How to listen to assess gear in your system

After having experimented with many small (and bigger) changes in my system in the last year or so, i would like to ask how you folks assess gear in your system in your home. Especially gear or tweaks which potentially have an incremental effect on performance (for the worse or for the better). I know that for some people here some upgrades will be labeled as night & day while they are incremental for others.

We need to get rid of a lot bias to assess correctly. Probably almost nobody here does blind testing. We all read things which influence our decisions and set our expectations. We also cannot trust our aural memory. We (as humans) are also experts in making up various things in our minds to justify this or that choice. We also relegate some unexplainable day to day improvements or deteriorations in sound to firmware updates, ethernet, mains variations, long-time burn in or whatever makes us confortable and gives us an explanation as to why something sounds different than the other day.

So here are a few questions to start the discussion:

  • what do you listen for within a track you know well? What is your focus? Do you listen repeatedely to the same track and look for bass, soundstage, imaging, coherence etc. one at a time. Do you focus on one part of the track which is especially dynamic and see how it handled? Do you try to store this information and go back and forth between A and B?
  • do you take notes?
  • do you volume match your gear if comparing different sources or amplifiers?
  • are you comparing more in the short or long term?

Would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.


I try to keep any upgrade as simple an exercise as possible.

  1. Go to dealer and hear the part, what ever it is, in a system as close to your one at home.
  2. Home demo for a week if possible. Just listen as much as you can.
  3. By now you should be reaching a conclusion.
  4. Part is returned to dealer and existing one re-instated.
  5. Do you miss it? If yes, and you have the funds then its time buy. If you don’t miss it you have saved yourself some money.

With Naim I have never experienced a lower level product sounding better so for me its safe ground to upgrade within the Naim system. Cables I put them in and then listen to music as I normally would. Sometimes there are annoyances in the presentation (to me) and then I take them out and if they disappear I do not upgrade.

I tried a whole load of Chord cables inc Music and loved some aspects of them but could not live with others. If I used a set of test tracks then maybe I would have bought them. My music taste is varied and I just finding listening normally gives me the best results.

There is almost always something better anyway so upgrading from an upgrade happens naturally for most of us so not worth getting too scientific over it in my opinion.

Its just music at the end of the day and if your choice of music sounds better to your ears/mind with a new box/cable/whatever then it sounds better. If you look for HiFi better then you maybe on a different road me anyway. I just want my choice of music to sound as engaging as possible.




I have gone through a fairly substantial upgrade path this past year and I have used the same familiar tracks on both vinyl and streaming, and listened for both changes and similarities. Dependent on the upgrade component I then compare by substituting into a system where everything else stays the same. I then ‘test’ with any second component I want to introduce. In this way I am trying to find the differences on the first component before matching it to any second component where it may actually perform better. eg. I tried the SC/252 on my original A5’s to find the differences introduced, before then swapping the A5’s out for the D9.2’s.

Surprised no one has used the term "serious " or “critical listening” yet…always entertaining .


Why is that?

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Listen for any differences. No particular focus as I would have known how a particular track would sound like having played it many times over. Having said that, differences I usually perceive when swapping amps are;

  1. Overall presentation (looser/diffused/rounded/smeared sound or more focused/solid/defined edges)
  2. Overall clarity and detail
  3. Bass quality where the difference is partly due to the current capability of the amp in driving the speakers(mushy, soft or smeared bass may indicate underpowered amp whilst defined and textured bass with wallop and punch may suggest adequate power)
  4. Treble quality. For instance with piano, either a more lit or luminated energy where the decay of notes hang in the air, or the decay is cut short and notes do not sound as lit which contribute to a duller sound.
  5. Tone of instruments
  6. Sound of percussion, some sound like the real thing, some sound metallic or like tin can
  7. Thwack of drums. Some sound sharp and real, some sound duller without sting

I don’t usually listen to the same track because it is a chore to keep swapping speaker cables between amps whilst listening to the same track. The amp needs time to warm up too for critical evaluation. I don’t focus on one part of the track, usually the whole track as described above.
I rarely take notes but I previously did take some. No volume matching.

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Only someone who does it would ask.

I just demoed an NDX2, and it was quite simple to compare against my ND5 XS2 playing the same streamed track, and switching channels.

I expect it would be quite easy to be trained to hear the difference, but you know what, I really don’t want to know how, as there is a danger that you are always listening for precision, rather than enjoying the music. So I sort or just trust my ears and the feeling I get when listening.


My tried and trusted method is to play a few records or CDs and if it sounds better than before the change, I just keep on playing more records and CDs! :smiley:

This hifi lark is pretty simple if you want it to be. :wink:


I listen to a range of tracks covering the music styles I like (classical to heavy rock, including clear female vocal and piano, and with full range music including deep bass), and just try to decide which sounds better.

It is critical to volume match as far as possible.

I do find it a difficult task, perhaps because I really struggle to focus on tiny things in the music to remember and compare, instead tending to get drawn into the music.

When auditioning at home, once I have reached a point of having decided which is better, unless so blindingly obvious that a near-deaf person would recognise (but such big differences are rareI engage one of my sons to swap over(or not) for blind listening as confirmation. He enjoys the challenge of trying to catch me out - e.g. volume matching, but sometimes one, sometimes the other a tad louder. If no evident difference whichever is lowest cost to me wins.


In general I find Linns Tune-dem method very useful. I run a few simple pop tracks and end up with complex modern chamber music by Berg and Takemitsu.

There are brands you can trust to a certain degree, for me it is mostly Naim.

Thanks for sharing your experience. Probably trying to listen as whole is the best way to do this, as overall coherence leads to better enjoyment of the music. I think i may have zoomed in too far sometimes to get a proper evulation.


Yeah that is a sign that you enjoy presentation A better than presentation B. At the end that is what counts.

Sometimes i think it is not easy to hear differences. They may be so subtle that once the mind gets something to hook on, it will continiously search for these cues and probably find them, leading to a certain biased conclusion. If the conclusion at the end is: i do not hear a difference, than it is safe to say that staying with the cheaper and/or more practicable option is the way to go.

Ultimately i understand that whatever works for someone at whatever cost gets a justification. Maybe i am too much of an “optimiser” wanting always to be at the threshold between best cost to performance ratio. Of course my system is already way above it and dimishing returns have already found its way into it.

Interesting, i will look it up. Thanks!

It’s good to keep an open mind. I admit most changes for me has been piecemeal. Things really only changing and getting better subtly to taste.
Although I am optimistic that perhaps something can come my way that could question things and push me to re-evaluate.

It’s a really difficult call - particularly as I guess most of us have days where our system sounds a a bit off or a bit better on a day for no apparent reason. I think most of us are pretty good at picking up ‘gains’ - better bass, soundstage, treble, etc. - but I bet none of us ever pick up, on an initial listen at least, any downsides. It is down to expectation bias - we think we know what improvements we are seeking so we tend to hear them (unless they are not there at all) and miss or ignore any downsides. To do things properly you probably need a proper extended blind comparison - preferably at home. Not an easy thing.

I presume that is just as a tool forming part of your assessment? The reason for my querying is because one of your compatriots used to push that in discussions over comparisons, seemingly as the be-all and end-all of the comparison: if you can follow the tune better through item X, then it is the better item. But if I understand correctly, Tune-dem only addresses sound quality from the angle of following the tune, yet there are many other aspects that contribute to its sound quality playing music.