Always try before you buy! How do you audition audio gear?

WASTING MONEY ISN’T A REAL HOBBY, IS IT? That’s why I thought it would be interesting to share and discuss different methods of auditioning audio gear.

Here are ten tips I found on the net. What do you think of them? How do YOU test and evaluate audio equipment before bying it?

Looking forward to a productive discussion…


This is going back a bit. I wanted a good Hi Fi back in the day but didn’t know what that was. (I was young) Also I was intimidated buy the Hi Fi geeks, I didn’t understand the language, and to a large degree I still don’t.

I saw an article from Meridian that discussed ‘Hot Rod vs Hi Fi’ which appealed to my common sense. I knew I didn’t have the knowledge, money or inclination to go the ‘Hot Rod’ route. I didnt have the money for much, that’s for sure.

I clearly remember my first surround sound demo of a 565 with DSP 5000’s, it blew me away. The common sense of mixing the abilities of Pro Logic for films and Trifield for music. (younger readers have to note that this was in a world before DVD and the Internet) Why was knowbody else doing this. They still don’t with Trifield.

Trusting my ears and gut instinct, I knew what I wanted. My Journey In pre owned Hi Fi had begun. I have never looked back and life experience has proved me correct.
The irony is that what was an unaffordable dream then can be easily acquired for very little monies today and my sights are set much higher.
To sum up, I let designers design and I like a system approach. My Meridian system sounds great. My Bluesound system sounds great. My friends Devialet system sounds great. No fuss, no fiddling, just hit play and enjoy the music.
Thoughts, Chris


Hi @Chrislayeruk,

thanks a lot for being the first person to reply to this new thread! Greatly appreciated!!!

I absolutely agree with you that listening to music isn’t rocket science. All you have to do is sit down in a comfy armchair, lean back, relax and be all ears. (Probably works on a sofa, too. :joy:). However, before you can press the play button to enjoy your favourite music, you need to have or get a system you’re happy with (hopefully for more than just a few weeks). This brings me to the central question of this thread: What can/should music lovers do to find such a system?

May I ask what exactly it was you “wanted”? In other words, how did you know/decide that this gear was “right” for you? Did you compare it to other systems? Did you audition it before you bought it? Perhaps you could tell us a little more about your “decision making process”, if you don’t mind and find the time.


Hello Will,

I’d like to provide a brief comment on TIP 9 from your internet source.

“Don’t get fooled by quick A vs. B comparisons […]. For the advanced listener this is often required to notice fine technical differences between products, however for an inexperienced listener, or someone who is simply used to a particular character of sound, it is a detrimental way of auditioning. The reason is that the brain is exceptionally good at noticing relative differences, but not at noticing absolute differences.

I agree that quick A/B comparisons aren’t useful at all, but not for the reasons given in the excerpt I quoted. As a (retired :grinning:) neurologist, I can’t really confirm that the “brain is exceptionally good at noticing relative differences.” It’s a little more complicated than that. We know that the human brain is genetically programmed to focus on “new” rather than “old” information. So what happens if your “grey matter” is exposed to the same music over and over again (as is usually the case in quick A/B comparisons)? As a consequence, it’s becoming more and more difficult for you as a listener to concentrate on the differences, because - if you like it or not - your brain sets your priorities for you. In other words, it will soon “lose interest” in what it’s already all too familiar with, even if the differences are clearly audible, but all the more if they’re difficult to discern anyway.

To sum up, from a neurological point of view quick A/B comparisons aren’t a recommendable method of auditioning audio equipment.


Thanks for your extremely well-written post. May I ask what you would recommend instead?

I rely on A/B comparisons for electronics and to a lesser degree speakers. I have a strong preference for a mellow top end so comparing equipment makes sense. I can eliminate pieces I find bright. Also a lot of retailer’ listening spaces are horrible, so a relative comparison is all you can do.

Other than that, I’ve combined two other principals, Linn’s and a generic bit of advice. Linn recommends relaxing and listening to full albums or works and noting how you enjoy the experience and how long you can happily be in the listening seat. The other advice I follow is to go to lots of concerts. If a system can convincingly reproduce live music, what else could you want?

Here is the thing, I didn’t know what I wanted but I liked the Meridian design philosophy and when I first cobbled some peices together, I liked the musicality.
Meridian A500 passive speakers, a NAD Amp and a 541 controller. Then I found some M30 MK2 actives. Still love them, still have them.
You have to remember, it was a different world and I had almost no money. I have stuck with Meridian Actives. I now have M60, M33’s G61 R controller. The sound is just great.

Nowadays I am active in promoting and hosting live music. We put on great international live acts in an intimate environment. We use a Mackie digital PA system driven by qualified sound engineers. Luckily I get to film these shows and so experience the sound checks and shows.
This experience has informed my knowledge greatly as to what top musicians expect and how providing it reflects in the subsequent performance.
From these experiences I have never been disappointed with my Hi Fi (Meridian and Bluesound) using quality live sound as a reference. We record our shows at 24/48 and have 32 channels to play with. The mixed/Mastered results sound great. They take me back to the event. It’s magic when you capture the energy and feel of a show and when we do, my system delivers it.



I think what HoRoJa was referring to in his post was multiple quick A/B comparisons, which (as he pointed out) don’t make much sense because of the way the human brain is known to work. I can’t imagine anyone would seriously reject any kind of comparison among components. (Please correct me if I misunderstood you, HoRoJa).

To me this sounds like a good way to solve the problem connected with multiple quick A/B comparisons.

From this I would conclude that it’s always best to audition the equipment at home before you buy it. But this doesn’t answer the following questions: How do you decide which components you take with you in order to test them in your own four walls? Should customers do any listening in the store? If so, how should they proceed? After they have selected something, how should they proceed at home?

I think you have to just listen for long periods. If you get fatigued, something is wrong.
As I understand it, the brain is great at compensating and this can be proved by the people who happily put up with MP3 on cheap systems.
They sound superficially great but the compensation in your brain is work even if your not consciously aware of it and eventually you tire, stop listening, turn it down. You’ve had enough Music time to move on.

With a good system, I find you can listen all the time tirelessly. That’s it.

1 Like

That’s what I believe, too. I’m a pianist. If somebody asked me to find out which of two pianos I like better, I certainly wouldn’t hit three keys on the first instrument, then jump to the second one and repeat the whole thing over and over again. No musician would ever do that. Such a decision takes some time (not usually ages, though). I know this isn’t exactly the same, but it might give people an idea why quick A/B comparisons aren’t very useful. It’s all about if you ENJOY the music or not…

Let’s change that and say that brain is very good at signalling change/novelty and that this is conserved because of its high survival value. That means that A/B comparisons will allow a listener to readily detect a difference but that assessing the qualitative components of that difference requires longer exposures and other brain mechanisms.

I think this is misleading. The musical content may be repeated but the CNS is signalling change by detecting the contrast between A and B. That, even if repeated will still occur. Of course, if one is not attending to the process, the mind will wander but that is an issue of attention, not perception. All one needs to do is decide to pay attention and the contrast (if there was one) will be detected. So, if one gets bored with this, do something else for a while.

It is an excellent way to detect the existence of a difference but not a way to appreciate the value or the subtle nature of that difference.

(from a semi-retired :grinning: neurobiologist)

GREAT! :grinning::grinning::grinning:

Good discussion. I attended an in-shop demo of the Kii Three speakers a couple of months back and got talking to the product manager about how to trial them at home. He strongly advised me not to attempt an A/B comparison with my current speakers, in the sense of switching quickly between them. Instead, his advice was to listen to each set of speakers for several periods of at least a day or two. That does indeed seem to be best practice for auditioning systems.



In my post I was referring to problems connected with the following method of auditioning audio gear:

A customer in a Hifi store keeps switching back and forth between two audio components in order to find out which of the two “sounds better” (cf. tip 9 from the above internet link). For all his comparisons he uses the same part of a familiar test track.

In your comment on my post you wrote:

In my example not only the musical content is repeated over and over again, but also the same difference(s) in sound quality.

You cannot divorce perception and attention like that. Very clearly, what a listener hears and how well he hears it largely depends on what he is capable of directing his attention to. In fact, my example has very little to do with a “wandering mind”. Stimulus repetition progressively leads to reduced neural activity. Repeated exposure to an auditory stimulus (same music) with predictable variation (same differences in SQ) progressively leads to reduced attention. Processing novelty and change demands levels of attention that become unnecessary and therefore counterproductive (!) with repeated encounters.

In the above sense, you cannot spontaneously decide to be capable of focusing your attention on something. The repetition-related effect I am referring to must not be confused with a lack of attention or an attention deficit. It is a very healthy and necessary process. There are many names for it. One of them is adaptation.


Could you elaborate on this “adaptation effect” a little? Are you saying that after multiple repetitions you can no longer discern any differences — even if they actually exist?

I always do both A/B comparisons and longer term uninterrupted auditions. They provide different information.

1 Like

Yes, if neither is varied, then the ability to detect differences will fade. My recommendation for A/B comparisons is to vary the program content in order to maintain sensitivity.

Yes, fundamentally, adaptation and/or habituation. However, dis-habituation can be easily evoked by changing the stimulus or by introducing a novel one. That is why repeated and unvarying A/B trials lose effectiveness but effectiveness can be maintained by changing the program content between trials.

After all, this process should not be to hear a difference on only a particular musical passage but to flag differences between the speakers (or other devices).

1 Like

One thing to be aware of where auditioning systems is the power of the brain at filling in missing details. Often when playing a song that is familiar to a listener on a high-end system, they will hear something new in the song. For example, a faint cowbell, a distant triangle, or a soft whisper of a word. This happens a lot with Hi-Res vs MP3 versions of a song.

The problem is that when you listen to the lesser system, or MP3, you can clearly hear the newly discovered thing. This is because there is enough of a hint of the sound there that your brain is able to take the cue and you “hear” it.

Take this information with a grain of salt tho as I don’t have any scientific studies to prove this, just years of doing demos for people.



That is a phenomenon to indeed be aware of.

1 Like

The only thing I really trust is hearing something new on familiar material.

I find that rapid A-B’ing (if practicable) is possible on short segments with lots of concentration, but it’s hard and prone to memory effect and fatigue.