Listening Skills or Innate Ability

In another thread both @81dave and @j1hampton (aka Allan) commented that adding a PP3 to their systems significantly improved SQ. I took this to mean something obvious.
With this in mind I came across a YouTube conversation between Steve Guttenberg and Herb Reichert where they at different times suggested conflicting opinions that changes in gear should be both obvious and subtle. The subject of the conversation was diminishing returns in audio investment, which is why I tuned in.
Guttenberg’s comment suggested purchasing a more expensive component (setting aside any price/quality correlation) creates the opportunity to recognize subtleties as your listening skills improve - kind of like growing into a house (and the payments).
Reichert’s comments seemed to suggest the opposite. At one point he stated “If it’s subtle it’s not real.” In another comment, he emphasized this ideal by stating differences should be obvious. In fairness this comment concluded a lesson he was offering to someone attending an audio show who questioned the value of a $95K amplifier. Paraphrasing his story he advised the attendee to go out and listen to two other setups then walk back in. If the difference isn’t obvious then the $95K amp has no value to the attendee.
This value question is what I’m struggle with because my relatively little experience seems to tell me that things that others hear aren’t so obvious to me. One time I heard something in one piece of gear that I didn’t hear in another - undertones in Roger Water’s voice through a $2500 Arcam AVR that I didn’t hear through a Marantz AVR of half the cost. My other times I’m not hear what other explain.
So which is it? Subtle, obvious or both?
Edit: spelling/grammar


I think I tend toward Herb Reichert’s opinion in this case, although I have a lot of respect for Guttenberg as well. I struggled for years trying to justify the cost of upgrading my system based on so called experts opinions and reviews. Usually the difference that I could hear was so subtle it was non-existent. Even something like CD quality versus SACD or other hi-res formats - I could hear no difference, or very little difference. Very frustrating.

Then I introduced a PS Audio Sprout into my system. This relatively low-cost component turn my world upside down. Now the difference in CD quality vs hi-res is very obvious to my ears. Now my frustration has turned to satisfaction. I get it now.

So I agree - the difference should be obvious (as in smack you in the face) and the symmetry of the system and its environment means way more and has a larger impact than the cost.


Excuse me in advance for babbling. You asked whether subtle or obvious in regards to components- diminishing returns- value of a $95K amp. We all have price points that we are comfortable with. I would not be comfortable spending 95k on any stereo component , even if Angels delivered it direct from heaven. But others may not bat an eye for such a purchase. As for diminishing returns, absolutely. But this goes back to what your ears can appreciate and what you are willing to pay for any particular upgrade. I only evaluate components that I would be comfortable in purchasing. A couple years ago I tried a few power cables on my old system. They were priced between $1500 and $2500. I could not hear any improvements, so they went back. Eventually I will try power cables again with my upgraded system. So, when I added the stellar p3 to my system, I heard an immediate noticeable improvement and decided to keep it. I will get around to trying a p12, but I want new speakers and new streamer first. I hope this helps!?!


IMO it is both. Definitely true that as you gain experience, your ability to hear finer differences in components improves, no doubt, because you learn what to listen for.

But just as importantly, such differences in competing components will only shine through if the rest of the system is resolving enough to illuminate them.

As we gain experience and time in the hobby, the tide level of our systems tends to rise, thereby providing greater insight into component disparities while at same time our listening acumen is improving


I have a slightly different take on this. After years of conditioning from dealers, the high-end audio press, etc. I’ve embarked on a self-imposed deprogramming exercise. What I mean is I’m forcing myself not to succumb to confirmation bias, which IMO is what leads to this seeming disconnect between the ‘experts’. Subtle or obvious, I attempt to divorce myself from price and high-end audio bling by just asking myself whether I enjoy what I’m hearing more or less. Am I more or less inclined to do air guitar (or air conducting in my case) in my living room? I just completed that exercise with a long list of phono stages that have been in and out of my system and finally hit on a phono stage/cartridge pairing with a combined retail less than the other phono stage I had under consideration. I’ve now emptied my closet of too many phono stages and am tickled pink with what I’ve got.


Well said. I tend to be happiest when drawn into the music, or emotionally involved as you infer. Does it sound like music, and is it an illusion I can live with on a daily basis? I too have an abundance of phono stages, pre amps, and amps. Good to keep in mind for my afternoon audition today. I must add putting a sonic and musical experience into words can be rather challenging, unless one falls back on the audiophile cliches, which may or may not serve the experience.

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@aangen and I have been chatting about the Sonore Signature Rendu SE. We’ve settled on the audiophile terms:

Real easy to listen to

That pretty much sums up my ability to describe what I am hearing.


“Subtle” differences, by definition, cannot be nonexistent (“not real” in Reichert’s parlance). The word implies a difference that’s at least perceptible. Whether that difference is an improvement or not is another question, as is the matter of value ascribed to the cost required to produce such change.

I decided a year or two ago that I need to read reviews with a more critical, if not to say skeptical, eye, after hearing John Darko comment that it’s his job as a reviewer to “amplify,” if you will, the magnitude of changes made by various components. Not to say he’s deliberately misleading his readers and viewers, as much as feeling a duty to describe the nature of differences as thoroughly as he can, even when they’re tiny. That made sense to me, and that’s now the lens through which I view most reviewers’ comments.

The changes I’ve experienced as I’ve upgraded gear over the last 46 or 47 years have all been real. Some have been subtle, some have not. Some have been disappointingly small, but noticeable nonetheless. Some of those small improvements have caused me to question the dollars spent (though I’ve never felt I’d outright wasted my money). But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that several of these changes were small enough that many of the people I know would likely not hear them.

If all that sounds like textbook confirmation bias, so be it. At least I know I’m happy in my delusions.

Now, software, on the other hand…let me tell you about the disappointing recordings I’ve bought… :wink:


It’s also unlikely someone will be able to convince you of what is significant or insignificant to you. There are too many variables out there to label anything beyond our personal experience. We can agree or disagree on what we value, but it rarely goes beyond that. Ultimately you have to be comfortable with settling for, say, a $150 cable or splurging and spending more that you would have thought, yet hearing enough of a difference to justify spending $300.

It also depends on perspective. I look at my system as an investment - an investment of my time, effort and finances with a goal to bring me happiness. It’s nothing more. I enjoy music and listening to it just that much. Some see it as an expense. As you progress, you’ll encounter like minds (even if your tastes are different), and you’ll likely gravitate to where you want to be. Trust your ears. Trust your heart. Trust your love for love of music and listening to it. You won’t go wrong.

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Many thanks to all. Your experiences and perspectives are all very helpful. They’ve brought some clarity to what should have been obvious to me.
At this point I don’t need to be get wound up about subtle v obvious. I’m trying to decide on the single biggest investment I’ll likely ever make in a system - the base system that any future gear performance, subtle or significant, will be judged against.
Whatever that base system, it will have to be an immediately obvious improvement over any alternative. So maybe the first decision will be the easiest and maybe that’s what Reichert was referring to. So yeah, subtle and obvious aren’t in conflict. It’s just that somethings will be obvious and others will not.
Thanks again.

Any person who has taken a Music Theory course ought to believe that identification (e.g. chord ID) takes practice even after “getting it”. That’s a paradigm shift from subtle versus obvious, but it’s true for hifi.

I think Darko gets lots of practice, and that goes a long, long ways. He knows that space well, too, and our R&MMV.

A change to something that really needs it is going to have a large impact over a change to something that isn’t in need.

That is something easily remembered and will help avoid a $10K solution to a $2.5K problem. Thank you.

Don’t confine yourself to obvious or subtle, or both. If you put something in your system that brings a change in sound that you like, that’s all that matters. If it brings a change you don’t like, remove it. Either way, ignore some of the “professional” audiophiles. I find the real and genuine advice in this forum to outweigh the often bombastic and outlandish statements these guys make to get clicks and social media attention. One says more is less, one says less is more, one says lore is mess, and then another swears by zip cord and lamp wire. Ignore them. Trust your ears.