Golden Ears and the Power of Money and Eyes

I am a subjectivist to the extent that I find it absurd to argue that you should prefer measurements to your own ears. On the other hand, I find it equally absurd to believe that you should only trust your ears, as we perceive sound through our wallets and eyes as much as through our ears. (I won’t even mention unconscious biases) And I find certain claims made by the golden ears crowd even more absurd (or at the very least highly dubious.)

I have two questions:

  1. Are some ears so good that they can detect the most minute sound differences?
  2. Is more expensive always better? Does an über-expensive system deliver the sonic goods or is it rather a matter of self-indulgence and expression of socio-economic status?

Here are links to interesting tests on the merits of a Stradivarius (the most expensive violin by far) and some moderately priced modern violins. Mind, the modern instruments are not cheap. My belief is that there will be clear differences between cheap(ish) and expensive ware. But once you’ve reached a certain figure of £/$/€, the differences become non-existent except in the minds of the wealthy and golden-eared crowd.

For those who don’t feel like reading the articles, here’s a crisp summary. The violinists (highly trained) were unable to separate the aristocratic Stradivarius from the commoners. What’s more, most violinist preferred the sound of the modern instruments.

Isn’t there an important lesson to be learned for audio gear? What exactly is that lesson? I very much hope for a nuanced discussion.


And how do you defend paying absurd money for those differences?

You pose a few relevant questions here and they are, of course, just as impossible to answer as"which product sounds best"!

But i fully agree that the price of a product will establish it’s users status in social circumstances, such as this fora. And of course “pride of ownership” can account for a good feeling while enjoying a certain product.

To be quite honest, i have a feeling that whatever stance you take, your choices will be based more in the psychological effects of what you hear, what status a product (or abscence of) provides.
Much more so that how a product actually “sounds”…

1 Like

In my experience no, not always. I’ve heard pricey kit that sounded very average, albeit usually in poor environments. Better kit generally costs more. Like most things diminishing returns set in also.

You don’t always get what you pay for so research and auditions are important.


‘I know better’ often has the ability to cock up the sound. Anyway what does the designer know?

The lesson is that a blind test is required before making credible claims whenever bias may be involved.


I thought about this a bit this morning. I suspect the end-to-end accuracy of mid-range audio systems exceeded the setup abilities of most audio/music enthusiasts years ago. By this, I mean that performance has been limited by the room and person setting things up rather than the gear. Folks keep buying more and more expensive gear and accessories, when they, themselves, have been the bottleneck to their systems performance all along.

Specifically, I’m referring to 2-channel loudspeaker + room systems since there’s less to go wrong with headphones systems. By “mid-range”, I mean components (from this decade) that cost hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

Most modern loudspeaker manufacturers are shooting for accuracy rather than a certain flavor or color. Same is true for amplifiers and sources. While products that are “colored” with a particular house sound are still being made, they are less common/popular, which I consider to be progress towards wider acceptance of fidelity over flavor.


If you take a look at one of the articles linked from the article you’ll see that the violinists could distinguish between the various violins:

"The consistency of results from session to session showed that soloists could definitely distinguish one violin from another. "

In other words, they could tell the difference, they just couldn’t pick out which were which. So I guess this goes someway to answering your first question: yes, some ears are that good, but I suspect this is more to do with training and familiarity than any sort of inherently ‘golden’ ability.

Is more expensive always better?

There’s a great section is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance regarding shims, and while it isn’t specifically concerned with cost, it does speak to the notion of perceived value, i.e. for something to be considered valuable it needs to have provenance, to have been carefully designed to fulfil a specific purpose, and so on. I suspect that the value of most “über-expensive” systems arises from beliefs that are not too dissimilar.

A smaller scale example: look at any of the recent discussions in this forum regarding power cables, ethernet gizmos, or any number of other really expensive bits of networking gear. In each case, if you believe the hype, they have been designed by people who “care”, by people who are providing equipment that is better suited to the audiophile environment, by people who understand all the subtleties of audiophile listening (and so on, and so on). Surely such lovingly crafted items are better than the run of the mill ones knocked out by a factory in China? It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Well, no, not really.

I think that what I’m trying to say is that it’s not so much “a matter of self-indulgence and expression of socio-economic status” as it is a belief that good things can only be produced in certain ways. A bit like saying that an artisanal product must be better than a mass produced one, or that something designed to fulfil a role within a specific environment must, by definition, be inherently better than a more generic item.

Reading back through my comment I’m not sure I expressed my point all that well (mostly because I’m not 100% clear on what I’m trying to say), but hopefully it makes some sense in this context.


I think there’s also an issue here of how/where you listen.
Would the violinists do better if they heard someone else playing and were sitting in the audience?

Violins sound different to the player vs how they sound to the audience. This may influence what people hear/think they hear.

1 Like

This is an unawerable question.

I have no doubt that certain individuals have super ears , some one must have , but like many bodily things they will deteriorate over time and in a “unquantifiable way”

Medical hearing tests measure a limited frequency “response” in those “beep acoustic booths “ etc

My situation is common I suspect , as I age I can afford more outlay on super hi fi but can I detect it, at 71 I fear not , I will be lucky if I can hear above 7khz , maybe less. I have just gone through a “want want want phase” looking a a new headphone amp but I came to the conclusion, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I will buy a new one when my current one fails.

I can only look at new kit that improves convenience etc so a new NUC ROCK fits that bill but as to whether it will sound better , I doubt it (in theory no, in the digital domain)

The inevitable quandary , a 20 year old with perfect hearing , little disposable income , little interest in spending time listening to appreciate the quality of kit . Compared with an oldie with all the time in the world to listen with shot hearing

Thankfully music is the common denominator, however golden the ears

The ramblings of a retired audiophile :smiling_imp:


As mentioned, the violinists couldn’t hear the price difference but certainly the difference in sound. So I guess that all the blind tests prove is that contemporary violin makers are good but they are not making violins identical to a Stradivarius one.
Regarding price I’m sure that you normally get better sound from expensive stuff, but not in proportion cost/SQ.

1 Like

Yes, that’s true. What I find interesting is that they didn’t pick out the Stradivarius as the best instrument – although we’ve been told for centuries that a Stradivarius is the nec plus ultra of violins (and violinists the world over have always agreed).
That they were able to hear differences between the various instruments shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we’re speaking here of highly trained musicians whose instruments have become extensions of their very selves. I’m afraid that we can’t make such a claim for those audiophiles who believe they can hear the haziest of differences when it comes to cables, interconnects, and DACs for instance.

Doesn’t that make for the conclusion that when it comes to über-end HIFI, sound comes a definite second to other considerations? Sociologically speaking, is very expensive gear best understood as the membership fee you pay for a very select club, which then allows you to feel good about yourself (as a highly refined audiophile with golden ears)?


I tend to agree. Of course, those in the business of buying very expensive gear would never admit that they are the problem. Can this be understood psychologically as a denial of human limitations?


There clearly are options to spend tons of avail money for. Though it’s more on speakers and the room nowadays. Amps and digital sources are avail in outstanding quality for quite affordable prices.

1 Like

This is why deep brain stimulation is so important to the future of high-fidelity music! With enough wires in the brain you won’t need ears and those pesky fiddly fragile little hair cells of those incredibly engineered organs.

Neuralink is gearing up for clinical trials right now. You might want to contact them to get on the waiting list.

1 Like

I think sound is definitely still coming first, at least notionally, but the judgement of that sound is tainted by a whole host of psychological and sociological factors that aren’t acknowledged. Put another way, I’m splitting hairs about the way you phrased it, but I agree that it’s these other considerations that are more salient.


I propose a slightly different take.

When I hear or read of audiophiles going on and on about the amazing improvements they hear in their audio systems when they change a cable or power chord I always have to ask whether or not they are confusing “different” with “improved” and “slight” with “amazing”.

Then there is the general misunderstanding amongst audiophiles that an audio playback system (aka stereo) is a scientifically engineered collection of electrical devices and are not pieces of art. Electrical and digital signals obey well known and understood natural laws and are not subject to voodoo or other claims of “magic”.

Now within these natural laws there are many different ways to apply these laws which can result in a very poor sounding audio system or result in an absolutely stunning sounding system. For example the wrong power amplifier can make a great set of speakers sound lackluster. And once again it is the misunderstanding of what exactly is the “wrong” equipment that makes audiophiles appear to be audiophools.

Next there is there is the tendency to treat digital audio with the same rules that have been successfully applied to analog audio. One sees this everyday here on the Roon Community. Simply put a Roon endpoint is not the same a phono cartridge and as such the differences between endpoints are not the same as the differences between phono cartridges.

And finally there is the concept of how often that difference (if there even is a difference) can be heard. For example an expensive subwoofer that is capable of producing really deep low bass may only be needed for 1% of one’s music collection. So can one afford to spend the money to have that subwoofer in one’s system for those rare occasions when it’s needed? If so then by all means go for it but please don’t tell us that a less expensive subwoofer does not sound as good because for the remaining 99% of one’s music the two subwoofers will sound the same.


While socio-economic considerations no doubt have an influence on the purchase of the HiFi equipment “high quality sound” should be the ultimate goal. However, that goal is heavily influenced by other factors such as appearance, materials used in construction, touch, feel (finish) & marketing hype, not forgetting price etc. etc.
In the best case scenario, new equipment will offer an “improvement” in sound quality but it can be the same or worse than the predecessors, a listener’s purchasing decision is made which marketeers take advantage of.
At times technology often offers little or no benefit to the end user other than pride of ownership (nothing wrong with that). A £25K Rolex watch will not indicate time any better than a £200 Tissot Quartz watch but both sell in large numbers and no doubt have very happy owners. Expensive may not be better in terms of time keeping but in terms of engineering standards & materials used the Rolex will “have the edge.”
Should we not, as owners, be at ease with our Audio devices and enjoy the Art they reproduce irrespective of the criteria that we use to make our purchasing (& listening) decisions?….


Great questions, yet a part of the answer on your first qustion depends on your meaning of ‘minute’.

I think you can distinguish some things yourself too.
If you’d go to an audio show and can sit in a demo only on the extreme left or right side of all the chairs available, you’ll notice that the staging is a bit off centre, isn’t it?
The people setting up the listening room are also doing their best to make the set sound as good as possible. They should have some skills based on their hearing abilities.
The moment you get the opportunity to sit in the ‘sweet spot’ you should then notice a/the difference.

Or as another example, when I listen to interviews in documentaries about artists I like, I’m fascinated about all the things that other musicians can tell about the way of playing of their colleague. I don’t play instruments at all and it amazes me what musicians can distinguish. So I’d say the answer to your question is yes.

Here the answer is IMHO maybe, or ‘not necessarily’.
At the end, it is a system that you need to put together.
So by definition, at least system alignment needs to be achieved and if possible system synergy (the 1+1=3 part). Putting randomly expensive gear together rarely gets you there.

Personally, I wished My First Sony would have given the same sonic experience I have now, so I didn’t need to spend that much money. As for social-economic status, my friends don’t care and the wives of my best friends strongly disapprove what I do, so there we are.

More expensive gear may or may not always sound better, but equipment that sounds better will always be more expensive.


I wish I had more time but… yes and no.

1 Like