How to listen to loudspeakers

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the era when you and all your friends spent significant fractions of your disposable income on audio gear. The goal was to have a stereo system that was louder, more clear, and more accurate than the next guy. It was an endless pursuit of audio perfection.

We’ve slipped away from that over the last couple of decades, but there are signs that people of all ages are again becoming hip to the joys of high fidelity music. I’m talking about listening to music through proper amps and finely-crafted speakers. Source material comes from heavyweight vinyl, CDs, and high-resolution audio files. MP3s and Beats headphones? Blasphemy.

Maybe you’re rediscovering this kind of audio. But what does it sound like? One should one listen for? How can you judge gear designed to deliver this kind of listening experience?

Start with this article from

I have been listening critically to audio systems, especially to amps driving loudspeakers, since the late 1960s; since my friend Bill Brier forced me to compare a tubed Dynaco Stereo 70 amplifier to a solid-state Dynaco Stereo 120. We played saxophone jazz, piano concertos, and Bach organ music through Brier’s Dynaco A50 loudspeakers… and listened for, what Brier called, “A proper ten octaves.”

I was 17, Brier was five years older. I helped him build drag-race cars and nitro-burning motorbikes. He played acoustic bass in a jazz band and tuned pianos for a living. On top of all that, he had taught himself to play every instrument in the classical orchestra and memorized the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach.

His favorite thing was to drive his 1958 MGA (powered by a Chevy mouse motor) to places like Boston or Philadelphia; where he would break into churches and play Bach fugues on real pipe organs. Every time they arrested him he protested, “I have a right to play this organ! Because I can!” Brier believed his talent and intelligence placed him above the law. So did I.

The beauty of my first critical listening day was how my older friend guided my attention by explaining the meanings of words like timbre, frequency, octave, and harmonics. Brier explained how a classical organ concerto contains ten full octaves of sound that are exponentially related and how I should be aware of these intervals while listening to recordings. During the comparison, he explained counterpoint, then played one E. Power Biggs recording after another – with rapid-fire pontificating and gesturing towards the vibrating air between the large Dynacos.

You really need to keep going.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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