Learn how to listen: sound tasting at Abbey Road with Dr John Dibb

Continuing on our mission as sound evangelists we invited a group of journalists to a Sound Tasting at Abbey Road Studios.

The aim was to give them an insight into how a speaker engineer (in this case, Bowers & Wilkins Senior Development Engineer Dr John Dibb), goes about listening to music and in doing so let them see what they might be missing. It proved an enlightening morning and I asked John to do a guest blog on the event.

Take it away John..

“For a long time it has seemed to me that fewer and fewer people actually take time to appreciate music. Over the years I must have demonstrated good sound to scores of friends and acquaintances, and in most cases they have gone out and bought decent equipment and now enjoy just sitting and listening. It may be a lack of quality in recordings and playback media, or a combination of these with changing lifestyles, but it seems such a pity that so many may be missing out on so much.

I was pleased, therefore, when colleagues invited me to take part in a press event that might help to reverse this trend.

Gourmet evenings and wine tastings are very popular – so why not a sound tasting session at the famous Abbey Road Studios, aimed at educating journalists, and hopefully, through them, the general public, in understanding the lost art of listening.

Following a tour of the studios, a general introduction outlining our concerns and what we see as the way forward, one of Abbey Road’s recording engineers demonstrated the creativity and engineering which goes into a typical multitrack recording.

My part in the event was to try to impress on them the value of simple rules which they could follow to get the most out of playback equipment, particularly placing speakers and the listener away from walls and especially corners. I then tried to impress on them how important it is to be relaxed and to remove as many distractions as possible, including the normally primary sense of vision – i.e. close your eyes. This was followed by some of the core criterion that you need to understand in order to appreciate really good sound.

I was pleased that most of the group appeared to reap benefits from this and continued to listen with closed eyes to their own recordings. Much like appreciating the finer characteristics of a good wine, appreciating quality in recordings often needs some guidance. We achieved this by selecting some of the more important attributes, such as stereo image, dynamics, ambiance, timing and demonstrated that with suitable musical excerpts. I’ve attached the document and tracks we used here in case anyone might be interested.

I think the basic aim of the event was achieved. And on a personal level I felt the same satisfaction I felt as a teenage speaker designer, and still do as a professional, when someone really gets how important sound is and how getting the illusion closer to reality is such a magical thing.”

  • If you’re interested you can download some more detailed instructions on how to optimise your auditory experience here.


  • david says:

    I listen to music over a pair of CDM NT9’s for the past seven years, I find that family and friends could care less hearing music over these speakers versus a pair from a our television. I have tried the “close your eyes” method with “okay they sound good” results which I believe just partonize me. So I have use the “hot chocolate” method. I ask them if they just want a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon in at styrofoam cup or do they want it in a mug that they can wrap their hands around and hold close to their chest and smell the aroma? Instant or home made? Do they want it with whipped cream, how about chocolate shavings? I compare listenig to music the same way, how do they want to listen to it? They still humor me.

  • Jan says:

    It seems that most people would be “happy enough” with a tune that they can relate to or to a “good enough” system to listen to their favourite music. I believe it is all about perceptions. One does not know what one lose out if one does not know better. This article really lets me think about society in general. Have we become zombies in a commercial world of too much choice and too many oppinions. C’mon…lets pause a while…let’s go back to basics and simply get the best stuff around us – it does not only apply to music/sound, but everything in life…why aspire for second best, if the best is out there. It is easy! (BTW: I was typing this on my favourite computer whilst zipping Swiss hot chockolate whilst listening to a Society of Sound recording on my Zeppelin – bliss)

  • Ken says:

    The majority have no idea and no motivation to explore good sound because it requires a level of engagement that they are not prepared to have. Many of my friends love the sound of my system but could not imagine going to a real hifi store and buying even a low end but good system. They would rather pay nearly as much for a bad well known sub-par brand name that has feature x and gadget y. I hve offered to take them to a local hifi store and explore their requirements and look at what they can achieve but they always end up at a superstore buying some aweful system. I keep telling them they can get good sound without spending a fortune and if they catch the bug they can improve a system over time.

    Over the years I have got to the system I now have. B&W 804s driven by a pair of bridged monoblock Macintosh MC275 power amps fed by Macintosh C220 pre. Sources are Arcam FMJ CD36, Clearaudio Emotion TT. Server based music is via Cambridge Audio DacMagic off an AppleTV. The sound is sweet but i do crave a pair of B&W 802 Diamonds.


  • Dan Peithman says:

    I’ve had a “stereo” system of one type or another for over four decades. The “thrill” of better and better music reproduction never wears off for me!
    Back in the mid to late ’80s I would host an ‘Audio Day’ for my small group of music-loving friends several times a year. My wife and I would prepare a couple of large, delicious lasagna trays, a few loaves of delicious Italian bread from a local bakery, and a huge bowl of a mixed salad. My friends would bring beverages of their choice and ice cream for dessert and a few LP albums of music they really loved to share, and any equipment we were all interested in listening to, comparing, and offering constructive comments on. We would start at mid-day by letting the electronics warm-up,while we talked about anything and everything over a quick snack. Then we would listen to the music, taking a ‘break’ after a couple hours to enjoy the big meal together over wonderful conversations (while other ‘visiting’ equipment warmed-up). Then back to listening!
    Typically we would end the ‘Audio Day’ late in the evening having “discovered” new music together and actually getting to listen to equipment that we wouldn’t otherwise have heard. (This where I “discovered” the B&W brand of speakers!)

    Now, many years later, I live in another state and we’re all separated by large distances, but when we do get to converse on phone or online, the ‘Audio Days’ of yesteryear are fondly remembered by all! I’d recommend trying this yourselves – you might discover that it’s a lot of “fun” – all for the “Joy” of Music, and friendship!

    For the Love of Music, Dan

  • Dustin says:

    It’s the way of the world. No matter what consumer product you can imagine there are customers that ‘get it’ and others who don’t, and perhaps cant. Getting customers to ‘get it’ and understand the value proposition of the product is the job of the B&W marketing team, and the job of every other marketing team for every other hi-fi company. For the most part I would say that hi-fi companies are failing at helping new customers ‘see the picture’ so that they can enter the marketplace, evidenced by the dramatic reductions in hi-fi product sold today. I like the intentions of B&W here, but I think they are banging their heads against the wall. The people who read audiophile magazines already get it, and educating these writers will simply allow the same people to get a message they already agree with. Still, kudos for making an effort at least. Love the product.

  • Dr Louis cardinal says:

    I agree with Dustin and I myself would like to know more about the listening experience but I don’t know where to go for that. The B & W site has lots of information on new speakers and how they are made and of what material but I don’t get much from that, even though I have 8 years university in sciences. . It’s info for the sound engineers. I would like more down to earth simple advise on how to listen etc…..
    I have two audio days/year with the same friend , who I have been listening with for forty years. I have a pair of model B & W DM 605 Series 2 with a ASW 12 cm and we like to sit back for sometimes eight hours of listening. Music gets progressively louder and heavier, ending the evening with Pink Floyd.

    We would all benefit if the hi- fi industry could simplify the jargon for music lovers who know little about the products. Although I would never own a Bose system, I think their commercials are getting to the public because they keep it simple and convince them that for the money it’s a good product. I wish B & W would appeal to the lay person more convincingly. Having said that I’m gonna try and raise my level of knowledge with your emails. I must admit however that the site is a little ” all over the place” and difficult to surf.
    Keep up the good work!
    Dr Louis Cardinal

  • Larry Guss says:

    In high school, and at the University, I played the Violin, and Viola in the school Orchestra. So, I think that experience changed, or perked-up, the way I listen to music reproduction. Because ,……I have ALWAYS had good quality stereo equipment,….. because my standards were high, and ….. because I got more enjoyment from music listening than most others seem too,….. but not all. Now at 70, I still have very good equipment, and I still lust over equipment which remains out of my financial grasp. I still find that most people have very little interest in my obsession for accurate music reproduction. Just bury me with my B & W’s, if I ever manage to capture a pair.

  • atty dave balocating says:

    It was a pair of B&Ws (DM 302s) that paved the way to my discovery of the joy of good music listening. Here in the Philippines, these speakers are expensive. I bought my first pair with my savings as a college student not knowing how the 302s would sound. After listening to it, I was convinced of their Listen and You’ll See Statement. From then on, I dreamt of a better B&W, now I have a pair of 684s. I only wish we could afford the 800Ds here….

  • Mike Campos says:

    The phenomenon of not give music the time it deserves to be listened to was establish by the music industry itself in a world in which everyone calls himself or herself an artist and louder is better.

    I try to spend as much time as possible listening to the music, as well as composing and producing, but I feel I live in a world of deaf people.

  • Matisse says:

    I found myself listening to a pair of B&W PM1s yesterday at my local retailer here in Helsinki. I had originally come for the D805s but the moment I walked into the shop and saw the pair of PM1s standing next to the entrance, they just blew me away based on looks alone… So nimble, so small, so beautifully finished, such good taste with the use of otherwise almost contradicting materials such as Wenge wood (from Africa I believe) and modern composites, some finished in matt, other in high gloss. And that tweeter construction, like a water drop defining the laws of gravity… A speaker that felt rooted in nature and the living world around us.

    Anyway, as I had settled into the listening room, I got the occasion to sample some of my favourite tunes, some familiar melodies from Beyonce, U2 and Adiemus.

    David, you put it nicely in your post. If I got your point, it doesn’t matter in the end how they sound, it’s how they make you feel. At home I listen to a pair of “now-ancient” Mission Renaissance speakers, and after all these years of technical development, I think they still make the air swirl in the room very rhythmically, especially the vocals are quite natural and capture me into the moment. Anyhow, back to the PM1s. In technical terms they probably didn’t make Beyonce’s voice sound but a few Hz higher compared to my Missions. But boy, just as she inhales that few Hz can open a whole new world. When you hear your favourite artist play like never before, realising she had always performed that way, a tear drop or two may appear in the corner of your eye. That’s what defines a truly unique listening experience to me, an outstanding speaker, and a loved artist, a combination that one cannot describe in conventional terms. So, David, yes, these PM1s felt like a warm cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream and shavings on top, a cup you draw against your chest like just like the one you love.

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