[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
May 1999

A JS-Trained Listener

While perusing the latest issue of The Abso!ute Sound, I noticed that editor Harry Pearson occasionally relies upon an "HP-trained listener" for loudspeaker evaluations. The notion of a personally trained listener inspired my imagination. If I had a Jim Saxon-trained person to listen in for me, I could save time and effort on laborious equipment evaluations: "Here, Watson, listen to the new Musicbuster preamp and tell me what you think." Then I could devote more of my day to casual pursuits, such as writing for SoundStage! and drinking beer.

Additionally, all men over a certain age want to be mentors. I’m over that certain age and feel the urge to teach. The problem is there are no little Saxons to inculcate with my listening biases. Friends and colleagues such as Roberto and Marco hear better than I do, so they wouldn’t appreciate my efforts. My girlfriend doesn’t care about reproduced sound and that leaves -- Monica the maid. Yes, the only person who can’t say no is my loyal housekeeper. Thus, a few weeks ago I approached Monica with a proposition. If she would take listening lessons from me, I would allow her to skip doing the windows. She wryly agreed. She hadn’t planned to wash the windows until Y2K.

With only substitute-teacher experience, I was uncertain where to start. Recalling the hardscrabble lessons of my youth, I figured it was best to begin with an apprenticeship. I made Monica serve as accessory-changing robot. That is, I would tell her to take away the cones or cable jackets or wood wedges in the system, listen, replace the accessories, listen, remove, etc. This is work I would otherwise have to do, and which I saw as a didactic introduction to the art of listening. I pointed out the details I heard before and after the accessories were changed, and despite the quizzical look she maintained the whole time, Monica absorbed the lessons with great admiration for my expertise, I like to think.

On day 2, we moved loudspeakers around. In this case, a pair of heavy-weight Genesis APM-1s required our ministrations. After I showed Monica the best way to use body-leverage to push and wrestle the 287-pound speakers over the carpet, she was able to do it without my help, freeing me up to direct critical positioning from the sweet spot. Monica is 1.6 meters tall and weighs 50 kilograms, but at 30-something is wiry and strong, so I didn’t feel bad about her grunting and complaining.

I went on to explain about room/speaker interface problems, including standing waves, early reflections, and floor bounce. Once again, I noticed the sense of awe with which Monica greeted my experience in matters sonic. I also saw how happy she was to break for lunch, but young people are like that -- short attention spans. Comes from watching too much television, I think.

By day 3, we were ready to sit and listen to music together. I carefully selected a list of audiophile-approved recordings recommended by Doug Blackburn, SoundStage! technical editor. Topping the list was a dB favorite by Chesky Records’ star vocalist, Sarah K. In order to give Monica practice in gauging depth of image and size of instruments, I played "Brick House" at least 50 times,. We were about to go on to another dB favorite, Jazz at the Pawnshop, when my young student suffered a bout of nausea, which called a halt to the day’s proceedings.

With the weekend coming on, I loaned my apprentice a portable CD player and a stack of Stereophile test recordings and told her to memorize them for Monday. Monica is a truly fine person, my best friend in Paradise, really, but she can be rebellious. When Monday arrived, I noticed the dab of Elmer’s glue I had used to mark the seam of each jewel box was unbroken. The ungrateful pup hadn’t listened to a single CD.

I decided to have some fun with her. "Did you enjoy the music I gave you?"

"No," she admitted.

"Why not,"

"There’s no music on the discs, only test tones.

"That’s not true," I said. "All the discs have at least some music selections."

"Well, I didn’t have time to listen."

"Ha. That’s the real answer, isn’t it?"

"No, the real answer is you glued the boxes too tight and I couldn’t get them open."

This was willful exaggeration. A child could have opened those boxes, but I realized that Monica had caught my James Bond trick. Someone with a mind that astute bears watching.

The second week of lessons began with movie soundtracks, and I was surprised at how few blockbusters Monica could identify. Apparently, movie-going has not been high on Monica’s list of survival tactics. Nevertheless, she sat entranced -- or was it catatonic -- as I played Orchestral Spectaculars from Hollywood. The only time I noticed any response was when I played the theme from the movie Titanic. Monica seemed to be enraptured by that one, but I quickly brought her back to reality with a dose of Chariots of Fire. Learning to listen is hard work. There’s no time for distractions.

We proceeded to chamber music on Chandos, symphonies on Bis and be-bop on Blue Note, but by the end of the week I realized that Monica just wasn’t getting it. She couldn’t tell the difference between amplifiers, digital processors, transports, nothing.

I translated as best I could such concepts as transparency, imaging, and dimensionality, and was repaid with a nod that admitted confusion at best. As a teacher, I was confronting failure.

Then, with lessons winding down, Monica asked if she could play some of "her" music. I happen to like Latin songs on the car radio, but seldom use them for demonstration purposes. Recordings of salsa or mirengué can sound raw and rambunctious on a truly pristine system. I hear an over-abundance of equalization, compression and reverberation effects. This is different from what Monica hears. She hears rhythm and emotion.

Conceding to her tastes, I played a Spanish flamenco-pop song by Alejandro Sanz, "Corazón Partio" which I consider the best Latin tune of 1998. As catchy rhythms and emotion-drenched vocals filled the room, Monica made a comment that shocked and astounded me. We had been comparing a Krell 250a amplifier to an Audio Research 100.2 with no recognition on my pupil’s part of a difference in the sound of the two components. Suddenly, as if she couldn’t stand it any more, she blurted out, "I like the Krell better than the Audio Research."

It was like hearing a baby’s first words. I was overjoyed that she could tell the sound of one amplifier from another. An expression of glee was choked off in my throat as the audiophile within me instantly took over. "What do you mean?" I said. "The Audio Research is more transparent."

"The Krell has better bass," she replied, swaying her shoulders.

"Of course, it does. It’s a Krell, what do you expect," I replied. "You haven’t been paying attention or you’d know the Audio Research does so many things better."

"I can dance to the Krell," Monica replied.

"You can dance to the other amp too, if you tried," I protested. We switched amplifiers to prove my point, but Monica refused to sway her shoulders. Women are like that. When I went back to the Krell, she actually let out a cry of satisfaction. I must admit, if bass dynamics are the essence of dance music, the Krell was impressive. Unfortunately, being a good audiophile requires more than a desire to dance. This was a lesson I would have to teach Monica or else wind up with a stand-in listener whose acuity was limited to one dimension -- the beat.

"Maybe you’re right about the sound in total," said Monica, " but I can’t hear it. I need to listen to music I know." Wow, she hadn’t been an audiophile for two weeks and already she used the "I’m-not-familiar-with-the-music" excuse. Next thing you know, she’ll be covering CES for some magazine -- probably in my place.

At least we were making progress. After Alejandro Sanz came another heartthrob, Alejandro Fernandez, followed by Luis Enrique, Juan Luis Guerra, and a great duo to listen to while drinking tequila, Los Tigres del Norte, "Norte" being northern Mexico. I decided to mix both of us Margaritas with orange juice, the famous Jaime, named after its illustrious designer. Our listening abilities became a lot sharper after a couple of drinks, and when I switched gears to Dark Side of the Moon, which is inevitable when the auditioning gets serious, Monica was right there with me grooving on the clocks, the footfalls and the heartbeats. What fun!

Thus, began a breakthrough in Monica’s listening studies. With the proper music and beverage to ply her with, I was able to teach her how to evaluate inner definition, imaging and tonal balance. In fact, she soon learned to tell the difference between tonality and timbre, which I can’t, nor do I understand her explanation. With a great feeling of pride I began to think of possible ways to display "my fair lady," a Jim Saxon-trained listener.

Hi-Fi ’99 seemed the logical place to start. Unfortunately, Monica does not have a passport, a visa, or a yen to travel. Secondly, almost as soon as she could tell the difference between a tube amplifier and a transistor amp, we began to disagree on the merits of each. For instance, she has no respect for a system comprised of a single-ended triode amplifier and a pristine two-way loudspeaker. Her listening needs require a robust three-way speaker and a muscle amp to pump it up. If the system doesn’t allow her to "live" the music, no matter how much inner definition or imaging focus it may have, she will shake her head in consternation..

As a former disco denizen and rock-and-soul man, I can almost remember her frame of reference. On those rare occasions when I listen to rock music, I can sometimes let myself go into a critical free-fall. At those moments, I appreciate Monica’s appraisals. The Aerial 10Ts are killer speakers; the Audio Research VT200 is a real tube amplifier. Yet, if I generously admit such a sentiment to Monica, she responds by saying, "See, I told you," which is a phrase I abhor.

Recently, I demonstrated for a customer the merits of a preamplifier I was trying to sell. He resisted proof that I was right. Finally, I called in Monica to verify my opinion. She politely refused. I pressed her on it. She suggested instead a second-hand transistor preamp noted for its great bass and not much else. The customer perked up. Yes, a little bass would be nice, he seemed to say. After I blew the dust off the Smyth & Wesson preamp and fired it up, the customer asked to take it home to try in his system. Score a triumph for the JS-trained listener. Monica had the good grace not to mention it, but the look in her eye said it all. "Haven’t I taught you anything?" she seemed to say.

I saw that my effort to become an audio Pygmalion had backfired. Instead, I became a Dr. Frankenstein, and my creation has been relieved of her listening chores. Despite the firmness of Monica’s opinions, I know she is wrong, at least by my audiophile standards. But that is beside the point. More importantly, even after my so-called training, Monica has developed her own hierarchy of values, and they are not mine.

From my experience, Harry Pearson is deluding himself if he thinks an HP-trained listener can be his surrogate. A trained listener is self-taught, keeps his listening priorities intact despite outside efforts to inform them, and calls ‘em as he sees ‘em. Whether those persons are reviewers or pals, whether we’ve observed them or they’ve watched us, we rely upon them at our own risk. If Monica is any indication, a JS-trained listener is not anyone I would trust to recommend stereo gear.

...James Saxon


[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright © 1999 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved