Gaining listening experience without spending money

I am always blown away at how many folks on here have experience listening to so many different pieces of equipment. As an average dude loving this rich mans hobby, how does one gain listening experience without blindly buying and trying? 
Otter, you don't have to be "rich" to enjoy this hobby. Each spends according to their intensity of interest and depth of their wallet.

I am always blown away at how many folks on here have experience listening to so many different pieces of equipment. As an average dude loving this rich mans hobby, how does one gain listening experience without blindly buying and trying?

Beautiful question! Okay so here’s what you do. The list of sonic attributes (all the different qualities of sound you can learn to differentiate from one another) and the list of things that can cause them (warm-up, break-in, vibration, time of day) are so long there’s lots of things to learn and try. These are all great ideas that will get you well on the way to being not just a good but exceptionally good listener. For free!

First search on-line for a glossary of audiophile terms for sound quality. Robert Harley has an excellent one in his book but we’re gonna try and keep to for free. Just read about grain and glare, macro and micro dynamics, timbre, harmonic structure, imaging, focus, depth, air, on and on. Some of them you will recognize, others not so much. Point is to have them in mind, their meanings will become clear in time. To try and evaluate or compare components with no idea of these terms is like trying to read an x-ray with no idea of the underlying anatomy. Anyone can spot the broken bone sticking out. That’s about where most audiophiles are. You want to do better. You can.

Next start paying close attention to your recordings. Not your music. That’s a red herring. Your recordings. Who recorded? Who is the mastering engineer? The average audiophile never catches onto this, probably because the vast majority of recordings are mired in the muck SQ-wise. But the best of them have entire mixing boards completely modded and tweaked to perfection- their personal version of perfection. Listen to several recordings mastered by Doug Sax, anything from Styx to Clair Marlo, after a while you will pick up on his sonic signature.

Some labels like Sheffield, Reference Recordings, have a similar signature sound. Get good at recognizing these differences. A lot of what you are hearing is fundamentally no different in nature than the differences you will be listening for between amps, sources and cables.

Here’s another couple good freebie exercises. These are advanced enough a lot won’t even know about them. You will learn to hear the difference between a fully warmed up system with clean power and a cold one with bad AC. Yes you can learn to hear this. Totally. Easier than you think.

Pick a favorite recording or two, music you really love, and believe to be well-recorded. Get in the habit of only listening to these late in the evening. Preferably the last thing played. After a while, some weeks maybe, you will be well accustomed to how they sound late at night when the system is fully warmed up and the power is as clean as it gets.

So now what you do, some evening- or even better morning or afternoon- turn the system on and play that favorite recording.

If you never noticed before how awful a system sounds when its cold I can just about guarantee you will now! All of a sudden those terms like etched, grain, fatigue, etc will be hitting you smack in the face.

Later on that night, towards the end of the evening, get that same recording out again. Only this time before playing go out and trip all the breakers in the panel. All the ones you don’t need for the system. Now go play. That insane improvement, that my friend is clean power. You will hear it. Guaranteed.

You may be saying to yourself, Okay, this is utter nonsense. And how’s it gonna help me find components? I need components! What a freaking waste of time! Who is this nut case anyway?

Here’s the value. Back in the beginning I did the hard work of driving hundreds of miles listening to everything I could find, dragging it home for audition when I could, dragging my stuff into their store when I couldn’t. Taught myself all the same audiophile glossary terms, read reviews, made mistakes, learned lessons. Almost all of it entirely on my own trial and error.

Back then every single piece in my system got there by home audition. Now 30 years later only the Talon speakers were auditioned, and not at home. Everything else was bought sight unseen based entirely on reviews and user comments. And yet it has been years, many years, since anything bought this way has failed to exceed expectations.

How this happens is because in the process of learning to listen you learn a whole lot of other things as well. You learn a lot of tech talk is pure blather. You learn what matters is listener impressions. Which you know what they mean, having become a listener yourself.

Go and listen. You will see.

As tuberist said you don’t have to be rich. All my systems from a sears silvertone in 1967 through 5 systems to what I have now were all musical and good enough for the rest of my life. I have bought more equipment because my last would quit working and I would get some things fixed but replace some. Get something you like and enjoy the music. If you can go to some audio show, audio stores, listen on you tube, read some audio magazines. But do listen before you buy. If you are serious some internet audio stores let you listen and return if not satisfied. Let this community know you would like to listen to something in particular, and when social distancing is relaxed some on audiogon may let you listen to their system. I have worked for some brick and mortar very high end stores and all my systems sound musical satisfying to me. I get immense satisfaction out of them. Good equipment well put together is important to me, but high cost doesn't mean high sound.
If you’re interested in classical music, start a 30-day trial of the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. It is fascinating to see and hear a piece performed once in 2010, and again with a different conductor in 2017. You may not gain experience about the sound system itself, but this is an amazing way to gain experience about what goes into making the sound that your system reproduces.
“how does one gain listening experience without blindly buying and trying”


I would suggest join a local audiophile club or attend audio shows. The two biggest audio shows in NA (assuming you’re in America) are AXPONA and RMAF.

Not sure if there are any audio shops around you...look them up and see if anything interests you as most of the high end dealers are now operate by appointment only.
millercarbon gives some good advice in terms of using good recordings to work with a system. Growth and appreciation of musical genres and quality recordings is a most gratifying aspect of the hobby. Good advice. However, this is but one aspect of the hobby, and it is not necessary to spend inordinate time on it in order to build superior audio systems. i.e. knowing the background of the recording does nothing to help calibrate a superior system; use of such a recording is all that is necessary. Actually, it's not even absolutely necessary to use such recordings to advance an audio system, but imo they certainly do aid in advancement of a system more than poor recordings. I encourage use of a very wide range of recordings, including poor ones, to assess how a rig is developed. But, involvement with the recording process is a tried and true vector of satisfaction in the hobby. Just watch out that it doesn't turn you into a Mediaphile, i.e. buying multiple copies of the same recording and impoverishing your chance to elevate the rig! You can DESTROY your entire audiophile future by making such a mistake!  ;) 

I must admit that my tastes have been expanded positively through the years by growing appreciation of great recordings. I have a friend who is fantastic at procurement of such recordings, and his guidance has been great! 

If you would like to educate yourself on the topics of burn in and warm up, I encourage you to read my comparisons I wrote about in an article that appears at under the title;  Audiophile Law: Thou Shalt Not Overemphasize Burn In

I was a budget audiophile for many years. I wish to discuss your characterization of this being a "rich man's hobby". I worked for the better part of 30 years consistently putting some money into the hobby nearly every year to accomplish my goals. I do not consider myself rich in the monetary sense, but disciplined. You also can accomplish amazing goals in this, or any other hobby, if you work hard enough to accomplish them, and I encourage you to do so. It IS a rich man's hobby if your goal is to attain sound in the range of SOTA (state-of-the-art), and get there fast.  :) 

I way I read the OP, he was talking about the *range* of various and different components that some people have clapped ears on.

No short answer, and none ideal: audio shows, audio societies, audiophile friend, big cities with multiple dealers.  Otherwise, yes, significant funds and a strong back to swop in and out components.

@twoleftears yes, this was the angle I was addressing. The other advice is certainly helpful but the focus was not on “rich mans hobby”. I do agree that one can enjoy the hobby without a ton of cash, however, to be able to say I like this amp over that one is more achievable with more financial means, but I am all ears on why I am wrong.
+1 millercarbon
also +1 @twoleftears I've heard really phenomenal sound here in my area through meeting other audiophile here on audiogon and exchanging listening visits.
Join an audio club, if there is one in your area. Go to meetings. Make friends with the other members and ask about reciprocal listening sessions. If there isn’t a club in your area, start one. Or, as @simao suggests, check the location of fellow audiophiles on this or other forums and make friends that way.

Since becoming active in the Portland (OR) Audio Club, I've heard many systems, with a wide variety of gear and setups I wouldn't have heard otherwise.
It can get expensive.  Without hearing them, I bought a set of MIT Magnum cables. They didn't sound as  good as I thought they would, so I ended up with MIT Oracle cables.  It would have been far cheaper to skip the Mangum line and go directly to the Oracle series.

I know you said you wanted to go cheap, but have you ever thought about going to one of the audio expos to hear a variety of brands?  Even though the listening rooms may not be ideal, it does seems to be a way to hear a lot of different systems and combinations of gear.  I've never been to one of the shows because of the travel expense involved.

I do agree that one can enjoy the hobby without a ton of cash, however, to be able to say I like this amp over that one is more achievable with more financial means, but I am all ears on why I am wrong.

You’re wrong because you don’t need any money at all. Because you don’t need to buy anything to be able to say why you like one amp over another. Because all you need is to be able to first hear, and then describe, the differences.

The way you get there, I already outlined some steps you can take. Some. Not all. Not by any means. Those are all good steps but there are many more.

Take any component, amp, CD player, turntable, speaker, I don’t care, any component. Put something different under it. Blanket. Magazine. Book. Wood. Metal. I don’t care. Anything. Listen before and listen after. Listen real close. The sound will not be the same. How is it different? Attack? Decay? Focus? Dynamically? Subtle details better or worse? Certain instruments stand out more or less? Which ones? How? In what way?

All these same things you are hearing with these seemingly silly tests, these same exact things are what you are listening for in judging the difference between tube and solid state, between a Pioneer and a Pass. Its all the same sonic characteristics. If you think it takes money to hear these differences, if you start buying gear without first having learned why and what to listen for, you might as well not have the money, you might as well light it on fire and at least enjoy the flame and maybe get some heat out of it.

Another good one, free, take any one of your IC or speaker cables, switch it around, listen to it going the other way. Couple things you will learn. Big one being how many guys will spend hours and hours arguing something like this it takes like 5 minutes to settle. They’ll devote the hours, but not the minutes. Don’t be "that guy."

Another good one, free, take everything apart and wipe all the connections real good with a clean dry cotton cloth. Use alcohol if you have it but you learn just as much with plain dry cotton.

Some maybe all of these will be very hard to hear at first. When you do hear a difference it will be hard at first to say just what it is that’s different. That’s the whole point. You want to be able to say you like one amp over another? Then learn to say how you like clean contacts over dirty. Cables going one way over another. Elevated cables over ones laying tangled on the floor. Warmed up system over cold. Night over day.

Go and listen. You will see.
Listen to everything you can whenever you can and care about understanding why you hear what you do. You don’t have to own something to listen and facilitate training your ears.

Also do a lot of reading to help build a good understanding of how hifi gear works. 
Gaining listening experience without spending money?

If you live anywhere near a music conservatory or University with a music program, go and attend faculty and/or student recitals. Details and schedules are usually available on the institution’s website. Attendance is usually free. Faculty members are usually musicians of very high caliber and sometimes are well known artists. The level of musicianship of graduating students can be extremely high.

If you want an audio system that will satisfy long term, there is no better thing to do than to first have a solid sense of what the real thing sounds like. Taking this approach is also likely to save you money in the long run.

Then, as far as gaining experience listening to audio equipment goes, join a local audio club; or form one. Great way to listen to other audio systems. In those University concert halls there will inevitably be a bulletin board where you can post your interest in forming a club or in socializing with like minded individuals. As I’m sure you know, audiophiles are usually more than willing to show off their audio systems.

Good luck and have fun.
You can start off by buying used components. This allows you to affordably find what you like. Later you can buy new components or higher quality used components. Of course, Audiogon is a great place to do this. 
As a previous writer stated don't be afraid to ask on this and other forums for in home auditions, we all enjoy meeting new people and sharing knowledge and our systems. You can also try Audiocircle , audioasylum and Usaudiomart. Good luck enjoy the listening.
Be not afraid of buying used (but not abused) equipment....

Everything I own, with the exception of 3 pieces of 'pro audio' is used.

Starting 'small' is nothing to be embarrassed about.....but being 'picky' about What and within budget basically (imho) resides in your choice of speakers.

Like us, they have distinctive 'voices', and traits within that....That will take the bulk of your time to find what you like....

The majority of 'upstream' equipment has decent and acceptable specs and response.  It's only when one has developed personal preferences as to how it responds to the music you like that the more minutia become relevant and important to your enjoyment.

Buy the best you can rationalize for what you've in mind for your ears.

Pay attention to the space that will reside in.
'Bright' speakers in a 'live' room can be a bit much, as will the inverse of that....  One way to consider it is to approach the endeavor as a balancing act.

Don't be afraid to invoke the SAF option (if available *G*); they do tend to have an edge of sorts, and they generally have to live with the system as well.

The KISS factor is important.  She may want to use it as well.  It shouldn't require a Phd to play a CD or even an LP....

My SigOther learned how to use a destat gun, a fibre brush, and a cuing lever.  It's not rocket science, just good technique....;)

Go forth and enjoy the journey. *S*

Regards, J
Some of these suggestions might be useful for ordinary times, although perhaps not.  Depending where one lives and other circumstances, attending audio clubs and shows may not be an option.  And then they may not be the perfect place to demo gear, because ultimately the question is how will it sound in your system?
And now, with Covid 19, can you even meet as an Audio  Club?  And will crowded audio shows return, or be advisable to attend?
  I wish I had an easy question for the OP, but I don’t.  Ever since bricks and mortar stores have gone the way of the Dodo, comparison shopping in this hobby is difficult.  My preferred way is to have a component in my system for a few days.  Frequently this may involve paying a restocking fee of 15% if you don’t like it, plus shipping.  For something like a thousand dollar DAC (which the OP identified as something of interest in a different thread),that could potentially be a $200 dollar expense.  For something like floorstanding speakers in the $10K range, that’s 2 grand plus the sheer difficulty of moving them in and out of your dwelling, which is perhaps one reason that my speakers are going on 16 years of age.
Some good advice about but I am not sure if all this answers your questions. First see if there is a local audio club you can hear different systems and possibly borrow equipment so you get to hear other components in your system to see if you hear any differences and preferences.  Even if the club is not active right now, you may find some people willing to bring an amp or preamp over for you to her in your system.

Find a really good recording and get to know it very well. Backing vocals, separation of vocals and instruments, sound stage dimension, High frequencies, low frequencies, soft to loud and back dynamics/passages, cymbals, bongos (do they sound like someone is hitting a drum skin with a bong so you are hearing the wood of the bongo or like hitting a piece of cardboard - get to know the difference as many people really do hear this. etc. I change as I get bored with listening over and over to the same song but I prefer piano. IMO if the piano is correct, then the other things fall into place. Your should be able to hear the decay of the piano, what I call the box or wood of the piano so it doesn’t sound electronic or the notes fade to fast. Dean Peer is a bass guitar player and I use his recordings also especially the simple recordings of him and maybe a few other instruments.

Next read about different components and what attributes they offer. Start with tubes versus solid state, Class A, Digital components, etc. Learn what makes them sound the way they do by hearing them. Learn about AC filtering - this is what provides the separation and black background in a system.

For cabling - silver versus copper. Learn how they impact the sound.

So now that you know what you like, you can narrow down your choices. It is time consuming but now that you are educated you can sort through the crap and find what you prefer to hear.

To me dealers and shows are of no help. Most people go to a dealer or show and say hey that was a much higher cost then my stuff and it wasn’t better. That was the question I had many years ago. Why do my $2500 speakers sound as good as the $10,000 speakers everyone else says are much better.

How many times have you read well for $100K I was not impressed. There is a reason for that.

To many people chase the sound they are looking for instead of knowing what makes a system sound better. I was at a friends home recently. His friend and himself kept telling me that the system he had was just all of it. When I went to visit, he played me a song (not one that I was familiar with) but after the song knowing about his system, I pulled out one of his tweaks and the sound opened up and was more natural. I was also thinking to myself, how come these two guys could not hear what I was hearing? Everyone I know in this hobby always tells me, I have good ears. How did I know this, well I tried the same tweak in my system and heard how it impacted the sound. I also told him to do other things and recently he called me about swapping out his line conditioner for a $3000 one. I told him when I was there that his line conditioner was holding back the sound. I told him if he really wanted one to go with a different company’s that was much cheaper - better or not, I know what that one does. So again it comes down to listening and learning.

My system does not use any special cabling, tweaks, room treatments, AC filtering, etc. I hear what they do and so far it is not that as important to me overall. The reason is because I can change the sound with greater sonic impact by changing parts like capacitors, resistors, design changes, etc. I recently changed the resistors in a DeHavilland preamp. Just two good resistors changed that preamp to be more open, faster and dynamic - $20 in parts. Most products that are manufactured do not have any of these parts in them. What to know why? They are expensive! Why would a $20K amp have basic power supply capacitors in them, not high grade resistors (think Audio Note non-magnetic silver resistors), not even HexFred diodes. I only know a few manufacturers whose products are point-to-point wired product.

So begin by hearing different components and not focusing on the sound but what the differences are tube versus solid state, belt drive versus direct drive, copper versus silver, paper cones versus aluminum. What do you hear that is different? What do you hear that you think is better? IMO then you can understand what you like and how to build your system.

You do not have to spend a lot of money in this hobby to have a system that you like to listen to every day. It is that easy. Learning how to make your system sound better is the hard part.

Thanks for reading my dumb crap.

Happy Listening.

I'd put my $12,000 vinyl system up against many more expensive rigs. The trick is knowing about gear and taking your time. Understanding what makes things tick. Recognizing well-engineered classics. A poor choice in support platform and cheap tubes can compromise sound quality beyong belief. So many things can influence the end result. I've heard the good and the bad. Oftentimes, the bad had cost a lot more than the less-expensive good. Last note, imagine what you could buy if you weren't paying a $700+ car payment?
"You’re wrong because you don’t need any money at all. Because you don’t need to buy anything to be able to say why you like one amp over another. Because all you need is to be able to first hear, and then describe, the differences"
Says the man with a six-figure system...

It is all about referencing the sound from your music/system to something else. 

  • Listen to systems at audio shows
  • Listen to systems at your dealer
  • Buy equipment from the second hand market. Sell them if you don't like the sound. 
  • Read the magazines and the forums for tips and info. 
  • Learn from other audiophiles, but avoid mister/misses know it all. They are just insecure and want to be admired. There are personal  tastes and opinions in audio. Everyone focusses on other parameters (tonal accuracy, spatiality, dynamics, lack of distortions, prat, etc...)
  • Move your speakers around and play with the room acoustics.
  • Produce music. Know how to record, mix and master yourself.
  • Tweak, tweak tweak....little things matter. 
  • 1 step back, 2 steps forward is normal for an audiophile.
  • Have reference recordings.
  • Most important: enjoy your system & listen to a lot of good music. 
  • Keep reasonable. Don't get audio nervosa. 
  • Get old

Audio Shows are where many of us hear the most high end equipment out there.  Some are shopping there but most just want to see / hear the Bugatti Chiron and Koenigseggs of the 2 channel Audio world.

Whats most fun about these shows though is zero’ing in on the exceptionally good sounding affordable equipment.  It’s refreshing to hear things that you love in a price range that you can afford with a little planning.

I’ve gotten most of my experience at Audio Shows and also by buying and selling at an unhealthy rate, lol.  I’m starting to slow down though now because I’ve heard a bunch, know what I like, and am over the hassle of buying, setting up, and then reselling.  
Mentioned above only once that I see,it is MANDATORY that you start with live music.If you don’t know what real instruments,in real space sound like you can never get where you want to be..
Also don’t drink the PRICE = performance coolaid,we live in a time were really excellent gear is available at working mans prices.Seek out budget kings that benefit from trickle down technology coming from award winning manufacturers.Sort out your room acoustics,especially echo..
Explore the differences between Solid State & Tube driven amplification after you know what to listen for & be ready for an epiphany when you discover tubes..Most of all be patient & research the possibilities in each link of the audio chain via the internet,gaining from others experience...At some point though you will have to put together a system & sort it out..By then you should know what kind of sound/tone you want & finding appropriate equipment is fairly easy then..
This is a hobby that people have spent rich amounts of money on, not a rich mans hobby. It is no different from any other hobby where people either with the cash, or through sacrifice have spent huge sums ... and just like other hobbies, that does not mean the best outcomes.

Yes, listen, but please, not at audio shows. Audio shows are an exercise in how poor you can make really expensive equipment sound. It is impossible in a poorly acoustic treated room to have "great" sound. That the audio press waxes poetic about these "awesome" systems at trade-shows and how wonderful they sound, is good evidence they are either blissfully or wilfully ignorant ... or selective in their hearing.

Your local quality dealer is usually (not always) a better place, as they often have properly set up rooms. Find out when they are not busy and visit then. Audio clubs are great, though seem to be waning.

Educate yourself about acoustics and room treatment. This will put you far ahead of most people who identify as audiophiles.

Personally, jump in. Yes, jump in. Give yourself a starting budget, and keep your system really basic. Streaming DAC, Amplifier, Speakers, acoustic treatment ... and set aside $50-100 for a basic microphone and learn how to use REW, which again will put you way ahead of most "audiophiles". Formulas work pretty good in regular rooms for speaker placement, but nothing like being able to measure and optimize.

$1000 on a basic streaming DAC, used amplifier, used speakers, and some basic cables can get you quite a nice sounding system. If you are handy with basic tools and can build your own acoustic panels, then for another $100-200, you can put together a half decent set of a few critical panels. Pass on the turntable to start. You will blow that whole budget just to get something decent.

I am going to say it again. Learn about acoustics and room treatment. Audiophiles who don’t are always chasing their tales with the latest tweak that "totally improved the system" ..... I mean really, how often can "totally improve the system"? Ask yourself this, what is more likely going to change how you perceive the sound, something like acoustics that makes an a change so significant it is easily measured with $100 of equipment, or something that no vendor seems to be able supply any measurable evidence to support? Yes amplifier/speaker cable/speaker combinations can have subtle differences in how they sound, but unless you are dropping serious money to start, it is not something to worry about yet.

One last point. You rarely listen to "equipment". Unless you are listening to a piece of equipment, in your own listening space, with your own speakers, and all your other own equipment in the chain, then what you are listening too is mainly speakers and how they interact with the room for the exact space you are sitting in, overlaid with some equipment that has some indeterminate impact on the overall sound. With the exception of things like a turntable that can have fairly unique sonic signatures, picking out subtle differences and assigning them to one piece of equipment is ... difficult (read near impossible).  Switching between a tube and solid state amp may be noticeable as well because one usually adds enough to the signal to be noticeable. Whether you like what it adds, that is a question only you can decide.
I’ve made a point of making friends with people on audio forums. Living in NJ I’m not far from a lot of like minded folks on AK and we would have meet ups several times a year. I’ve gone up into NY state and down to rural MD and into VA to meet with folks. My buddy and I even hosted two events in Cherry Hill NJ with attendees traveling quite some distance.
Every meet up we get to hear some new to us gear and are exposed to music we normally wouldn’t even know existed. We also normally have a swap meet, bring records along to sell and talk shop for hours.All of this unfortunately is on hold with the current issues going on but every one of us is sorely missing our time together. I’ve made a lot of good friends that I otherwise would have missed out on.
On Edit: Making friends and listening to other systems has steered me into my current system. Vinyl and MC cart, tube preamp, tube amp and Altec’s. Couldn’t be happier.