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The $64 Million Question

>> To compare 2 DACs (or any other 2 components for that matter) in a system to discern which one sounds "best", some "experts" say to listen to one for a few days and then the other for a few days and see which one is more to your liking and needs. Others say to A-B them back and forth one after the other as quickly as possible using what acoustic memory you may have. If neither approach seems to work well,is there another way? <<

If there were a definitive answer to this question, the world would be a much happier and nicer place. Here is what I've found so far:

1) Quick A/B testing tells one thing with exquisite sensitivity - differences in frequency response (ie, tonal balance). Unfortunately that is the *only* information that can be gained from this test. What's worse is that this is almost totally meaningless. Deviations in frequency response between any piece of electronics will be totally swamped by differences in the FR of the transducers (speakers or headphones) and the listening environment (room or shape of your head and ears). Every 3' of air will attenuate 20 kHz by almost another 1/2 dB. A/B testing tells us nothing of soundstaging, resolution, inner detail, focus, transparency, continuity, et cetera, et cetera.

2) Long-term listening can tell us much more. Forget about the "studies" that "prove" human aural memory is very short. That is clearly wrong, as you can recognize a loved one's voice after many years, even on a such a low fidelity device as a modern telephone which digitizes the signal at 8 bits and has a frequency range of 300Hz to 3kHz.

My preferred process is to choose at least a half dozen or a dozen recording that you know intimately (because you love listening to them), play them three at a time through component A and then the same three (in any order) through component B.

3) There are two ways to notice differences. One will be in all of the "audiophile" terms - soundstaging, focus, inner detail, bass impact, treble extension, transparency, et cetera, et cetera.

The other way is to simply listen to the music for the reason that *anybody* listens to music - because it is *enjoyable*. Almost always one component will engage your attention and mental focus more than the other. That is the better component. With the poorer component you will find yourself thinking about the bills that need to be paid, the argument you had with your kids, how many things you need to finish before the day is over, and so forth.

Judging equipment in this last way is usually not automatically easy. It does however explain how the significant other in the next room will call out and say, "Honey the stereo sounds great - what did you change?". The problem for the audiophile is that, as humans, we generally only train our brains to do one thing at a time. The *instant* that you ask yourself the question, "Am I engaged in the music?" you are automatically no longer engaged in the music!

I've found two ways around this conundrum. One is to meditate and train your mind to do more than one thing at a time. If you don't have time to practice meditation, the easiest thing is to forget *everything* but the music itself. Then *after* the music is over, remember how much you did or did not enjoy it.

I believe our current understanding of the ear/brain mechanism is woefully incomplete and that the next decade will reveal amazing new insights that will explain much of what is currently inexplicable regarding the reproduction of music and sound. Hope this helps.

As always, only my personal opinion, prone to error and not necessarily those of my employer of neurophysicist.


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