Does it sound better... or different?
Like many producers, I'm not just into audio technology, but technology in general. If I needed to buy, for example, a food processor, you can be sure I'll be trawling forums and web sites, reading heated debates about what motor is suitable for hacking through different ingredients. By the end of the month I'd be something of an expert, and I'd probably have been persuaded to spend too much money on extra attachments as well.
When it comes to a purely practical job like chopping a carrot, I can accept that some tools are simply better than others: some tools break, while others are practically invulnerable and make chores easier.
When you're using tools for creative purposes, however, things aren't quite so clear cut. Whether you trace it back to the legend of Ike Turner's broken amp kicking off the distorted guitar sound, or bring it up to date with many modern producers short-circuiting old synths and keyboards, there are examples throughout music history of 'mistakes' or technical inaccuracies opening up new avenues of creativity.
Yet still the level of improvement a new piece of equipment is supposed to offer us is most often measured by machines, not by human ears. This is especially true when it comes to monitoring. We are told a new speaker system is flatter, truer, less like the last model, and thus worth the upgrade. But what if we really like the last model, or even an archaic one? The new model will sound different, but does that make it better?
'Confirmation bias' can be hard to fight. In this context, it's the desire to be satisfied with something you've bought. You'll see it often in online forums, when a punter buys a new piece of gear and begins proselytising the digital populace before the kit is out of the box. Some pieces of equipment really do make a huge difference, but if had a quid for every time I've read "night and day improvement” or "like lifting a quilt off of the speakers” in a forum, I'd have retired already.
If you place four high-quality monitoring systems side by side, they will probably all sound very different indeed, despite each manufacturer's claim that their own system has a perfectly flat frequency response. You may prefer one system, I may prefer another. Our ears are different and our production genres may be dissimilar too, as might our taste in sound.
In other arenas, 'technically perfect' definitely isn't what you want: play a guitar amp through a PA speaker and you'll want to cover your ears, play it through an inefficient and technically poor Celestion Blue and you're halfway to heavy-rock heaven.
Listening itself is not passive, and hearing is not a matter of a diaphragm passing vibrations on to a computer, no matter how many forum 'trolls' tell you it is. There are almost endless cultural and other such filters involved in the process that, fortunately, can't be explained using graphs. These all help to shape our perception of the sound that is good and right for our purposes.
I've tested many different (some very nice) monitoring setups, but I'm still using a relatively modest and now discontinued model. I like their forward mid-range and, more importantly, I've had them for 10 years, so I know them very well. There's a lot to be said for making the effort to learn the equipment you have, rather than continually upgrading.
Getting used to the tone of a set of speakers can also work against the unwary listener. Things you're used to will gradually become less interesting. The honeymoon glow fades, and anything new and significantly different is bound to have an attractive novelty factor. In many consumer journals, where the goal is almost always to present newer as better, this novelty is rarely separated from reviewing. Hi-fi magazines, in particular, are a monthly exercise in hyperbole; if the improvements in sound-stage and bass extension — which every new amplifier is supposed to gift the listener — were indeed real, the leftmost instruments on your favourite records would be in LA and the rightmost in Moscow by now! The thunderous bass would open up a chasm in the floor of your front room, and you'd be entirely consumed by your new stereo. It's probably warm and cosy down there, but for now I'll stick with what I know.
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J G Harding is an editor with Sound On Sound magazine. He also makes music videos, sings songs and has absolutely no knowledge of food processors.