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August 2023

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Hearing Or Listening? Which Is More Important?
How we relate to the music.
Article By Roger Skoff


Hearing Or Listening? Which Is More Important? How we relate to the music. Editorial By Roger Skoff


  Did you know that, in general, healthy young women hear better than healthy young men? It's true; although the normal range of human hearing is usually described as being from 20 to 20,000 Hz, the threshold of perception (the lowest volume level of sound that can be heard) and the high-frequency response range (the highest-pitched sounds that can be heard) of women at any age are both generally better than they are for men.

So why aren't there more female audiophiles? Wouldn't you think that, if they can hear better than us, they'd likely be more "into" the music than we are?   And, even despite the ladies' relative unconcern for things mechanical or electronic, wouldn't you think that they'd be into our Hi-Fi hobby, too?



The fact of it, though, is that they aren't. A survey of audiophiles published just this year, 2023, Archimago indicates that the VAST preponderance (97%) of audiophiles are men. That's well up from an earlier readership study conducted in a 1990s audiophile magazine, which reported that only one percent of its readers were female.  Even if distaff participation in our hobby really has tripled since those days, though, it's still negligible.

Here's another thing you might find interesting: Not only do men – the overwhelming majority of audiophiles – not hear as well as women to begin with, but as they get older, their hearing ability, especially at higher frequencies, declines significantly and at a higher rate than their female counterparts.


So, have you been to a Hi-Fi Show recently? Did you notice that the great majority of the people around you were older men? And are you aware of how many men reviewing for the audio press are also of "visible maturity"? How can that be? And what does it mean for the validity of their reviews?



There was, some years ago, actually one reviewer (not just a reviewer, in fact, but also the co-publisher of a well-known Hi-Fi magazine) who was, by clinical diagnosis, profoundly deaf in one ear. That didn't seem to affect the quality of his reviews, however. In general, most people, on listening to the same gear as he did, came to pretty much the same conclusions. He even, although it should have been physically impossible, claimed to be able to "hear" imaging and soundscaping, and regularly commented on both in his reviews.



How can it be that men – who don't hear as well as women – are Hi-Fi Crazies and women are not? And how can it be that the men who hear less well than younger men are often the reviewers who evaluate Hi-fi gear for the younger men's consideration? And how can it be that someone who has only one ear can convincingly claim to hear as well as others with two? (And he's not alone: I know of at least a couple of other guys who insist that mono sound and 78rpm records gives them more realism than a modern stereo system playing the latest software.)


What it all comes down to may be an issue of hearing versus listening. Maybe, even though some people hear better than others, others listen better.

On the women issue, it's a known fact that unlike men (who tend to listen to and get blown away by the sound of a great recording), women tend to prefer and listen to the words of a great song. That's why your wife or girlfriend always seems to know the words of songs and you never do: The words are what get her attention and – except to dance to it – she may never give more than just minimal notice to the music they're being sung to.


Looking To The Future Enjoying the past 25 years of hi-fi, and looking forward to the future.


Another thing that may have something to do with audiophiles tending to be older men is the fact that, at least for those of us who are on a quest for musical reality, older men may have a better idea of what musical reality actually sounds like than younger men do.

An industry friend of mine who, in his younger years, was a concert promoter, pointed out to me that it is nearly impossible today to find music in the air that's not coming out of speakers: Churches used to have a "live" organ. Concert halls, nightclubs,  piano bars, parades, and countless other places used to have music that – except possibly for a microphone for a singer or soloist – were either all, or at least mostly, "live".  Nowadays, though, musical venues – even the smallest and most intimate – all have "sound reinforcement" systems (the more polite term for PA) to make sure that the sound gets to every seat, and what people may think they are hearing "live" has likely gone through somebody's mixing board and maybe even an equalizer or other "sonic processing."

And that, according to my friend, creates an interesting tautology: People hear music on a PA system; think that that's what live music sounds like; and try to get that sound – actually the sound of a PA system – at home.

Older people have a better chance of having heard live music that is live music. And having heard it, they know what to listen for in evaluating the sound of a recording or a music system.  They know, for example, that violins are not "sweet-sounding" but that their sound is made by the microscopic barbs on a horsehair bow rasping across a tensioned string, and that it can have a sharp "edge" to it. They know that the brass instruments have a "blatty" sound at the top of their tone that only a truly fine system can accurately capture and reproduce.



They know that a drum is ‘skin' stretched tight over a resonant air space and that, on a good system, you ought to be able to hear that skin and that space, and not just a dull boom. And if they've heard one live, they know that a string bass makes three sounds, one as the string is plucked or bowed; one as the sound spreads through the entire string to the bridge, and one as the body of the instrument resonates to bring it to its full flower. These are things that, if people know them, they can listen for.

And that may be what makes audiophiles. The myth of "Golden Ears", for most people – even most reviewers – is really a myth. To a very substantial degree, it's not how well you hear (The women proved that), but how well you listen that makes the difference. There are wonders and glories out there just for the listening, and music is far more than just a tune, a beat, and maybe some lyrics. But you'll never know it unless you make the effort to listen.



The next time you fire up your system, no matter how pleasant or soothing it may be, don't just let the sound wash over you, take the trouble to carefully listen to it, and see how much more you... 


Enjoy the music!


Roger Skoff
















































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