18 Nov 0
In the field where quality of sound is of critical importance, people get educated in the art and craft of critical listening. When quality is in question, simply hearing sound does not suffice – one is required to know what to listen for, what to look for in a sound, and how to differentiate between the characteristics of the sound. Interestingly enough, critical listening is not a tool headphone manufacturers would be required to use in order to determine the quality of sound their headphones produce, as they can use sophisticated computer models to determine the various attributes of the sound.
Critical listening is a tool commonly used by sound engineers in the process of mixing, recording and producing audio material. It is usually used in conjunction with analytical listening, which is more about the feeling and meaning of a recording, and is concerned with how good the message and intention behind the recording translates in what is actually being recorded.
Another group of people who could benefit from learning how to critically listen are audio enthusiasts, sometimes called audiophiles, and more generally people who want to make sure they are getting the most from the headphones or speakers which they plan to purchase. The rule of thumb is always to look for the sound one would like to listen, but personal preference is something that can go well beyond thinking in terms of just liking how things sound. It is possible to analyze and determine what it is about the sound that feels so good, and then to look exactly for that when auditioning different headphones or speakers. For example, people might find bass-heavy reproduction pleasing or displeasing, or like accentuated middles, and once they determine what is that they like, they look – or rather listen – for that trait specifically.
What are the things to listen for when listening critically? Well, sound engineers are thought to look for balance between the instruments. Each instrument should be clearly discernable, well defined and audible. Depending on the type of recording, some instruments might be more prominent than others, like a lead guitar during the guitar solo, but this has to be a product of a conscious decision. Frequency range is also usually considered, as all frequencies should be produced relatively equally, unless again there is a deliberate decision to focus on just a part of the range. Dynamics, which refer to the changes in volume and the tempo, are important for the engineer in both of its facets, although the audio enthusiast using critical listening to judge the quality of headphones might concentrate on the volume range.
Of course, listening while producing and listening during reproduction are two completely different things in the sense that one of them is done on headphones or speakers with proven capabilities when it comes to sound reproduction, and the other is done in order to determine the same capabilities of headphones or speakers. Nevertheless, critical listening can be an important tool for audiophiles, even if they are auditioning gear from high-tech manufacturers like Schultz.