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How to Listen

22nd February 2009 by Tim Jarman

Your Bang & Olufsen system is only the second most advanced piece of sound equipment you own. The first is on the sides of your head. Make sure you are using both to their full advantage.

Do you really listen to music, or do you just have it on it the background? You are missing a lot if you only do the latter, the is a whole world of pleasure waiting for you.

As you may know, Beocentral always recommends that you keep your equipment clean and in good working order. Plenty has been written here and elsewhere about maintaining your hi-fi, but what about your ears?

Of course you must look after them. Loud noise should be avoided at all costs, protect yourself if at all possible from very loud sounds, especially if they cause you pain or result in a “ringing” sensation that you can hear after the sound stops. If you work in a noisy environment your employer should provide you with the necessary protection, make sure you use it. Don’t use headphones to provide loud music to drown out other sounds, the levels can end up very high indeed and this can damage your hearing permanently. 

Next, give your ears a clean. A chemist or pharmacist should be able to advise you which non-prescription preparations can be used  to clear out all the wax and muck that can build up inside your ears. The results of the cleaning process may shock and disgust you but you should feel better for it. Don’t be tempted to use ordinary cotton buds to clean your ears, the ends can come off and get stuck inside. Special ones are available for this task if you really need them.

Some opticians can organise a hearing test for you, you may find this interesting even if you think your hearing is OK. It can certainly give you a guide as to what you can expect you hear in the real world.

Everybody’s hearing deteriorates with age. With time, your ability to perceive very high frequencies will diminish, dulling the aspects of music that give it its “clarity”. The effect can be likened to listening to a hi-fi system with the treble turned down a little, though in practice the change usually occurs slowly so you may not notice it.

In order to compensate for this, the next thing to do is to “calibrate” your hearing by listening to some real music. This is the best way to learn how to judge if your equipment at home is satisfactory. Not all music is suitable. Noisy, amplified pub rock bands won’t help you much, try to find something simpler. Small groups of a few musicians playing traditional acoustic instruments are ideal, even if this is not normally the sort of music you prefer to listen to. Attending such performances need not be expensive, provincial civic halls and leisure centres often host programmes of entertainment and you don’t have to spend much to go along.

During the performance, get used to the idea of just listening. Concentrate on each instrument in turn and take in every aspect of the sound, the tonal quality, the volume, the timbre, the texture. Once you know the character of each sound, learn to place them by hearing alone. You should be able to pinpoint each instrument, even with your eyes closed. Don’t be afraid to let the music “move” you, that’s what it’s for.

Back at home, you are ready for some serious listening. Make sure your B&O system is well set up and working properly. If the loudspeakers have become hidden behind the furniture get them out again. Also make sure your player’s stylus/laser lens/tape head is clean. Choose a comfortable listening position mid-way between the loudspeakers. Setups vary, but generally imagine an equilateral triangle with the loudspeakers at two corners and you at the third. Turn the loudspeakers slightly inwards so they are pointing at you. Try to get the tweeters or acoustic lenses at ear level too, the sound will be clearer. With the loudspeakers set up like this the balance control on the amplifier should be set to its centre position. Try to make the background as quiet as you can and remove distractions, then you are ready.

Play some music that you know well. If everything is working correctly you should soon become aware of the three dimensional sound image that the two stereo channels create. Depending on the recording, you may be able to place the instruments just like you could at the live performance. You don’t need very expensive loudspeakers to achieve a solid “stereo image”, in fact simpler types with only a small number of drive units often work best in this respect. If no image appears, it may be that the “phasing” of the loudspeakers is wrong. Make sure that the connections to one of them are not reversed. This cannot happen if your loudspeakers use Powerlink or pre-made DIN to DIN cables but is quite a common mistake for types with spring clips (e.g. RL models) or binding posts (e.g. Beovox S 80.2). You may think that headphones will give the best stereo image. This is not necessarily true, many recordings that are made for home listening are processed to sound correct in an average sized room, taking account of the reflections and reverberations that are produced. Headphones tend to give an artificially “vivid” stereo image, so don’t expect the same effect from loudspeakers.

Most hi-fi systems work best if they are not played too loud. Research shows that most people play their music too loudly at home when trying to replicate the concert hall experience. Measurements were made from the listening position at a live venue and then in listeners’ homes and it was found the too much volume was often used. Use your experience from live performances to avoid this problem.

You can also set the tone controls accurately. The more live music you hear the more you should appreciate that the booming bass and searing treble so popular with hi-fi salesmen when they give you a quick blast in the showroom is not representative of a real musical experience. Try first with the controls in the neutral setting and then adjust them by small increments until the tonal balance is correct. Of course smaller loudspeakers will be in most cases unable to reproduce the full range of every instrument in the orchestra, so don’t compromise the rest of the sound by trying to force them to.

Hopefully now you should be able to tell if the music that you are hearing is realistic and lifelike. There is not much that can be done to revive scratched records or badly recorded tapes, but now that you are listening seriously this won’t happen again will it?

If your B&O system has a remote control, leave it somewhere out of reach. That way you will not be tempted to fiddle with it, changing the tracks, playing with the volume etc. The tracks on albums are often placed in a particular order and fit together, if you skip some of them you may miss some of this detail.

Assuming that all is well, you should be able to really savour the sound that you are hearing. You may find that you are starting to discover previously hidden details in the music and are able to place each instrument, putting you right in the middle of the original recorded performance.

This is what hi-fi is all about.