could convey in the confines of the article, so it seemed appropriate to editorialize a bit on it here. It was truly one of the highlights of my time with SoundStage!.

A highlight? Why? Because it's something I never thought I would be part of. I mean, why would I think I'd be heading to the NRC and following in the footsteps of so many other blind listeners? Nonetheless, Neil Walker, Doug Schneider and I spent almost an entire day at the NRC, going through four rounds of listening to four speakers -- of the five speakers in total, that is -- and generally soaking up the experience. So what was it like?

The first thing we had to decide on was the music we'd use. Neil brought an entire bag full of discs, but we settled on a couple of discs from each of us for each round, with a couple of others rotated in. The music was diverse -- acoustic and electrified, loud and soft, raucous and refined. I personally found that the discs I brought -- Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire, Clarence Brewer's King Clarentz, Dave Moore's Breaking Down to 3 -- were the most revealing to me, certainly because I've heard them so often on my own system. The in-akustik sampler that Doug Schneider toted was helpful too because I listened to a bit of it on his system beforehand. Neil's music took some warming up to, probably because it was very unlike the music Doug and I brought. Neil wanted to hear classical and some French rap, and while I had a hard time focusing on it at first, over time it became illustrative, especially as we switched among the speakers.

In terms of how we conducted our listening, which was completely up to us, we first listened to a few minutes -- the same few minutes, for the most part -- of each disc with each speaker, then rotated more quickly among the speakers with the same piece of music. Why did we do it this way? It just seemed right, and we wanted to be consistent from speaker to speaker. I found the quick switches to be helpful in determining things like bass weight and depth -- you could easily hear differences here because you were hearing the same music on one speaker, then the next. A quick A/B for sure, but this kind of listening did not dominate our test. In fact, most of the time was spent listening to passages at least a couple of minutes long; this helped us concentrate on the sound, as it was meant to do, instead of the rating we had to do. More on this in a bit.

Each of us took turns at the controls -- both the speaker switcher and with the CD changer's remote. I found that I could more easily discern the differences among the speakers when I was at the helm of the round, switching the music and especially the speakers. Perhaps I was concentrating more, or perhaps it was easier for me to discern what I was hearing as I switched quickly among the speakers at points that seemed most telling to me. It was harder to keep up with your tabulation when you were running the show, but we all made it through nonetheless.

Four rounds with three listeners meant that one of us ran things twice, and I was that person. Additionally, I ended my blind-listening day in the seat it started in, as did Doug and Neil. The speakers were arrayed horizontally in front of us, while the listening chairs were in a triangular configuration -- two in front, one in the rear center. I can't say one seat was better than the others, although they were different, especially the rear seat, which was centered but also blocked somewhat by the two seats in front of it.

We had breaks between each round, during which time Rene St. Denis of the NRC would rearrange the speakers and choose which one of the five would sit the round out. Of course, we left the room while Rene rearranged. After the second round, we ate lunch at the NRC's cafeteria, and I for one found listening after this extended break more difficult. I couldn't focus mentally as well, and I know the meal made me feel a little tired for a short time afterwards. Recently we SoundStagers have been discussing the viability of psychological effects on what we hear and whether these are confused with component break-in. All I know is that after lunch, my mood was different, and this affected my ability to zero in on the sound I was hearing as well as I did before lunch.

In between rounds, we didn't talk about the sound we were hearing -- this would skew the test -- but once the final round was done and the speakers were revealed, we compared impressions. We heard things pretty much the same way, and the ratings reflect this. Unlike the SS! product reviews, which are built around solid descriptions of the sound our reviewers hear, the blind-listening experience is more qualitative because the scoring sheets we used, which are standard for blind-listening tests done at the NRC, required this. Nonetheless, we were able to add comments, although I don't think any of us had the time or inclination to do too much in this regard. We were too busy with filling out our sheets for each speaker.

We’ve said it over and over again that we valued the blind-listening experience, and so I won't re-reiterate this here. However, what I didn't expect was to appreciate the speakers we heard as much as I did. Would this have happened if I had seen the speakers? Hard to say, but I know I'll carry this experience, and the attempt at removing the biases that knowing the components under consideration brings, into my own listening room and my reviewing. Thus, it's not what happened at the NRC that matters most; it's what happens now that it's over.

...Marc Mickelson

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