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How to Audition Gear

A lot is written about gear -- what's good, what's bad -- by reviewers, manufacturers and an increasing number of amateur reviewers on the internet. In fact, there are more opinions at our disposal now than ever before. The trick is, how much of this is unbiased? Of the portion that is unbiased, how much of it is accurate or even informed? And of the unbiased and accurate information, how much is actually applicable to YOUR situation?

With so many contradictory or biased opinions being thrown at us, it is probably more important than ever to go and audition prospective purchases yourself. Sure, we all like to read and research what we're buying, but so many people have jumped head first into the shallow end of purchases that people have started buying entire systems based on other people's opinions. Would you trust someone else to choose your favourite food or colour for you before experiencing it yourself? Most people think twice about spending $200 on a pair of shoes online, yet they will pay $2000 for a pair of speakers based solely on reviews. 

Auditioning gear yourself is a surefire way to getting what YOU want and to learning about things first hand so that when you do buy it you are confident and proud to have bought the best product. 

To start you off on the right foot and give you some tools to make an educated decision in an audition, here are 10 essential points to consider when auditioning:

1. Always bring your own music. Choose 3 of your favourite discs. It doesn't really matter what they are, but they will serve as a reference for you when you listen to different systems at different stores and compare at home. If you have an iPod, use that. The reason you should use your own music as part of the evaluation process is because A) it is consistent between stores and B) you're buying a stereo that hopefully increases your enjoyment of that music! As silly as it sounds, less than 10% of people bring their own music to audition with.

2. Listen to one high quality pop-studio recording of the salesperson's recommendation, i.e. Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms. This is a universally known disc and for a studio recording has good dynamics, fairly natural instruments and a range of effects. Even if your discs are sub-par recordings you will get a decent idea of the absolute quality of the system and likely you can hear the same disc at various stores.

3. Listen to one completely unprocessed jazz, classical or vocal recording of the salesperson's recommendation, i.e. Wynton Marsalis - The Magic Hour. A recording such as this has little studio trickery, just a minimal set of microphones designed to capture the event as it was. While we firmly believe a stereo should be able to play pop music enjoyably, the ability to recreate live, natural recordings in a believable way really separates the merely good from the truly magical products. Pop recordings you'll remember are engineered to sound good on AM radios. All the subtle real-life cues in an unprocessed recording such as the ambiance of a recording space or where the performers are located are like what we hear every day in real life and when the stereo is missing them or playing them out of proportion most people can immediately sense something is wrong.

4. Listen to one recording of only voice, such as a radio broadcaster, or someone famous like Johnny Cash who has a distinctive and immediately recognizable voice. You'll know in an instant if something isn't up to par with the system. 

5. Don't get fooled by an overly loud demonstration. Loudness is the #1 way to sell things because people cannot ignore something that is unnaturally loud. Even terrible systems can easily play loud. In fact, loudness usually eliminates your ability to accurately judge how natural the tones and textures of the actual instruments are. Start any demo with a low to moderate volume. If you listen at ear blasting levels right away you will lose all ability to judge thereafter.

6. By the same token, the vast majority of stereos (speakers especially) nowadays are voiced to be excessively bright. This means that there is too much high frequency information where things like cymbals or "S" sounds are. Like loudness, the human brain is easily overwhelmed with this information and the natural tendency is to think it is "exciting". However, living with this kind of unnatural sound in the long run is extremely irritating. Don't be fooled in a 10 minute demo. Listen for 30 minutes and then ask yourself how pleasant the sound is.

7. Ask to hear the best product in 3 different price points (yours, one lower and one higher) to get an idea of the range of performance on offer. You may be surprised that some very expensive things don't sound good at all and you may happily readjust your budget! Other times, you may be surprised at how much more enjoyment spending a little more can bring.

8. Ask questions when you think something is wrong. The way someone answers your question tells a lot about who you're dealing with and how knowledgeable they are. If the explanation is based on "it's a big seller, or it's a big name" and has little practical reason or any demonstration follow-up, then you might be wise to question the purchase of the product. For example consider these two types of answers to the question: "Is the bass a little boomy?"

Answer A) Positioning can play a big factor in the bass response of a speaker. Let me move them a few inches away from the wall so you can listen and hear how it makes a difference. In your room it will actually be preferable because...
Answer B) Brand X has always majored on big sound, it's one of their main selling points.

9. Don't get fooled by quick A vs. B comparisons. A/B demoing is a tried and true method of selling to the point where stores in the past would have a box that could switch between components instantly. For the advanced listener this is often required to notice fine technical differences between products, however for an inexperienced listener, or someone who is simply used to a particular character of sound, it is a detrimental way of auditioning. The reason is that the brain is exceptionally good at noticing relative differences, but not at noticing absolute differences. For example, 2 speakers may sound different, but it tells you very little about which is actually most correct unless you have a solid knowledge of a reference of correctness. In this situation, most buyers will fall for either the loudness or brightness tricks employed by manufacturers and salespeople, i.e. the louder or brighter speaker of the 2 will sell every time even though it is possibly the inferior one. We strongly encourage listening for longer periods and letting yourself subconsciously decide which is better. Listen to an entire song with each product for example. 

10. Before you buy, go home and listen to the same recordings on your system. Try to remember the experience of one vs. the other. If the audition was informative, and the gear superior, you will likely not be able to discount the difference, even by memory. If it wasn't, you'll find yourself liking your current system better which is sure to save you a lot of money!

It is amazing how few people audition products before they buy them nowadays. On one hand this is understandable with the plethora of products available online. The herd-like consensus in web audio forums, bombardment with advertising from manufacturers, and the potential biasedness of magazine reviews has succeeded in replacing first-hand research. All this influence combined with the ease of online buying taps into everyone's primal tendency towards instant-gratification. Buy NOW! One-click to nirvana!

However, over time, if you looked at the success rate of these kind of purchases and the cumulative cost of selling gear that didn't live up to the hype, it's likely few people would come out on the winning side. Even amongst those people who are satisfied, do they really know what they're missing when they listened to only the piece of equipment they bought? 

Audio equipment's sole purpose is to be listened to and there is a huge difference between equipment and between people's impression of it. Sure, read the reviews and do the research, but before you buy, hear it for yourself first!

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