You’re the Expert

A recurrent theme runs through most of the reader mail I get. And that is—listeners feel insecure. This theme takes two forms. First, when considering an audio purchase, listeners are afraid to trust their own ears. And second, even after they’ve bought the equipment, they’re afraid to enjoy it. At least, that’s how it seems to me.  

Rule One: Trust Your Senses

Admittedly, sometimes you’ve just got to trust the experts. If your doctor says your bad cholesterol is too high, take the medication. If you’re thinking of buying a new camera, you’ll want to read reviews here at DigitalTrends, as well as soak up whatever scuttlebutt you can find on Amazon. If you’re thinking of buying a new air conditioner, you’ll probably want to consult Consumer Reports. I’ve recently done all these things. I am on Lipitor, I’m the proud new owner of a Panasonic DMC-FX8K camera, and my next AC will be a Friedrich X-Star.

But buying audio equipment is different because it’s a whole lot more subjective. OK, I’m taking a side here—there are audio objectivists who live and die by the measurements, and audio subjectivists who put more trust in their own emotional reactions. I’m a subjectivist.

And because of that, I’m here to tell you that you are the world’s leading expert on what you like. Isn’t that great news? You don’t have to write emails sucking up to the audio editor of Home Theater Magazine for an opinion. Nearly all my opinions are aired in public anyway—if you want to know what I think, read the magazine, and look for my reviews on its website.

You have to start somewhere, and published reviews may help you find candidates for listening. But think of them as background reading—they’re suggestive, not conclusive. Critics try to convey firsthand experiences in prose. It’s a tricky business, more an art than a science, and you shouldn’t view it as total validation for a purchase decision. Lest you think I’m being too subjective, let me add that measurements and charts don’t tell the whole story either.   One thing that makes you the leading expert on what you like is human hearing. It varies, and only you can hear through your ears. Also, only you have access to your listening room and your system.   Store demos—when they’re possible at all—are best thought of as scouting expeditions. Chances are the demo room won’t sound like your room. Dimensions affect bass; side walls affect the midrange by reflecting, diffusing, or absorbing sound. And the associated gear—the amplifier driving your possible new speakers, or the speakers being fed by your possible new amp—probably won’t behave exactly like your gear either.   A good a/v specialty dealer may help by letting you try things at home, sometimes aided by an acoustics-savvy installer. Be sure to get a trial period with an ironclad money-back guarantee, especially if—heaven forbid—you’re buying stuff off the Internet.   Let me point out that trusting your ears and trusting your first impressions are two different things. To gauge how you really feel about a product, at home or anyplace else, your ears need an extended time—not hours, but days, maybe weeks—to listen to a variety of things.   The higher-end the dealer, the more understanding he should be about this process and all its vagaries. A mediocre dealer just wants to make the sale and you can sense his impatience and boredom. A great one wants to build a relationship with you, and build on your relationship with music. Don’t substitute his judgment for yours, but be glad if he gives you a good range of things to evaluate.

Rule Two: Enjoy Your System

If someone wants my advice on a prospective purchase, that’s just another day in the life. What worries me more is the consumer who’s bought something good and is afraid to enjoy it. I love my Model X but now there’s a new Model Y. Should I upgrade? The insecurity of the owner is more tragic than that of the shopper.

The consumer electronics industry encourages this mindset, and as part of the industry, I’m as guilty as anyone. Every day I need something new to write about if I want to keep those paychecks coming. If it’s not the latest feature, it’ll be some next-generation interface, or an increase in performance that may or may not be real. The worst-case scenario is the aggressive marketing of alleged improvements that are actually pernicious in most home systems. I put 7.1-channel surround in this category (though some disagree).

Of course, technology doesn’t stand still, and most of what we buy eventually becomes obsolete. However, obsolete and old are two different things. Ask anyone who’s into classic tube amps, or who owns a Linn LP12 turntable.   My reference surround receiver is actually out of production (as are both of my stereo amps). It’s a Rotel RSX-1065. I reviewed it back in 2002 and continue to vow that it’s the best receiver I’ve ever heard. I use it to review speakers all the time. True, just by asking nicely, I could get Rotel to send the 7.1-channel successor, the VSX-1067. But 5.1 channels are enough for my room, and aside from that, there’s no difference between the two.   I will admit to being slightly worried about connecting my Integra DPS-10.5 universal disc player through the receiver’s 5.1-channel analog inputs for SACD and DVD-Audio listening. An uncompromised high-res digital interface would be slightly better. But my faith in the 1065’s amplifiers is so great that I’m willing to overlook this fine point. I’ll reconsider my decision the next time Rotel overhauls its receiver line. In the meantime, yes, I feel a little insecure, just like anyone else, but I let my judgment override my insecurity.   If your senses tell you something is wrong, that’s another matter entirely. Can’t turn up the volume without going ow, ow, ow? Maybe your speakers are voiced too bright, or your budget receiver sounds hashy and grainy, or your room has too many hard, bare surfaces. Does your subwoofer seem to be playing the same bloated note over and over? The problem may lie in the sub or in the way it interacts with the room. The solution might be different placement, an equalized sub, or just a better sub.             Trust your senses when they’re unhappy. Vigorously investigate what makes them unhappy. But trust them, too, when they’re happy. If you can turn down the lights and get lost in music, you’ve probably done something right. Tune out the noise—the drumbeat of new-product announcements, the emerging features, the fads, the specs, the rumors, the neighbor’s voice in your ear—and let yourself be happy.  

Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater. audio editor of Home Theater Magazine, and tastemaster of

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