Why is My System Hurting My Ears?
The number one complaint we get from people is that their system sounds bright. By bright, they mean harsh, fatiguing or just plain shrill on the top end.
Why do so many people end up with bright sounding systems? The answer is relatively simple. Bright systems are exciting on first listen. All of the parts of the music that people associate with hi-fi - the bells, cymbals, "esses" on vocals, plucking of guitar strings - sound more exciting with a bright system. When you sit and listen for only 5 minutes and to a small range of music most everyone is impressed by these kind of fireworks.
The problem is that this kind of a sound quickly becomes irritating once you have the system in your home. This fact is often compounded by the fact that hi-fi stores are usually more damped than your home listening room. You may have hardwood floors, lots of windows, lower ceilings or any lack of absorbing or diffracting materials which only emphasizes the high frequencies. The system that sounded exciting in the store can sound positively painful at home.
So, how do you guard against brightness? The first rule is to listen for longer during your store demo. If you find your ears are starting to hurt or you feel fatigued from listening it doesn't matter how three dimensional the glockenspiel is sounding, you're never going to be able to live with the sound in your home.
The second rule is to forget about comparing the system to other systems you've heard and to compare it to real life. A guitar sounds like a guitar. A female voice sounds like a female voice. Use recordings that are natural as well as your favourite pop music. You should always bring a favourite classical or jazz recording which is unprocessed. If you find that a system is imbuing an instrument with tons of texture to the point of it sounding "better" than how it sounds in real life, the system is WRONG. A good stereo gives you exactly what is on the recording, nothing less and nothing MORE.
Thirdly, many components are simply bright sounding. Often times there is no amount of correction you can introduce to tame a bright speaker or CD player. The key is to try different combinations of equipment so that you can find the most neutral balance. If you're hearing brightness in a system, bring it up with the salesperson and then work with him to isolate which component (or cable) is contributing most to the problem. By process of elimination you should be able to steer yourself towards the more neutral equipment.
Lastly, if you have come to the conclusion that your system is bright DON'T go to great lengths to accommodate the offending component. A small amount spent on appropriate cables or tweaks can help in moderately bright systems but it is only masking the fundamental problem. The simpler method is to work with the good parts of the system and get rid of the bright component. You will be amazed at how much easier it is to lock in your overall sound when you resign yourself to this change.
Ultimately, use your ears. It seems more and more that audio companies are selling THEIR idea of what music should sound like and a lot of it has no correlation to what real music is like. Don't be fooled by artificial excitement. Owning a stereo is about long term enjoyment, not 5 minutes of instant gratification.