Effect of Ageing on Audiophile Preferences
The following are some thoughts I’ve had on the potential effects of ageing on audiophile preferences in audio equipment, and how ageing has influenced the audio industry. My comments are not meant to cast any aspersion on older people (I am old), but to stimulate thought and discussion.
Recently I have been wondering how our audio preferences change over time due to normal ageing. Some questions that have sparked my curiosity are: 1) Why do audio systems that used to thrill us lose their magic, while new systems may astound us like a breath of fresh air?; 2) Are the latest versions of top-rated equipment (amps, preamps, cables, loudspeakers, etc.) really better than the previous versions?; 3) Why do some reviewers proclaim a component their new reference standard only to replace it with a new reference a few years later?; 4) Why does there seem to be a greater emphasis on frequency extremes (deeper bass and extended top end) in product design and marketing?; 5) What is it about tubes that make them particularly pleasant to listen to? Could changes in our hearing due to ageing at least partially answer these questions?
Think of it. What do you see when you go to a high-end audio show? Mainly older, affluent males who have listened to high-end audio gear their entire professional lives, being catered to by equally ageing equipment designers, manufacturers and salesmen. It seems logical that as the hearing of these folks (myself included) changes with age, that deliberate or even accidental tonal changes in the design of the components can make them more appealing to us. To test my hypothesis, one could assemble a group of younger listeners to double-blind audition earlier top-rated gear and compare to later versions of the same brand of similar build quality. I wonder what the conclusions of such an experiment would be.
When I was a kid I remember my 40-year old father ramping up the volume on the Magnavox hi-fi to play loudly a trumpet orchestral piece to impress guests. He thought it sounded wonderful, but I cringed and had to cover my ears to shield them from the pain of top-end distortion. When I was in my early twenties my new Sony television emitted a continuous, shrill, high-pitched sound that was utterly driving me crazy. I took the TV to a repair shop and the middle-aged technician could not hear the sound, while I could hear it loud and clear. I had to exchange the TV for a whole new unit. In my early thirties I invested in my first stereo system. Among the amplifiers that I tried was a very expensive, highly-rated all tube unit that the 50-ish audio store salesman and hi-fi magazine reviewers said easily bested anything on the market. Well, I could not stand the shrill and piercing sound, tilted uncomfortably toward the treble end of the spectrum. He told me the amp would settle down with burn-in. I wasn’t going to take a chance … I returned it to the disbelieving salesman. These were my first clues that older people have a more attenuated hearing range than younger people, which is demonstrated in their audio preferences.
I have subsequently researched and learned that a healthy young person’s hearing range is 20 to 20,000 Hz, and as wide as 12 to 28,000 Hz in laboratory conditions. Men lose 5 to 10 dB in the upper frequencies by age 40, and the loss continues with additional age. By the time we are middle-aged the upper limit reduces to 12,000 to 14,000 Hz. Beyond middle age, our sensitivity to frequency extremes at both ends continues to decline. Some of us are blessed in our older years with better hearing and listening skills than others; even so, an older person’s “golden ear” cannot compete with a youngster forever.
So, where is this leading? I’m guessing that part of our need to “upgrade” as we get older may have something to do with our need for greater emphasis on the frequency extremes, something we miss from our younger years when our hearing sensitivity was greater. But there’s more to the story than just range sensitivity. Our hearing changes in other ways. Biological changes in the inner ear and our brains affect how clearly we hear and how well we sort out sounds. Could it be that vacuum tubes have a filtering effect that makes it easier for our ageing ears and brains to process sounds, thereby promoting a sense of clarity and resolution? We know that tube circuits can filter out or favor certain harmonics and distortions, altering the character and intelligibility of the sound. Tube designs can also “warm” the sound by filtering out undesirable noise in the upper registers that confuses ageing brains. Whatever tubes do, they seem to have a greater appreciation by older people than by youngsters who are quite happy with music delivered through their miniature solid state devices.
Think back in your own experiences. What once sounded phenomenal to your younger ears now sounds lackluster. The greatest amp or loudspeaker you ever heard a few years later is no longer the greatest amp or loudspeaker you ever heard. Are the components used to build amps and loudspeakers that much better today than a few years ago? Or is the difference more in how they are fine-tuned by older engineers to fit the ears of themselves and those of older reviewers and consumers?
I would like to hear what other forum members think of my hypothesis.