MUSIC IS FUNDAMENTAL TO ALMOST EVERYONE

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
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Those of you who have followed my previous two threads probably have a pretty good idea where I am coming from with respect to the relationship of hi fi to music. I want a high-end audio system to suspend my belief that I am only listening to hi fi and help me achieve a closer connection to music. After spending some time reading responses from WBF, including some of those in response to the threads I’ve posted, I believe that there are quite a few audiophiles out there who are pursuing the hobby for the same reasons I have made it my career. It’s also true that some are putting a sound system together for the purpose of hearing very specific sonic qualities that are not particularly related to a live music listening experience. There are also others who like music, but are just as thrilled by experimentation with equipment and measurements. Others like the idea of building their own. Whatever the reason, all are welcome. I just want to find ways to make the hobby more welcoming to more people, including the people in our own households.

My second thread discussed the power of acoustic music to establish a gold standard for listening evaluations. The thread went “crickets” after I posted the photograph of the fundamental frequencies of all the instruments in the orchestra. Does it mean the chart is simply true and not worth further noting within the context of a hi fi, or does it indicate that at least some readers basically don’t think this information is very germane to their specific interests?

Whatever the reason, I will press on . . .

Ninety-percent of the people in the world love music. Most listen to it an average of 32.1 hours per week! At least half of the world’s music lovers are women. Why aren’t more women interested in audiophile-quality home music systems?

There are of course the usual assortment of cultural impediments to consider such as many women juggle multiple family and career responsibilities and consequently do not have the luxury of the extra time required to pursue sonic perfection as a hobby. Also, more than a few women do not have the financial independence or resources to pursue such an expensive hobby.

These cultural, economic, and societal barriers have fallen away to a limited extent over the past four decades, and I now see more women interested in hi fi on their own, and today, more audiophiles share their interests in hi fi with their significant others. We still have a long way to go. In 1993, I wrote a chapter about the reasons I thought women are not that interested in hi fi as a hobby in The Search for Musical Ecstasy by the legendary Harvey “Gizmo” Rosenberg. Harvey was one of the greatest high-end audio spiritual advisors I have ever known. Marty astutely quoted Harvey in his post on my last thread: “For the first time in the history of mankind, we now live in an era where music reproduction can achieve a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.”

Even if a woman is able to overcome today’s lingering cultural and financial impediments, how likely is it that a woman would be interested in taking up the hobby? Most women have never been exposed to audiophile-quality home music systems, so they don’t know what they’re missing, and of those who have been exposed, I think it’s highly possible that they think that audiophilia is really not worth pursuing because what they hear is so far removed from what they know music sounds like.

In 1990, I said: “I would really rather listen to a decent table radio than many high-end audio systems.”

Not much has changed since then, but I now know more about what contributes to this schism between hi fi as a hobby and music as an experience. We also have far more component choices that are capable of suspending our belief that we are only listening to a hi fi. Harvey wanted me to “inspire men to come out of their ‘hardware closet’ and start having some fun expressing their feelings about their art form.” I have taken his words to heart.


SOME ADVICE

I think that choosing a system of components and playing the system at volume levels that fit the acoustic properties and limitations of the listening environment is a good place to start. Where and how one plans to set up a system has more to do with its capacity to provide compellingly musical sound than the choice of the components themselves. Most untreated rooms do not handle high and low frequencies particularly well. The question becomes, then, of all the frequencies a group of musicians is capable of producing, which frequency ranges within that span are most essential for music reproduction enjoyment? Check out the red outlined rectangle on the frequency range of instruments in the attached new chart which came from an instructional website for mixing engineers. The rectangle encompasses approximately 100 Hz – 1000 Hz — the range where a sound system needs to be the most musically dense to be convincing. (Yes, a good table radio does an OK job in that range, but a well-balanced, home high-end audio system is certainly able to do a better job than a table radio.)

According to this chart, Ron R is correct. The densest part of the music occurs from the mid bass up through the midrange. You probably all know by now that I think that many high-end audio systems are not as musically dense as is necessary to achieve a musically compelling listening experience.

Bell Labs had critical frequency ranges figured out years ago. Their noteworthy engineer Henry Ott said in his book Noise Reduction Techniques in Electronic Systems that a system’s bandwidth should be limited to its application to reduce noise; i.e., unwanted frequencies. Peter A said in a post that “We can even identify someone who’s on the other end of a phone call.” That is primarily due to the fact that Bell Labs figured out that phone frequency band transmission needed to be limited in order to make voices intelligible.

Likewise, a home music system needs to have frequency band transmission that concentrates the music’s critical energy in a manner and at volumes that the listening room can support. Most systems are set up in average sized living spaces with draperies (if any), rugs, and furnishings doing at least some of the job of absorbing spurious high frequency information. Typical rooms are not large enough to support low frequencies, and the walls, floors, and ceilings are not stiff and rigid enough to prevent some low frequencies from escaping the space all together and for others to become amplified by room resonance. It is very achievable, however, to do a pretty good job reproducing 100 Hz – 1000 Hz in typical home listening spaces. With a little attention to room treatment one can even reduce spurious high frequency reflections above 1000 Hz to achieve a spatial presentation of music on its stage on quite a convincing level.

If one is careful with room set up, and one also has control over the volume of frequencies reproduced below 100 Hz, one can also achieve a semblance of low frequency response in a typical living space that could enhance the illusion that one is listening to live music. Large, floor-standing, full-range speakers and powerful amplifiers are usually not a good fit in most living spaces if having a music experience is a priority. Out-of-control low frequencies cloud the rest of the music, and because most of the music sounds clouded with out-of-control lower frequencies, achieving “you-are-there” details often means listening at volume levels that are louder than the listening space can really support.

As discussed previously, the pursuit of details has an insidious way of taking over as a musical priority in h fi circles. Perhaps this is because hi fi does not provide the visual cues one experiences when listening to music live. There seems to be a natural tendency to want to hear more spatial details in a hi fi than one would normally hear in a live music setting. By nature of the composite sonic weight that emanates from an instrumental ensemble and the fact that the critical 100 – 1000 Hz frequencies are relatively large and slow sound waves, details in live music are more a part of the whole musical fabric. By seeking “detail” information on a level beyond what is actually present on the recorded source or on a level that is beyond what the listening room can support, we lose sight of the music’s message.


CONCLUSIONS

If the system doesn’t play music on a convincing level, then is it any wonder that some people have a hard time seeing the point to high-end audio? I believe that this is about a lot more than the notion that spouses don’t want to look at an ugly assortment of hi fi gear in living spaces. The larger reason they often send their hi-fi-loving partners packing to the basement with all their gear has more to do with the fact that they don’t really like the way the systems sound.

If hunkering in a basement cave fiddling with equipment is what it’s all about for you, carry on and enjoy. If you would like your hobby to become more inclusive, then I think the best option is to find a knowledgeable specialty audio dealer who has years of experience putting together good sounding and good looking hi fi systems in real-life listening environments. A good specialty retailer will work with you and your significant other to make a plan that takes into account musical interests, budget, and the physical realities of the listening space. Even if overnight you can’t afford the time and money to transform your current system into a dream system that the whole family will enjoy, you can eventually get there with a good plan.

I want to know more about the progress we have made or not made to make hi fi a more inclusive hobby with the important people in our lives. Tell us about your experiences, please.
 

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marty

Well-Known Member
Apr 20, 2010
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From a nice WSJ editorial this morning....

How to become a calmer person? Cut down on your consumption of anger-producing material. Don’t search for outrageous comments by extremists on the right or left. And avoid political discussions if they are likely to become heated. Finally, spend less time reading about politics or watching political talk shows. Spend more time on calming activities. Play a sport, learn a new language and listen to music!!

Got that right!
 

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
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Marty -

Wiser words have seldom been spoken. Play music (well or not so accomplished) and listen to a lot more of it. :) k
 
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Ron Resnick

Site Co-Owner, Administrator
Jan 25, 2015
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Thank you for this wonderful third essay, Karen!
 

ACHiPo

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Feb 22, 2015
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Karen,
Interesting points. I must admit when I came to your frequency image in your last thread I didn't click through. I suspect I'm not the only one. Now that I've gone back and reread (and clicked through) I feel I've caught up.

My initial response to the frequency by instrument is that it seems to overly simplify things, ie If a system reproduced only the frequencies generated by the instruments, even if perfectly, would it be as emotionally engaging, live, etc. as a live performance? In other words is it only frequency response that hits the dopamine release in people, or are there other factors (perhaps harmonics that complement the fundamentals?) Ok, let's add dynamics at a realistic level--would a perfectly reproduced frequency (within the fundamental range) at the perfect volume level scratch the itch? I suspect after many years and many dollars that it is at the same time more than that and just that.
 

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
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Karen,
Interesting points. I must admit when I came to your frequency image in your last thread I didn't click through. I suspect I'm not the only one. Now that I've gone back and reread (and clicked through) I feel I've caught up.

My initial response to the frequency by instrument is that it seems to overly simplify things, ie If a system reproduced only the frequencies generated by the instruments, even if perfectly, would it be as emotionally engaging, live, etc. as a live performance? In other words is it only frequency response that hits the dopamine release in people, or are there other factors (perhaps harmonics that complement the fundamentals?) Ok, let's add dynamics at a realistic level--would a perfectly reproduced frequency (within the fundamental range) at the perfect volume level scratch the itch? I suspect after many years and many dollars that it is at the same time more than that and just that.
You're right. Reproducing music at home to a believable level is about a lot more than the frequency ranges of various instruments. That's just the starting point, and I've spent a long time on that subject before moving on because it is the essential quality upon which all other musical qualities should be built. Without appropriate tonal density, the rest doesn't matter, and it is the quality that needs the most attention with many of the hi fi systems I have heard around the world, in customers' homes, at dealer showrooms, and at audio shows. An emotional connection to the music eludes me if a system does not have believable instrumental tonal balance and density. That's why I have said in the past that I think that listening to a good table radio with good tonal balance is more musically satisfying than listening to a hifi that has been set up by someone who is allergic to midrange.

For a hi fi to reach you at the core, however, it must also have dynamics and attack, reveal a believable balance of fundamentals to harmonics (which is indicated on the chart by shading), and provide the sense of the performance space and the instruments in that space. I hope to be able to delve into these qualities a bit more in the future — time and interest permitting.

As far as scratching the itch is concerned, you know when you've hit the spot! I just think "the spot" should be a little easier to find than it is given the current state of the hobby. We need to define the "spot" better than we have done in the past to make our hobby more accessible and more enjoyable to more people.
 

Edward Pong

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Jun 24, 2013
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"An emotional connection to the music eludes me if a system does not have believable instrumental tonal balance and density"

I think this line, says it all...
I guess I'm biased, but the 2nd point "density" really brings home the music!
And nothing delivers density like 2 track 15 ips tape.

If we think of the early Decca LP's, they all started their life as a 2 track 15 ips tape. It's a miracle that dragging a small diamond thru some vinyl grooves can recreate such a wonderful facsimile of that tape.

But in a very simple way, if we don't change the format & just copy that tape, it has the ability to really deliver all that was on the original recording - tonal balance, dynamics & density. This is what started this 15 ips tape resurgence. When I got my copies of the TapeProjects' Decca tapes, it was an Eureka moment.

Ed
 
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gshelley

Member Sponsor
Jan 10, 2011
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These threads which go to the heart of what I personally am trying to acheive, musical engagement, are very interesting. Thank you for taking time to provide your insights!

What is tonal density?
I read it often and not quite sure I grasp what it is meant with this description .
 

Edward Pong

Industry Expert
Jun 24, 2013
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Locust Hill, Ontario
I guess another word for density, I would say tonal mass. There is a real feeling of “weight” underneath, to support the sound.
Not sure if that makes more/any sense to you.

Ed
 

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
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These threads which go to the heart of what I personally am trying to acheive, musical engagement, are very interesting. Thank you for taking time to provide your insights!

What is tonal density?
I read it often and not quite sure I grasp what it is meant with this description .
The best way for me to explain this is within the context of the chart that I attached. To achieve satisfactory tonal density, a system must be able to reproduce the correct (lifelike) proportion of fundamental frequencies of various instruments or a combination of instruments to their harmonic frequencies. I hope to be discussing this in more detail in another thread. By focussing on details when we set up a sound system rather than the overall gestalt of the music, we often lose sight of the importance of realistic fundamental and harmonic balance.
 

Steve Williams

Site Founder, Site Owner, Administrator
You're right. Reproducing music at home to a believable level is about a lot more than the frequency ranges of various instruments. That's just the starting point, and I've spent a long time on that subject before moving on because it is the essential quality upon which all other musical qualities should be built. Without appropriate tonal density, the rest doesn't matter, and it is the quality that needs the most attention with many of the hi fi systems I have heard around the world, in customers' homes, at dealer showrooms, and at audio shows. An emotional connection to the music eludes me if a system does not have believable instrumental tonal balance and density. That's why I have said in the past that I think that listening to a good table radio with good tonal balance is more musically satisfying than listening to a hifi that has been set up by someone who is allergic to midrange.

For a hi fi to reach you at the core, however, it must also have dynamics and attack, reveal a believable balance of fundamentals to harmonics (which is indicated on the chart by shading), and provide the sense of the performance space and the instruments in that space. I hope to be able to delve into these qualities a bit more in the future — time and interest permitting.

As far as scratching the itch is concerned, you know when you've hit the spot! I just think "the spot" should be a little easier to find than it is given the current state of the hobby. We need to define the "spot" better than we have done in the past to make our hobby more accessible and more enjoyable to more people.
The best way for me to explain this is within the context of the chart that I attached. To achieve satisfactory tonal density, a system must be able to reproduce the correct (lifelike) proportion of fundamental frequencies of various instruments or a combination of instruments to their harmonic frequencies. I hope to be discussing this in more detail in another thread. By focussing on details when we set up a sound system rather than the overall gestalt of the music, we often lose sight of the importance of realistic fundamental and harmonic balance.
What I always chase is tonal balance, timbre and dynamics. I totally agree about the midrange. If there is no tonal balance . to my ears the system becomes unlistenable
 

tima

Industry Expert
Mar 4, 2014
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What is tonal density?
I read it often and not quite sure I grasp what it is meant with this description .

I guess another word for density, I would say tonal mass. There is a real feeling of “weight” underneath, to support the sound.
Not sure if that makes more/any sense to you.

Ed

I think 'tonal density' works fine. I like it a little better than 'tonal mass'.

I agree with Karen about perspective and gestalt. Tonality is a detail but it is one of the fundamentals (no pun) of live music and reproduction assessment. Tonality, Dynamics, Timing - the same information given a musician in a score - tonality is listed first for a reason, as Karen is laying out.

I have used the phrase 'tonal depth' thoughout most of my writing, dating back to my earliest reviews. From SoundStage! 2004:

"... tonal structures that ultimately breathe life and immediacy into the music."

And to detail ...

"In quiet passages, drummers often mark a beat by laying a drumstick across a snare with the stick’s head resting on the skin and the other end on the snare’s rim while striking this drumstick with the other -- wood on wood with empathetic vibrations into the drum head. To give an example, I’ll choose an album you may know. Consider the title track from Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms [Warner Brothers 1-25264]. The ATS-90s present each stroke precisely. You hear the initial snick as one stick bites into the other, then the resulting resonance through the stick into the drumhead and the air within, and then it fades away. It happens very fast. I sensed this tonal depth on hearing the sonic variation between one drumstick striking the other slightly closer to the rim versus closer to the drumhead. These are fine-spun differences, yet the ATS-90s pull them from the groove to give an incredibly realistic picture of a musician at his instrument. And the Nightingale amps let us hear how the drummer’s beat takes on a different overtone when one stroke is harder than another."

Tonality has a life inasmuch as notes occur in time. Tonal depth is partly a characterization of what hapens during the note's life span, short or long as it may be.
 
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Gregm

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Mar 14, 2019
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You're right. Reproducing music at home to a believable level is about a lot more than the frequency ranges of various instruments. That's just the starting point, (...) An emotional connection to the music eludes me if a system does not have believable instrumental tonal balance and density. That's why I have said in the past that I think that listening to a good table radio with good tonal balance is more musically satisfying than listening to a hifi that has been set up by someone who is allergic to midrange.

For a hi fi to reach you at the core, however, it must also have dynamics and attack, reveal a believable balance of fundamentals to harmonics (which is indicated on the chart by shading), and provide the sense of the performance space and the instruments in that space.
Thank you for this thought provoking thread.
In a similar vein, I was thinking about sound reproduction, music in particular and how I got my partner to share musical moments with me. I looked back at the various stages of improvement in SQ as a system develops and ended up with 5. We reach a "stage" when we stop fiddling for a while and enjoy the new plateau of fidelity (if you will) we have reached.... until the itch to improve further hits us again, because the system has not yet reached us to the core. We reach that stage when details & cues -- frequencies, dominants & harmonics, dynamics, etc -- are all there in their right place, musically coherent. We no longer hear frequencies, details, or cues; we only hear the music.
Regards
 

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