by Jack Sharkey for KEF

 

We humans have binaural hearing – we have two ears. The position of our ears on our heads helps us determine direction, distance, time and to a lesser extent frequency response. Therefore, it stands to reason that our heads are an integral component of our hearing. Logically it would seem that if we change anything about the shape of our head, we will change how things sound to us. 

 

FussyI’m very fussy about sound. It’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing when I’m trying to get the most out of an audio system or room, but mostly a curse when I just want to kick back and listen to some music.

 

I also don’t take part in arguments about cable, speaker placement, or anything audio enthusiasts love to debate. I know the rules, I have a fair understanding of the science, I know the guidelines, I know what gear is good and what isn’t, but I also know there is far more to sound than meets the ear. All of the subjective unknowns that go far beyond the “settled science” of audio really can’t be debated properly – there is just too much we still don’t know.

 

A few months back some acquaintances had a bit of fun at the expense of a slight eccentricity I insist is a real thing, but that admittedly seems a little odd to most people – except me. I don’t like to listen to music with my glasses on. There, I said it. This is not some made up thing, it is a thing I can verify over and over again. To me it’s real – and I’m the most cynical person I know.

 

When I remove my glasses, I can subjectively say the soundstage becomes wider and “opens up.” AsGlass What? a person of science, my first take is that this is non-sense, but also, as a person of science I am compelled to listen to what my windows to the world – my senses – tell me. My sense of hearing tells me emphatically that with my glasses on the soundstage becomes smaller, maybe slightly hazy and not as sharply defined. Like my acquaintances who used this revelation as an excuse to question my sanity, you are probably right now thinking that I am completely out of my mind.

 

That’s cool, I really can’t argue with you except to say, I hear what I hear, and even though the change is subtle depending on the quality of the recording, it is consistent.

 

Confirmation bias? Psychoacoustics? Imagination? I don’t know and I don’t care. To me, when I take my glasses off the improvement in what I hear is consistent and describable. I have spent my ten thousand hours learning how to listen to a soundstage and learning how to critically listen to music, and apparently the result of all this work is that it all sounds better when I take my glasses off. There is a thing called Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) that pretty much explains what I am experiencing. HRTF describes the response of our ears when a sound reaches our heads. Our ears and ear canals (obviously!) all affect how we perceive sound, but so do our nasal and oral cavities as well as the shape and size of our head. What this means is that our individual aural processing has developed to hear sound accurately after taking into account all of the variances in our physiology. If we change any one of those parameters our hearing shifts slightly. So take that people who scoff!

 

Snake OilThis is why I never argue with anyone about what they hear. Of course, I hate that snake oil merchants are an accepted part of our industry, but when it comes to legit levels of quality and subjectivity, there is far too much to the subtle science of audio to dismiss out of hand someone else’s experience with sound. If you wear glasses, try an experiment the next time you are listening intently to your music and listen with them on and off. I can’t be the only one…

 

 

 

Jack Sharkey is the Senior Technical Engineer for KEF America, and a frequent contributor to this blog. He is also a lifelong self-described "fussy listener."