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Stereophile: Are You a Sharpener or a Leveler?

Are You a Sharpener or a Leveler?
By Robert Deutsch • February, 2009

A psychological theory (footnote 1) that I've always been fond of is the one that proposes the perceptual/personality dimension of Sharpening vs Leveling. As defined by the early Gestalt psychologists, Sharpening is an exaggeration of differences, Leveling a minimization of differences. In visual-perception research on this topic, when test subjects were presented with an asymmetrical figure, some later recalled it in ways that exaggerated the figure's asymmetry (Sharpeners), while others minimized or eliminated it (Levelers).

It seems fair to say that—like those who have a strong interest in wine, food, photography, etc.—audiophiles are devoted to exploring subtle differences; generally, we tend to be toward the Sharpening end of the continuum. But even among audiophiles, some will describe as "night and day" a sonic difference that to others sounds fairly minor: these are Sharpeners, whereas the wire-is-wire, bits-are-bits, all-amplifiers-sound-the-same folks are Levelers.

Where does a tendency toward Sharpening or Leveling come from? The first possibility is that being a Sharpener or a Leveler represents an inherent characteristic of a person's sensory system. In technical terms, the difference threshold—the smallest difference that a person can reliably discriminate, also known as the just noticeable difference (JND)—varies among individuals: some have a low threshold (small JND) and are able to discriminate among very small differences, whereas others require differences to be quite large before they can discriminate among them.

No doubt such differences in sensory capacity make some contribution to a person being a Sharpener or a Leveler, but I think it's a minor one. The skills used in evaluating audio equipment are far more complex than those involved in simple experiments in pitch discrimination, and to a large extent they're functions of experience. People are not born Sharpeners or Levelers. A novice audiophile may judge two speakers as sounding pretty much the same, but, having gained experience by listening to a variety of speakers, when that same audiophile listens again to the same two speakers, he or she notices differences that were not obvious before. The tendency to begin as a Leveler and progress to being more of a Sharpener is part of the learning process of becoming an audiophile.

But there is another factor, one that goes beyond sensory capability and skills acquired through experience, which I would call a type of expressive style or personality characteristic. Two people with the same sensory capability, both seasoned audiophiles, may listen to the effect of substituting a certain component in a system, and the relative Sharpener will describe the difference as a "lifting of several veils," whereas the relative Leveler will say that the difference, while worthwhile, is fairly small. Is one more correct than the other? In my opinion, there is no "objective" answer—each person's perception is true for that person. A problem arises only when a Sharpener or a Leveler tries to persuade the other that one is true and the other false.

Is it better to be a Sharpener or a Leveler? I'd like to consider this issue as it applies to three groups of people: audio designers, audio reviewers, and consumer-audiophiles.

In the extremely competitive field of high-performance audio, designers are always looking for ways to improve their products. In developing a new amplifier, a designer may build prototypes with different circuit layouts, use different materials for circuit boards, and try various makes of capacitor at a certain spot in the circuit. Progress is made by accumulating small improvements until they add up to a major one. The audio designer whose attitude is "It's good enough" or "People can't hear the difference anyway" will not succeed in advancing the state of the art. These folks have to be Sharpeners.

You might think the same would be true for reviewers—and, to an extent, it is. We have a duty to our readers to listen for and identify audible differences that may sound slight to the average person but that audiophiles consider vitally important. An audio reviewer who is insensitive to these sorts of differences, or who thinks them unimportant, is like a wine expert who thinks that all red wines taste pretty much the same. (For those familiar with the film Sideways—a favorite of mine—our sensibilities should resemble that of the Paul Giamatti character, Miles, and not that of Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church.) That said, reviewers vary in how they communicate the differences they perceive. Those who tend toward the Sharpening side may wax rhapsodic about an improvement that to most audiophiles is minor at best, whereas those who lean toward Leveling may seem so blasÇ that you wonder if they're suffering from burnout. In considering any reviewer's opinions, the reader must take such tendencies into account. (Of course, neither extreme describes Stereophile reviewers, who are known to be practically perfect in every way.)

And what, Dear Reader, about you? Are you more a Sharpener or a Leveler? If you're a Stereophile reader, then, almost by definition, you must have some significant Sharpener tendencies. You listen to your system critically, make changes in components, and tweak the speaker positions, always listening for those improvements that bring the sound closer to the real thing. When you're comparing components or evaluating the effect of a small adjustment of speaker positions, I think it makes sense to take the Sharpening approach.

But being always in Sharpening mode, listening for the most minute sonic differences, has a downside illustrated by the kind of person who can't listen to music for more than a few minutes without getting up to tweak something in the system, or who buys component after component in the hope of finding the magic one that will allow the system to sound indistinguishable from live music. This is when being a Sharpener has much in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder—and you don't want to go down that road.

My advice: When it comes to selecting components and setting up a system, be as much of a Sharpener as you feel like. But when everything is working more or less to your satisfaction, it's time to switch out of the hypercritical Sharpener mode, become more of a Leveler, and have a good time just listening to the music.—Robert Deutsch


Footnote 1: As a now retired professor of psychology, Bob knows his psychological theories.—Ed.
 

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But being always in Sharpening mode, listening for the most minute sonic differences, has a downside illustrated by the kind of person who can't listen to music for more than a few minutes without getting up to tweak something in the system, or who buys component after component in the hope of finding the magic one that will allow the system to sound indistinguishable from live music. This is when being a Sharpener has much in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder—and you don't want to go down that road.
This hit home.
I miss the days of being able to listen to an entire album without making any adjustments, and just absorbing the music itself rather than the electronics used to reproduce it.

I often think of those days as being ones with a certain naivete or even ignorance about how the music was "supposed to sound", but that may just be my justification for trying to plow through "good enough" in search of the elusive "perfection".

Another complication that can arise with the Sharpener/OCD mindset, is that two things can sound different enough that one obviously must be superior to the other, but not being able to discern which one is "right". That in itself curses us with the "never complete system"...
 

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:thumbsup: Cool article......nice find....
 

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Hello, my name is Ben, and I am a track-changing Sharpener. [people clap lightly, 'welcome ben' can be heard]
 

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I don't think the author even realizes that he is torturing the theory he outlines to justify his own existence. Since he doesn't quantify those things which are being perceived differently, I'm going to go with an even simpler psychological concept - self delusion. When are these guys going to admit that they just like new gadgets, embrace THAT characteristic and stop pretending there is anything more to it?
 

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I listen to albums in their entirety when I'M LISTENING, if you skip tracks I'll break your hand.
 

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I listen to albums in their entirety when I'M LISTENING, if you skip tracks I'll break your hand.
What if an album has a track that makes you wanna punch babies? Hootie and the Blowfish-Fairweather Johnson is one of those songs. It's short and POINTLESS.
 

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What if a book has a chapter that you simply don't agree with? It's still part of the book right?
 

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So, the next time someone says that I am anal, I can say no, I am a sharpener. You my friend are a leveler. Now let me have my fun. lol.
 

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I don't think the author even realizes that he is torturing the theory he outlines to justify his own existence. Since he doesn't quantify those things which are being perceived differently, I'm going to go with an even simpler psychological concept - self delusion. When are these guys going to admit that they just like new gadgets, embrace THAT characteristic and stop pretending there is anything more to it?
Exactly... it's a false dichotomy to present your argument as "if you think wire is wire and amps are amps, then you are in the 'minimizing differences' category".

There is also the possibility that, well... you know.
 

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"it's time to switch out of the hypercritical Sharpener mode, become more of a Leveler, "


So basically change your psychological make-up on your own. This presumes the ability to change it back?

Yeah, right. Interesting read until that point. I just have to assume that he was kidding with that line.
 

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"I listen to albums in their entirety when I'M LISTENING, if you skip tracks I'll break your hand. "


Especially in the case of classics like "Dark Side O The Moon" or "Back In Black". If i hear one of those tracks on the radio, I am always a little pissed that the next song does nto follow.
 

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What if a book has a chapter that you simply don't agree with? It's still part of the book right?

I think the difference is each chapter in a book isn't meant to stand on it's own. With some obvious exceptions, albums are a collection of singles rather than a piece meant to be taken in as a whole.
 

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I don't think the author even realizes that he is torturing the theory he outlines to justify his own existence. Since he doesn't quantify those things which are being perceived differently, I'm going to go with an even simpler psychological concept - self delusion. When are these guys going to admit that they just like new gadgets, embrace THAT characteristic and stop pretending there is anything more to it?
Oh Don, you're just being a Leveler. :eek: :D Stop leveling the article!! :p
 

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I think the difference is each chapter in a book isn't meant to stand on it's own. With some obvious exceptions, albums are a collection of singles rather than a piece meant to be taken in as a whole.
Unfortunately, actual music (and artistic expression) is indeed the exception in the music industry, but I thought those of us here are the ones who enjoy those exceptions. I don't imagine DIYMA'ers listening to mixtapes of radio singles.

Regarding the article, Jesus H. Christ, talk about a false dichotomy.
 

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Oh Don, you're just being a Leveler. :eek: :D Stop leveling the article!! :p
:D
I think the difference is each chapter in a book isn't meant to stand on it's own. With some obvious exceptions, albums are a collection of singles rather than a piece meant to be taken in as a whole.
That's why AOR radio doesn't really exist anymore. Used to be a big deal.
 

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I think the difference is each chapter in a book isn't meant to stand on it's own. With some obvious exceptions, albums are a collection of singles rather than a piece meant to be taken in as a whole.
Coming from classical listening I can indeed say that there is a flow to "tracks" hell, even Marylin Manson Albums tell a story in a flow-like fashion. Generally the more the artist is involved with the work, the more of a story will be told.

****y pop music is a "collection of singles" real music albums tell a story.
 

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People are not born Sharpeners or Levelers.
First off, I am new here, so hi all. :) and second...

I am not so sure this is completely true. However maybe I am getting the wrong idea of the difference between the two?

What would you say about a natural musician? A person with an "ear" for music can pick up instruments and just write things that sound good. I am a musician and have done a good bit of sound engineering. It requires a lot of nit picking with sound and noticing minute details. This ability came pretty natural to me.

I definitely got better at it over the years, but I feel that my experience is gained more in tricks of the trade and my ability to move around equipment more efficiently instead of having a better ear. I think the good ear for details in sound was always there so, maybe it can be inborn, or maybe details in upbringing can just make someone a sharpener off the bat? Not sure... :)
 

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What would you say about a natural musician? A person with an "ear" for music can pick up instruments and just write things that sound good. I am a musician and have done a good bit of sound engineering. It requires a lot of nit picking with sound and noticing minute details. This ability came pretty natural to me.
First off, welcome!

As a former touriung engineer I can totally se where you are coming from. I have also said many times, you can learn to become a GOOD engineer, but you have to be born with "The Knack" to be a great engineer.

Sorta like this:

 
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