Friday 7 February 2014

MUSINGS: Golden Earism (& The Philips Golden Ears Challenge)

Don't you love the term "golden ears"?

I wonder historically when this term was first coined. I suppose it must have been in the murky distant past of times immemorial when primitive man glazed upon the yellowish gleam of Keynes' "barbarous relic" and began ascribing all manners of idealistic properties. Or not...

The other day, a forum poster brought up this link from What HiFi? about Hi-Res audio. Yeah, it covers the basics, but I did want to add an item #5 in terms of "factors to consider":

5. You must have good enough ears to appreciate the difference hi-resolution makes.

I know this can be touchy for some folks, but it is what it is. Our ears (and brains), like all the other sense organs (and cognitive domains) do not have infinite resolution. And like everything else, time is not on "our" side. At 42 years old this year, my ear's "frequency response" only goes up to about 15-16kHz at normal amplitudes. Do I really have the need to go for files with sampling rates of 88kHz+? Honestly, I don't think so... But as I've expressed elsewhere, this is about perfectionist audio so I'm certainly happy to have access to my favourite music using the most accurate technology available (I'm still of the opinion that 24/96 is more than I'll ever need in terms of the technical specs).

If you haven't seen it yet, recently, our friends at Philips have come up with a very cool website called the Golden Ears Challenge. Just enroll with your E-mail address and get going with some ear training. Log off and it'll keep your place in the test. Seriously, if you believe your equipment and ears are up to the task, take the challenge! I suspect some audiophiles will be surprised at the limits of their hearing ability.

I took the Challenge using the ASUS Essence One on my desktop with a pair of venerable Sony MDR-V6 (<$100) studio monitor headphones. I figured, if the V6 is good enough for Roger Waters, it's good enough for me!

I suppose better headphones like my Sennheiser HD800 and being in my much quieter audio room downstairs could have made tasks like hearing high frequency extension or detection of minor amounts of reverberation easier, but the computer desktop was more convenient... Remember to make sure the DAC is set to native 44.1kHz and something like Windows Mixer isn't upsampling.

The Bronze level wasn't difficult at all unless one has hearing issues, I suspect.

Silver level was achieved in one sitting. I think the test music samples were encoded with 320kbps MP3 and it wasn't too hard to differentiate between 320kbps and 128kbps lossy compression - as usual, listen especially to the treble and see if you can hear the loss of detail, more "brittle" rendering, and slight "chirpiness". I found it more challenging detecting small amounts of reverb down at dry/wet ratio of 0.15 later in this test.

Here's the "coveted" Golden Ears achievement :-). You get an E-mail to confirm.

Not bad, took my time over a couple of nights in between some virtual paper work. Achieved with a little patience and using the same ASUS Essence One / Sony MDR-V6 combination. The most time consuming part was getting the Boost/Cut Identification Test right at the various frequencies (63, 125, 250, 500, 1k, 2k, 4k, 8k, 16kHz). A frequency boost at 16kHz with real music was barely audible for me. Tests like the bass boost really benefits from headphones capable of good bass response so I suspect an open unit like my AKG Q701 would not be the best headphone to try this on.

As of this writing, here are the overall statistics for this test:

Not bad, looks like I'm one of 117 who have completed the Golden Ears level so far out of 925 who finished the Basic level (12.6%). Objectively, Golden Ears aren't that rare :-).

Anyhow, I highly recommend giving this a try yourself... I believe that anyone can have an opinion about equipment fidelity just like everyone has the right to have an opinion on what music they enjoy. But it does require good ears technically if one is to claim discernment of small differences between pieces of gear. I think for many, engaging in tests like this one would be very educational if not eye opening in terms of limits of one's hearing. Furthermore, I think doing challenges like these should be mandatory for those who engage in "professional" audiophile hardware reviews focused on audio fidelity. (And those championing technical specifications based on 'articles of faith' like 24/192 over 16/44... errr... who's that Pono guy again?)


PS: Remember that JPlay software I measured awhile back which made no difference (actually there was a bug in that version which makes it even worse)? Looks like they've returned with a line of "JCAT" hardware! USB cable for 299Eur, SATA for 349Eur! How about Cat 5e (!) for 349Eur - man, they didn't even bother trying for Cat 7; at least the AudioQuest "audiophile" ethernet cables did! Reminds me of sellers on eBay trying to scalp some bucks by listing items at huge mark-ups with "Buy It Now" to catch shoppers who have never tried "The Price Is Right". This time around, they don't seem to claim sonic superiority of these products - merely "help you create the ultimate PC audio transport and get the most out of JPLAY".

Considering that a high quality SATA-III cable with fastening clips (which this one doesn't even seem to have!) runs for about the equivalent of <$4Eur at my local computer store, these guys are charging at >8700% mark-up presumably for that JCAT logo stamped on, silver plating and teflon coat (of course unless you're pimped out and have a window into your computer case, these will be hidden from view)... Sorry J-Dudes, but IMHO, The Price is Gluttonously Wrong. Why don't you guys show us in what way these are better than good quality generic SATA-III 6Gb/s cables first? (As if there's even a plausible explanation.)


  1. Congratulations. Glad you got Golden Ear certified. I am surprised too, tried the headphones you used once and did not like them at all. But you did it anyway. Good work. Being one in eight people is pretty exclusive. We know we can trust your subjective listening, and your objective reports have been beyond reproach.

    So should Philips develop a Platinum category? One where people can exercise metaphysical hearing. :)

  2. Oh, btw, Mitchco over at Computer audiophile started a thread congratulating you and your blog.

    1. Thanks for the note Dennis. Yeah, the Sony V6's have a tendency to be a bit harsh in the upper range so not exactly headphones I'd use to enjoy music with - for monitoring purposes like when I do some sound editing (for fun mainly since I don't do this professionally), it does a reasonable job!

      Thanks for the note about the CA thread... I might get a chance to have a look. I've certainly appreciated Mitch's blog over the years and I've gained tremendously from his writings and shared experience which was in no small way inspiration for many of my posts!

      I hope this blog presents a peek into what I've done over the last year or so to try to answer some questions I've always wondered about in this hobby. I can certainly say that I've come to terms with many of these uncertainties for myself and I hope the postings have been helpful to others also.


  3. I've been enjoying your blog for some time. Thanks for bringing the Philips Golden Ears Challenge to my attention. I really enjoyed it and managed to reach Gold level using a Marantz SR4400 with some old Sennheiser HD 540 headphones and my forty-four year old ears!

    1. Nice. Good to know the ears can hold up to 44 years old :-).

      Great classic headphones those Senn HD540s!

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  5. EDIT ;)

    Hi Archimago.

    Finished the challenge that day, no problems … of course :)

    Started a "Golden Ears" topic on CRO audiophile forum (my nick is "dupli").

    Interestingly the turn out is very low. Probably if the topic was about HiEnd power cable the turn out would be ten times higher. I am not mad, I am sad :( ….I have seen it coming.
    If nothing else, the topic generated one post that justified my effort. It was written by "pule", Krešimir Petar Pustički, he is a sound engineer and a producer of Classical and Jazz music, playing viola in "Croatian philharmonic orchestra", "String Quartet", played piano in "Croatian Tv - Big Band", etc……

    I will try to translate his post:
    "It is a nice way for everyone to check how much you actually hear with your ears, eyes, wallets, prices, reviews etc. It is hard to believe that one is very troubled with a cable, and at the same time can not hear much bigger changes in frequencies or a few dB coloration."

    Nuff said!

    Of course, Stillpoints friend is NOT interested in proofing anything to anyone! Although I told him to do the test just for him self. He don't have the time for such nonsense.
    To make things worse he is writing a very ambitious HiFi blog!

    1. Thanks for the update :-). Good job on completing the test!

      Clearly it's too much work for many audiophiles to spend time with some introspection and self-evaluation. Sad. Maybe post up the link to his ambitious blog... Always good to have a peek.

  6. I did test with my Koss Porta Pro and 50 year old ears. Test was long but made it to Golden Ears!!

  7. Your system will maintain a superior signal quality, because video distribution via ethernet Cable CAT5 or CAT7 makes use of active RF video hubs.