Some time ago I realized something that quickly became my most valuable tool for the aural evaluation of high end audio equipment. I thought I would share it with you today. I call it my “ Three Second Rule".
Many years ago, I brought home a new set of elaborate mono block amplifiers with matching preamplifier from a very well respected high end manufacturer. These pieces were very expensive and beautifully made. One of the most expensive combinations of the day and certainly very expensive for me!
I was so excited! My listening room was large and properly treated. The setup of all the equipment went perfectly! I had Magnepan Tympani IV loudspeakers and a Roksan Xerxes turntable and the new equipment … well that will remain nameless for the purpose of this story! Setting up the amplifiers took much physical effort due to their weight as you can imagine. I let everything warm up … as we audiophiles do … making sure everything settled in and achieved thermal equilibrium. For that hour I waited what seemed like the longest hour of my life! Time was now upon me … to lower the stylus into that music rich groove and bask in this new sound experience - which had to be great, right, as all the reviewers adored this equipment. I listened for a few songs not knowing how I really felt … then got up to change the record. During the silence my wife called to me and said: “What did you do to your stereo system, something has changed … and it sounds awful”?
I was dumbfounded. How could this be? This system is all the rage … and lets not forget all the reviewers loved these. I can’t believe this, she must be wrong! Now Marilyn has incredible hearing and has spent thousands of hours with me enjoying all of my systems so the possibility of her being wrong is very remote. So what was happening for her to think this? It needs more time to break-in I surmised - so I will leave it for another four hours, that should do it! Then Marilyn will hear the potential of this system I am certain!
Four hours later I invited Marilyn to the listening room with me to witness the transformation from the system she thought was awful to the beautiful music making system it has to be. She was upstairs last time so this will make a big difference I thought! The stylus hits the groove and within maybe one or two grooves she says: “This just isn’t working David” … she leaves the room! What the heck (I said to myself)!
Well, with Marilyn now gone, I sat alone and listened to two, maybe three, more songs. I then realized what was happening. Marilyn was absolutely right! Much to my chagrin, this very expensive improvement was not an improvement at all! What is wrong with me?
I know nothing was wrong with my hearing - it was my conscious brain miss-firing! Truth be told, I wanted to adore these new products so much that I was listening past the disappointments. I wasn’t really listening properly at all! Deep down I knew what I was hearing and it was not good at all - but I just needed to like it so much! After all, I had just spent a small fortune buying this highly rated system and it had to be great right? Wrong!!
Hence my audio epiphany which I call: “My Three Second Rule”. The first three seconds of listening to any system is all one needs to judge how good the system is! Longer than this and the brain starts to fill in the blanks to make up for short comings. Statements such as: “I really like the woody cello sound … listen to that detail … or the imaging is spectacular”! All elements that are probably true but brought to prominence as a result of deficiencies elsewhere in the presentation so you go looking for the goodness. The longer you listen, the greater your conscious mind attempts to rationalize or adapt to the deficiencies. Perfection is perfection nonetheless! Using your knowledge bank of learned sounds, my thesis dictates absolute truth is known in not more than three seconds. Beyond that your brain is just trying to justify your purchasing prowess.
The ‘Three Second Rule’ is worth its weight in gold and I highly recommend it. It may take some time and initially feel somewhat cavalier but after a few attempts you will learn to trust your “gut feel”! I have been purchasing serious high end audio equipment for more than 15 years before I finally learned the hard way. As I reflect back, I realize I could have saved so much money over all those years and avoided all those audio detours - not to say all the great listening I sacrificed as a result! All I need now is three seconds and I know whether this is a musical system or not! I don’t even bother to rationalize why … if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t!
My best advice is: “The clock may be still ticking for some, but old dogs can learn new tricks … it just took me 15 years … but that was 25 years ago and a lot of great equipment and beautiful music along the way”!