Reality Check

“Can You Really Hear The difference?”

It is a question all audiophiles get on a regular basis. The short answer is: Yes! If you are used to sound from a Bluetooth speaker, or cheap earbuds for example, then moving up a few notches in quality will bring you a thrilling upgrade that you can hear immediately.

If you are already using a good system, however, the answer is more nuanced. Factors like room acoustics, individual hearing ability/sensitivity, system composition–all play a part in what we perceive and how it affects us. The question is further complicated by all the misinformation being thrown around online, especially regarding measurements.

I’ve thought for a long time about how to answer this question, and to my surprise the best answer came from an interaction I had with my son, that wasn’t about sound or audio at all. It was about computer monitors.

A few years back, I got my son–who is an avid PC gamer–a new, 240Hz (refresh rate) gaming monitor for his computer. His current monitor had a refresh rate of 144Hz, which was already very good, but I found a 240Hz on sale so I surprised him with it.

After about an hour of using the new monitor he came out of his room. He looked disappointed. “I don’t really see a difference,” he said. “I feel bad that you got me this, when my 144Hz monitor was already really good. You can return it if you want.”

I decided to take the 144Hz monitor up to our weekend house, where I do a lot of video editing, and told him to enjoy the new monitor.

A few months later Covid hit. We all retreated to the weekend house full-time. To conserve space in the car I told him to bring his CPU but to leave the 240Hz monitor in the city, and that he could use his old 144Hz monitor instead. We unloaded the car and he got to work setting up the PC with his former monitor.

A short while later he came downstairs. “Hey daddy, you know how I said I couldn’t tell a difference between the two monitors? Well, the minute I started using the old one it felt like my eyes were bleeding. It’s a huge difference.”

Fascinated, and curious, I went to his room. He showed me in great detail where the old monitor was lacking, in specific places on game maps he had played hundreds of times and knew extremely well. He checked and adjusted settings, but nothing changed in the overall performance of the old monitor: the speed, shadows, details, were fundamentally inferior to his eyes, before and after making the adjustments.

That’s when it struck me that my experience with audio gear was very similar: simply A/B’ing two components in real time rarely reveals their true differences. Hearing, like seeing, is a process–a fluid, biological function that defies easy measurement, snap judgments, or rigid compartmentalization.

What I have also learned over the years is that the most powerful way to understand performance differences is through language. This is what reviewers struggle so hard to do–often being derided for their efforts. But the truth is, I have gotten far more accurate information from the language in reviews than I have from the measurements (though those are, to those who can truly understand them, occasionally helpful).

Sometimes the opposite happens: I recently pulled an old pair of speakers out of storage for my city system and was thrilled at how good they sounded compared to the much larger, twice as expensive pair I had replaced. In that instance, I could hear how the more expensive speakers had a much finer midrange and cleaner bass, but the swapped-in pair were a much better size for the room they were in, and gave space and breath to the sound in ways that the more expensive speakers couldn’t–the bigger speakers had made the sound feel louder, cleaner and more immediate, but somewhat crowded. So even a “lesser” speaker can sound better than a technically better speaker, depending on the room.

If you take away anything from this, please understand that our hearing is a complex and wondrous gift, capable of tremendous subtlety that cannot be measured (yet). So take time to really listen and understand the differences. Don’t expect instant miracles.

(I haven’t even gotten into how diet affects my hearing–that will have to wait for another time. Like, after breakfast.)

Happy Listening!