Six ways to listen like the professionals
Want to know how pro engineers put loudspeakers through their paces in listening rooms? You can do it, too.
“Golden ears” are a myth. No one is born being able to pick out what makes one speaker better than another, to know when one component doesn’t work with another or to identify that obscure oboe passage that’s just about audible under the strings. It takes practice and attention. But, above all, it takes confidence. And the good news is, if you have that confidence you’re already well on the way to being able to listen like the professionals.
Pick music you know
Get rid of any preconceived notions about what you ‘should’ listen to on these speakers and play something you love. It doesn’t matter what – as long as you know it really well. These are your companions; so if you’re into cheesy 80s pop, forget trying to listen to demo CD-style jazz, just because that’s what they played in the shop.
It’s all in the detail
Try to identify key moments in the music you’re listening to. That might be a particular guitar intro, the way the bass interacts with the drums in a certain section, the ambience of the concert hall just before the orchestra strikes up, or a wash of effects over a vocal part. Listen to them over and over until you know exactly how they sound. Then compare them on different pieces of equipment – you might be surprised by how many differences you can hear.
Listen to the start of notes…
The crack of a snare drum. The ‘ting’ of a ride cymbal. The attack of a pick on a guitar string. That initial puff of a trumpet note. The start of a word in the vocal part. Can you hear them distinctly or do they seem to lag behind a little? Are they crisp and clear, or woolly and ill-defined?
If you’re listening to a piece of soft classical that sounds harsh and brittle on the new components, for example, or a well-produced rock song that no longer sounds as driving as you remember, it’s probably down to the equipment’s timing (how different frequencies interact with each other).
… and the end
The tail of a note is just as important as its attack. Take the ride cymbal: how does it decay after the drummer hits it? Does it sound like a physical, metal, vibrating piece of drumkit? Or does it sound flat and listless? Does it ‘fit’ the music, or does it tail off too quickly? Try to listen for these longer parts; become aware of how individual instruments sound. It can be tricky at first to identify an individual part in the middle of a song, but persevere and you’ll become adept.
Take your time
Don’t play one track and judge the kit on a five-minute listen. First impressions do count, of course, but second ones matter more. And third ones. Immerse yourself in the music – just as you would at home. Close your eyes. Recline. Relax and just listen…
Go with your gut
Trust your instincts. If you think you can hear something, you probably can. This isn’t a magic trick – and it doesn’t need to be a stressful exercise in ‘critical’ listening. It’s about suddenly hearing details in your favourite music that you’d never picked out before – hearing it again, as if for the first time. And that is where the magic happens.