How to Listen Critically

I thought it might be valuable to put out some thoughts on what my listening process looks like, so that anyone reading this could have a better perspective into exactly what goes into my reviews.

When I first get a product, the first thing I do is listen to it. I spend a couple weeks with whatever it is on my head or in my ears, just putting the music that I normally listen to through them. Usually, this accounts for at least 20 hours of listening, which allows me to solidify the gestural-level perspective that I have on a headphone. This leaves me comfortable enough to actually sit down and collate my thoughts, faithfully.

The purpose of doing that, and not just jumping into analytical listening, is so that I can get a better feel for the general character of a headphone - warm or dark, detailed or muddle, musical or analytical - that kind of qualification. It helps me to have that background in a less-refined, but equally meaningful, way before I get to the nitty gritty quantification of the qualities of a headphone.

So, after that, I start writing. By then, the other accomplished purpose is that I have a good sense of comfort, and of any inconvenience or manufacturing errors that the headphone may have. After writing up my "Fit and Form" section, I switch over to Swinsian, the music player that I use, and dig through the music that I know best, finding nine songs, three dedicated to each frequency range.

Put them in a playlist, label it, and I'm good to move on in writing. This puts me at the general "Sound" sub-header. While I write that, I put on songs that I know demonstrate detail and staging particularly well, as that is where I usually put my commentary on those qualities. These are tracks that I know so well and have listened to so many times that I know exactly when something is amiss, or when something new has been brought out of the file.

Moving into the sections dedicated to each frequency range, I start to slow down my pace. I pull up the playlist aforementioned and start it from the beginning. Over the course of fifteen or so minutes, I take it at about a sentence-or-so per minute and really take the time to make sure what I write is reflective of my experience. This is another place where song selection really matters. With each range, I pick and choose different songs that purposefully challenge the headphone. For bass, that's speed, bleed, and detail, among others. For mids, that's realism, layering, and detail, among others. For treble, that's airiness, poignancy, and pain, among others.

The hardest part of critical listening, generally speaking, for me was learning to focus very exclusively and consciously on exactly for what I was looking. It took a lot of just listening, and admittedly a fair amount of Harman's "How to Listen" program before I felt confident enough to conclusively say much about a headphones sound characteristics.

I feel that this is a good representation of the process that I undertake to give a review of headphone, and does give a bit of perspective into how my writing comes together, long-form. I hope it's been interesting, or if not that, helpful!