The Ultimate Audio Modification: Golden Ears

Audio reviewers often differ in their impressions. They each have their preferences. Some like warm presentations; others don’t mind some brightness to get more detail. One reviewer may characterize the same piece of equipment as neutral while another reports that it emphases greater detail, or tighter bass, or a musical midrange. 

There are so many evaluation parameters to overwhelm any reader/viewer. There is tonal accuracy, instrument separation, width, height, and depth of stage. It’s enough to drive many prospective buyers into going for those devices that are most passionately described. Or buy into highly polished reviews delivered with television network anchor professionalism.

After reading so many reviews on a single piece of audio gear, we are often left wondering who is right. To their credit, most reviewers assert that their impressions are formed using their gear, in their imperfect listening rooms, and using speaker positioning that may not be achievable in most audiophile listening venues. They get credit for those caveats, but that does not make their recommendations any less flawed.

What makes most of the reviews we watch or read about questionable is that reviewers do not talk about the most important device in the audio chain, their hearing acuity. We often hear that so and so has golden ears. Great, but what does that mean? It typically means someone has many years of listening experience, and impresses with an ability to describe. I’ve never seen reviewer hearing test results or the wearing of a hearing device used to justify reviewer competence. 

We mostly assume reviewers have golden ears because they are in the business. But how do we know for sure? There is a way, of course. They could publish their hearing test results and describe corrective actions taken. It’s not difficult. There are no-cost tests available online and on our smartphones. 

Why then is it not done? Two reasons. Fear that deficient hearing, even if corrected, would lose them credibility. Second, correcting hearing deficiencies can be costly. A pair of high-end multi-channel hearing aids with EQ capability runs up to $6,600 and is not covered by insurance. Yet, what is $6,600 when so many of us, definitely over time, spend many times that amount in audio gear alone? For some audiophiles, it’s cable money.

As an audiophile for the last 50 years, I often regret not having tested my hearing until two years ago. It’s likely that my hearing acuity was not as bad during my younger years. Two years ago, my left ear tested with a huge dip in the mid-range. My right ear took a 45 degree, 40 decibel dive starting at 1 kHz. Where was the musicality some reviewers talked about but I could not hear? Where was the detail some reviewers claimed was in recordings?

Think of all the money I spent searching for gear and conditioning listening spaces in five homes. And what about all the time wasted disagreeing with others on audio gear when, more likely than not, we were each correct in what we heard. We just heard different things without knowing why. 

As reviewers often say: "This is what I think, but your mileage may vary". One-third of Americans are born with a hearing deficiency. Are you one of them and not know it? For as long as you have lived, what trauma have you brought upon your ears that may have caused peaks and valleys in your own frequency range.

Thank Mother Nature, or whoever is responsible for your good genes, if your hearing acuity shows a flat frequency response. If you see peaks and valleys, fix them as you have probably attempted many times over by buying new gear, improving room acoustics, or moving your speakers for the 100th time.

Consider that you’ll never really know if you have done everything possible to enjoy music to the fullest unless you are positive that your ears, that last piece of hardware in the audio chain, is as highly resolving as it can be. 

Some reviewers, particularly those looking for YouTube clicks, talk about Giant Killing gear. Until the next big bit of technology arrives. Many audiophiles feel disappointed at not seeing an end in sight. I’m finally ecstatic to positively know, with my “repaired golden ears”, that I have a rig and a listening space that is the most musical and resolving I can afford.


@ghdprentice. I completely agree with you. I've been reading the Hi Fi press since the late 1970s - both UK and US publications. Along with TAS and Stereophile, Hi Fi News is pretty reliable. As you say, over time one gets to know various reviewer's likes and dislikes and to read between the lines. In addition, when one triangulates that with personal listening to the products under review one can form a sort of aural LUT that can make reviews useful. John Atkinson and Paul Miller's measurements help further. Personally, I find most of the online journalism pure gobbeldygook.

"Wouldn't a set of hearing aids also have its own sonic signature? "

Absolutely! My 73 year-old ears have needed hearing aids for years now. It has been an expensive journey through several pairs of $6500+ hearing aids that sounded so irritating that I couldn't stand to hear conversations through them, let alone music. 

Finally a musician recommended Widex hearing aids to me! Also very expensive but they are the most natural sounding hearing aids I am aware of. I consider them to be one of the best audio system upgrades I have ever made. 

One last point: even with young and properly functioning hearing, perception varies from individual to individual. No one hears exactly the same, just as no one sees exactly the same. And that is before experience and training enters the picture.

@cleeds 1++

What you get out of most reviews is the reviewer's preference. One reviewer will always say the more expensive piece sounds better. Another expects a system to be way too bright. Most reviewers have no idea what they are listening to because they have never measured it. One can have no idea what a speaker is doing in a given room without measuring it. Reviewers should publish the frequency response of their reference system and of what they are reviewing. They should also tell you the volume they are listening at. As an example a speaker/room with a rising frequency response in the 3 kHz to 6 kHz range will sound very detailed at low levels, but will have unacceptable sibilance at higher levels. 

Some people, who are every experienced, can tell what a system sounds like basically by knowing what type of speaker is involved and by looking at the frequency response curve. 



Great Post. Everything I could meaningfully add has already been stated by subsequent posters. Let me just say that a professional reviewer probably has no economic incentive to reveal their hearing results. If they aren’t perfect, it will make them suspect. And even if they do have a great audiogram, it would only be meaningful if all other reviewers (i.e., the competition) were compelled to publish there results as well. Unless that happens all reviewers could simply imply they don’t have an issue and there is no way to verify their claims