Many articles have been written describing the process of how to listen to music - they tend to focus on how to understand the music. I’m not going to go over these things again (or at least not in the same context of trying to understand the technicality of how the music is created by the musician) - rather I’m going to try to explain the process I go through personally when I am really trying to listen to a piece of music being played from a stereo system, and hopefully this can help you to get more from your own music system and help improve your listening experience!
First thing I always try to do is find a comfortable listening position - such as a favourite armchair. Sitting, keep your feet on the floor to remain grounded. Your listening position should ideally be equidistant from each speaker, facing the speakers (stereo) mid-way between them, with your ears roughly around the same height as the speaker drivers. Now you can experiment with moving your listening position forwards and backwards, or adjusting the ‘toe in’ of your speakers. You are trying to find the position where you get the best stereo image, without a ‘hole’ in the middle of the sound stage (see later for an explanation of how to listen for the soundstage)
The stereo image you hear is formed by the music reaching your ears at different times, so if your speakers are too close, or you are too far away, the soundstage will be very narrow. If your speakers are too far apart, or you are too close, your soundstage will have a hole in the middle. You can compensate for having yours speakers too far apart by angling them inwards (toe in) to an extent.
Sound Stage explained:
As you listen to the music, with your eyes closed, picture a stage in front of you. Listen for each instrument (vocal, wood wind, string, percussion, electric instruments etc.) and visualise each instrument being played on that stage in front of you. Well recorded music being played on a good stereo system that has been correctly set up, will enable you to see in your mind each instrument separately in it’s own position on the stage - We call this the ‘sound stage’ and depending on the recording can vary from a single point vocalist to a huge expanse of orchestral instruments arrayed in front of you. It is particularly interesting to evaluate headphones whilst ‘looking’ for the sound stage - too often headphones reproduce the music ‘inside’ your head, but a good pair will allow you to hear and feel the music from all around you, correctly placing the instruments.
It goes without saying that a quiet environment is ideal for listening - but try to avoid other distractions such as strong smells, or visual distractions - often I close my eyes whilst listening.
Should be comfortable - not loud enough to make you shrink back from the speakers, but also not so quiet that you are struggling to hear the quiet solo passage in that classical piece!
EQ / Graphic Equalisers etc:
Generally speaking a good quality amplifier has no ‘bass’ or ‘treble’ adjustment - it is designed to reproduce whatever music you feed it without colouring the music - without adding more bass, or treble. Some music systems have a ‘bypass’ switch to allow you to bypass the EQ circuit - I would recommend you use this if it is present - it will give the audio a cleaner path between the input and the output, with less being lost through the internal circuitry! If you must use EQ, try to keep it as flat as possible, or, if your listening environment has some problems to overcome such as hard reflective walls, or loads of soft furnishings that are impacting the audio quality, dial in small amounts of adjustment, but try to stay away from huge corrections that are distorting the audio!
Headphones - a compromise:
It is perfectly possible to form an immense soundstage using headphones, and to completely immerse yourself in an audio soundscape with your eyes closed, however, much of the ability of a pair of headphones to do this is often compromised by making them ‘Closed Back’
Closed Back headphones have a solid material covering the rear surface of the driver - usually a plastic or metal ‘shell’. This is done for 2 reasons - 1. to keep the outside noise out - to give you a quieter listening experience devoid of external noises, and 2. to keep the inside noise in - to stop your listening from annoying those commuters you are sitting next to.
Open Back headphones generally have a mesh of metal or plastic covering the rear ‘shell’ of the speaker - the rear side of the speaker driver is free to move in air, and generally speaking allowing it to create a much more open sound, with a wide sound stage, and more realism. It may mean a slight reduction in bass, but it seems the trend in headphones is to deliberately try to create unrealistic levels of bass anyway. Open back headphones are the way to go for a realistic and immersive experience, however, they will let in more external noise, and they will let others hear your music - so buyer beware!
Pseudo Stereo / Wide Sound processing:
One last point to discuss is that many smaller audio products these days try to make up for their small size by using a DSP (Digital Signal Processor) to artificially try and make a soundstage that is much bigger than they are in-fact capable of. This is something I have always avoided like the plague when designing audio products - it can have a ‘wow factor’ for about 5 minutes, but the longer you actually listen to it, the more it actually starts to hurt your ears - the sound is tiring, you have to turn it off after a half hour of intensive listening and take a break - it doesn’t relax - it’s a harsh, and if you are trying to actually listen to where the lead vocalist is standing for example, you won’t be able to as the sound will be coming from all around you. Sometimes in the extreme you can actually start to hear a fake echo in the music that isn’t really there!
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This post was written by John Whitehead.