Is the 'I can't hear the difference' myth killing the speaker business?

Don't be so sure you "can't hear the difference" between the cheap stuff and high end speakers.

Do you really think they sound the same? Steve Guttenberg

Sophisticated baby boomers and Gen Xers pride themselves on their ability to appreciate the finer things in life. They're wine snobs, crave gourmet food, drive exotic cars, buy 1080p high definition TVs, but for some bizarre reason think low-end speakers are just dandy. At a New Year's Eve party I polled perfect strangers about their hi-fi systems, and the three men and one woman all said that, sure, music was once really important, but now it's mere background. And they now owned very small systems, because "I can't hear the difference anymore."

Hmmm, I sold audio from the early 1980s to the late 1990s and personally demonstrated hi-fi to thousands of people over the years. Folks in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and more than a few seniors, and I was able to demonstrate a "difference" to well over 80% of them. Many walked in doubting their ears, convinced that "they all sound the same," but once I asked them to focus on the sound they easily discerned even fine subtleties. It's not so different than learning about wines or food. The details become more significant as you become engaged in the subject at hand.

Once I asked my customers, for example, to listen closely to the believability of Eric Clapton vocal, they started to notice differences. Over one speaker Eric seemed to emerge from a box, and over another speaker he all but materialized between the stereo speakers. There was a three dimensional quality to the voice, he was more human. You could hear the body attached to the voice. Once you know what to listen for, the differences aren't at all subtle.

The same listening awareness can be applied to the sound of instruments, do the drums sound like bees buzzing inside a small table radio or can you feel the sticks beating skins, do you catch the bass drum's thump in your chest? Does the rhythm make you want to get up and dance? These aren't small things, and can make a gigantic difference in the way you emotionally connect with the music. Like I said, most people, when presented with bona-fide, better sounding speakers definitely can hear the difference. Sure, whether they want to spend the extra cash, or live with larger speakers is something else. But if you really love music, try to search out a high-end audio store and listen to some of your favorite tunes.

But once you've settled for "good enough" sound, well, who's foolin' who. You're missing out on something good.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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