Distortions that the human ear likes. Are there any ?

This is based on a post from another thread, where someone speaking to a studio mastering engineer, repeated a quote by this engineer, stating " most audiophiles like certain distortions ", and it quickly started a debate. I did not want to continue this on the other thread, as it had little to do with the OP's direction on his thread. What say you, Geoff, George, Almarq, Ralph, anybody......if this thread goes nowhere, I can always have it removed. Enjoy ! MrD.
mrdecibel writes:
This is based on a post from another thread, where someone speaking to a studio mastering engineer, repeated a quote by this engineer, stating " most audiophiles like certain distortions ", and it quickly started a debate.

This would hardly even be debatable except for two things: engineers using "audiophile" as innuendo to talk down what is in fact a universal human characteristic, and "distortion" being used to define another perfectly normal characteristic, harmonic development, which in this case is a character woven into the very fabric of the universe itself.

Set those aside and its just an obvious fact that people love harmonics. I mean, we got the harmonica, harmony, harmonious, any of these ring a bell? Which itself when it rings, the better the bell the more harmonically rich it rings. I mean, come on. Only engineers could be so dense.

Well, and audiophiles.

Both come along and redefine perfectly natural harmonics into distortions. As if when Itzhak Perlman plays a chord its pure but somehow Jimmy Hendrix plays it its distortion. How, exactly? Splain it to me, Lucy.

OF COURSE we like some harmonics better than others. They're called even-order harmonics. Duh.

Next question.....

It’s not the harmonics. It’s the harmonic distortion. Harmonic distortion is a technical term. Specifically,

The total harmonic distortion (THD) is a measurement of the harmonic distortion present in a signal and is defined as the ratio of the sum of the powers of all harmonic components to the power of the fundamental frequency. Distortion factor, a closely related term, is sometimes used as a synonym.

Guess what, they already found out a long time ago THD is not well correlated to what audiophiles perceive as good sound. In fact, Amplifier A can sound decidedly worse than Amplifier B even when Amplifier A has a THD 💯 Times better than Amplifier A.

Next up, list as many sources of distortion as you can.
I think what the engineers were talking about were the nuanced distortions injected into even order harmonics that can please our ears. He wasn't referring to even ordered natural harmonics as they wouldn't be distorted, by their very nature.

Think tubes from the good old days that couldn't help but introduce even ordered harmonic distortions. Those old enough to remember when tubes powered everything, including your TV. Those days. 

All of what engineers do nowadays is based on those very old notions of what sounds pleasing. It can't be helped. It gives rise to lots of debate as to what sounds right as technology progresses and when you hear a really good, minimalist recording, you get it. Our ears have been played with for a long, long time.

Musicians estates, long after they've departed, still insist on that sound that existed/was used back in the day. Sometimes it's played with but not often are they corrected to what it actually sounded like. Those that do are usually reissued and touted as remastered.

Nat King Cole is a good example. I was lucky enough to hear a CD that made it pass his estate where there was no manipulation of the performance and it sounded like he was right in the room with me, playing away. When his estate found out, they halted and recalled all the CDs that made it out and had the recording altered to how they felt Nat should be remembered; like he sounded on all of his recordings. 

He was no longer in the room. 

All the best,

This just in!

“The higher harmonics, above the 7th, give the tone "edge" or "bite." The basic cause of the difference in tube and transistor sound is the weighting of harmonic distortion in the amplifier’s overload region (the italics are mine). Transistor amplifiers exhibit a strong component of 3rd harmonic distortion when driven into overload.”

Since there are so many sources of distortion one has a very tough road to hoe to try attribute any distortion he hears to the particular source or sources. Some things are easier than others, for example mechanical feedback and clipping.
Based on what I've read, and experienced, including writing from Pass, and listening to Pass gear and my own experiences, here goes:

The perception and appreciation of distortion and other non-linear sound reproduction is a learned, not innate, capability or feature of the ear / brain mechanism.

Being learned, it varies from individual to individual. Unless we do a survey that is credibly representative of "most audiophiles" this question has no answer which can be backed up by more than individual accounts.

So, the good news is that variety of product selection is most likely to have a product at a price point most audiophiles can be satisfied with. The bad news is I am not going to agree with a LOT of audiophiles as to what sounds good, but then, I don't really care if I do.

Your own wallet and your own ears and your own heart must ultimately be used to determine the value, desirability and sacrifice you will make for a particular bit of kit. It isn't wrong to like something that sounds like your '78 Oldsmobile. Just don't try to force me to believe it is neutral or state of the art.


To confuse the waters even further, there's also changes in our hearing with age and trauma.

There are speakers which are arguably far from neutral, which may correct for these losses, and make your ears feel young again.

Is this "pleasurable distortion?"  Is the loudness curve, whether in an amp, or in the speaker design not distortion?

So yes, we can like things far from neutral at times.
I wish they still made Olds. My dad had a ’58 Olds station wagon and it was like a living room on wheels. Can’t remember what it sounded like but I do remember all of us getting out and pushing it to a gas station.

It was like pushing a living room on wheels. 😄

All the best,
Listen, " as far as I am concerned ", there are three distortions I am easily aware of, and I do not like any of them in a system. One, is obviously amplifier clipping, which is very unpleasant, and one that I personally, in my own system, I never experience. The second, is when a speaker breaks up ( compression ), because it cannot handle the signal being applied to it, or, when an amplifier is simply played too loudly, beyond the limits of the speaker. Third, hum or hiss. I do believe, there are distortions that are enjoyed by some listeners, as I think Nonoise and Eric hit on. I know quite a number of musicians, some of which are audiophiles, and some are not. Many of them, when they play, have gear that creates distorted sounds, so this may be another situation that the engineer was speaking about. Anyway, I will give this post a week or so, and see where it goes. I am a big boy, so if anyone cares to " attack " me, it is ok. But, I posted this as a learning opportunity. Enjoy ! MrD.
Thanks for the mention, MrD. I agree with the mastering engineer, at least as a general rule of thumb. And especially if we define "distortion" as "deviation from accuracy," rather than more narrowly as harmonic distortion. Here are reasons that occur to me off the top of my head; I’m sure there are other reasons as well:

1) As alluded to earlier, it is widely recognized that certain even order harmonic distortion components, especially the second harmonic, tend to be subjectively perceived as contributing to richness and warmth.

2) As Ralph (Atmasphere) has pointed out in a number of past threads, if the distortion characteristics of an amplifier are such that harmonic distortion becomes vanishingly small at low power levels while increasing significantly at high power levels (as is the case with SET and some other amplifiers having single-ended output stages), since our hearing mechanisms use certain odd order distortion components as loudness cues the subjective result will often be a perceived increase in dynamics.

3) My understanding is that very small amounts of high frequency noise or hiss can be subjectively perceived as added "air" and ambience. That would seem to be a reason, btw, that some audiophiles report finding that shielded cables tend to produce a more closed in sound than unshielded cables. Shielding can potentially reduce high frequency noise in at least three ways: (a) As a result of increased capacitance; (b) by reducing RFI pickup; (c) by reducing ground loop-related noise, as a result of lowering the impedance between the circuit grounds and/or chassis of the connected components.

4) Here is an interesting quote from the manual for the DEQX HDP-5 I have in my system:

Room measurements typically exhibit a downward “tilt” from low bass to high treble of 6 up to 15 dB. This is caused by a number of factors including reduced dispersion and greater absorption in the room at high frequencies. Do not attempt to EQ your room measurement completely flat – that will most likely sound overly bright.

That rings true to me. And it indicates that optimizing in-room frequency response is a delicate balancing act, with the result unlikely to be anything that can be considered to be precisely accurate in an objective sense.

5) It was established in the late 1970s, as I recall, that the commonly used technique of reducing total harmonic distortion (THD) by application of feedback can often result in significant amounts of transient intermodulation distortion (TIM), which can be much more objectionable than THD. So in addition to adding richness, warmth, and in some cases enhancing dynamics, highish levels of THD may be appealing in some cases due to an associated minimization of TIM.


-- Al

@nonoise  interesting stuff.  Yes there does seem to be a prevailing feeling amongst those on the pro side that audiophiles are there to be humoured and tolerated. There there my dear!

Whether we like it or not the most important decisions are made on their side  - not ours. Until perhaps one day we may be allowed digital access to the original tracks to mix them down to our own preferences.

Regarding authenticity, I'd be with the families on that one. I want period sound but in as high a quality as possible and as close to what the artists were hearing as they recorded it. We're talking about historical art in many cases.

Unfortunately I doubt that even in 2019 we're hearing Nat King Cole the same as he heard himself in the Capitol studios way back in the 50s and early 60s.

Al, I think you hit the nail on the head. I believe the engineer was implying " deviation from accuracy ". This makes the most sense, and the dictionary says the same, and not just about audio. Al, I believe the question was answered. T.Y. Always, and Enjoy ! MrD
Room measurements typically exhibit a downward “tilt” from low bass to high treble of 6 up to 15 dB. This is caused by a number of factors including reduced dispersion and greater absorption in the room at high frequencies. Do not attempt to EQ your room measurement completely flat – that will most likely sound overly bright.

This is something all acousticians live by. It isn’t opinion. It’s fact. This is why no auto-eq attempts to implement it. If you look at the Dirac documentations for instance, you'll see this built in.

We are used to seeing close miked, "quasi-anechoic" measurements of speakers and electronics, so we expect speakers to be flat in the room, and god help you if you hear it! :)

Also, this is not new. The B&K speaker curve (which I worship as a god) is what, like 60 years old by now?


OK, here’s the problem with believing anyone who claims audiophiles prefer or like certain types of distortion. Let’s suppose there is a desirable type distortion, or one that some people like, whatever it might be, and I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing or anything like that. The problem is even if there was a “good distortion” it would be drowned in a sea of “bad distortions.” You would be unable to hear the good distortion, it would be much less than the sum of all the bad types of distortion. Hel-loo. So, I’m saying it’s a logical fallacy.

This doesn’t even address noise, which is a different animal than distortion but similar, that also reduces SNR and DR. Signal to (noise + distortion) ratio.

As Shannon Dickson opined in one of his articles in Stereophile back in the late 90s, audiophiles at CES can’t seem to get themselves up out of the noise floor. Take it from me, things haven’t changed much since then. But since audiophiles are generally an adaptable bunch they learn to live with the distortion. The many sources “bad distortion” coming up next, unless somebody beats me to it.
 I agree that there is a certain amount of condensention on the part of some engineers, misguided as it may be.

And, I'd like the ability to hear things as they were performed, as close to an "acoustic" rendition as possible. It would be limited to a small portion of recordings as most studio recordings are, of necessity, required to use some sort of wizardry to accomplish the desired end product. 

As for that authentic sound of yesteryear, in some cases yes, others, no.
After I heard that Nat King Cole CD, going back to the Gold Reissue (both done by Steve Hoffman), it was never the same. 

All the best,
Post removed 
Condensation bad! 
Funny you should mention that, Geoff. When composing, auto spell first spelled that instead of the word I wanted to use. I almost missed it. 🤪
No problem, it’s been a little slow here at Subway today.
Would it not be better for the all the usual suspects commenting 
on this thread to consider their own Skype group grope?
Yeah I think your missingbthe point here. And that’s because there is an assumption that distortion is bad. The fact is, it is the way you use it that makes a record or I should say the music in a record found the way it sounds. 

I was producing an electronic classical record at a studio The Beach Boys used in Santa Barbara. The engineer was very familiar with the composers music but I didn’t like the over all sound he was getting so I took the tracks to a Village Recorders in LA to mix. The engineer there had no idea what to do with this sort of music but he did make it sound the way I wanted. So I took the project back to Santa Barbara and said this is what I’m looking for somicly. So the original engineer used the headphone buss to do the mix instead of the main part of the board. And it was what I was looking for. Basically it was distortion which instead of being a negative thing, made the music more exciting. 

There if vourse other stories about why soul singers and drummers recorded in the 60’s sound the way they do but this is long enough. 
Damn I need to edit that. Is there a way to do that?
The problem is even if there was a “good distortion” it would be drowned in a sea of “bad distortions.”

In which geoff proves all music is distortion, and all distortion music, and human life is meaningless in the cosmic time scale.
Distortions within source material as originally performed, yes.  Distortions from over-saturating downstream componentry or engineers over-fussing with track level gain or EQ boost...no.
Is firstnot a derivative of Slipnot minus some class?
Intentional artistic distortion (ie many Beatles recordings from Rubber Soul onwards) = good. That's what the recording artists and their teams wanted.

After market distortion (mastering choices done by engineers years later and those defects added by loudspeakers, turntables, amps etc) = bad. You might like them but the original artists, producers, engineers etc might disagree. 

Or they might not, especially if enough money rolls in as a result. Ultimately it all depends upon what you the consumer wants to pay for.
Moving the discussion sideways, I bought an Avid Acutus Dark turntable recently. It came with a "stabiliser"  or puck for a shorter word to sit on the record to apparently enhance the sound (rerduce distortion??)  Not sure of the theory, but I suppose it made sense. My Linn Lp12 does not have one and indeed cannot due  to the weight factor. The Avid puck threads on to the platter to give tight grip on the record, but to change a record you have to unwind the puck each time. Crazy. So I bought at great expense a Stilpoint puck that is a bit heavier but just slots on top. 
I was not amazingly impressed, but one day by mistake I forgot to put the puck on and wondered why the sound was better. Playing around putting on and off I felt the puck was taking out much airiness and musicality so I now have 2 pucks sitting doing nothing.
My point is that reducing one thing (distortion?) also decreases another aspect, and not necessarily favourably. Not sure why this is though.....
I do not think "most" audiophiles like distortion. Indeed, most audiophiles spend a lot of effort and money trying to reduce it, imo.

But there are those who enjoy euphonic distortion. For example, one thread here got in to quite a bust-up when a user insisted his LP dubs to R-2-R were more accurate than the original LPs. He just couldn’t accept that he preferred the tape dubs because of the addition of small amounts of euphonic distortion. (After all, a dub of an LP can’t contain information not on the original disc. It can only add distortion, however slight it may be.)
But there are those who enjoy euphonic distortion. For example, one thread here got in to quite a bust-up when a user insisted his LP dubs to R-2-R were more accurate than the original LPs. He just couldn’t accept that he preferred the tape dubs because of the addition of small amounts of euphonic distortion. (After all, a dub of an LP can’t contain information not on the original disc. It can only add distortion, however slight it may be.)

>>>>Oh, I don’t know, why can’t a copy of an LP be better than the original or contain more information? It certainly seems to be true that a copy of a CD can be better than the original and contain more information. Or perhaps a copy of an LP to cassette. I suspect things are quite a bit more complicated than we realize sometimes. Actually I think the term euphonic distortion probably originated with naysayers attempting to claim such and such a thing couldn’t possibly work. I also just explained why euphonic distortion would be buried in a sea of bad distortions, anyway, so even if there was such a thing as euphonic distortion you wouldn’t be able to hear it. The good distortion would be buried in the noise/distortion. You don’t think you’re listening to undistorted sound when you listen to music, do you?
Well I don't think it could Rilly be better. If it were, then the more tape copies you make from the original tape, then the better the result should sound, yes??

You might, I suppose, indeed come up with a preference for a single-generation copy tape to the original vinyl, but if your system's response were being continually improved by other means, would you come to the point that all you preferred was the vinyl?
Well, I don’t think it could Rilly be better. If it were, then the more tape copies you make from the original tape, then the better the result should sound, yes??

>>>>I’m not saying yes but I’m definitely not saying no. But that’s getting ahead of the question. I’m only asking about one copy. I’m not considering other variables just copying.
This is right. Say, some audiophiles use single-output tube amplifiers with output triodes and low feedback or without feedback at all. Such devices produce strong second harmonic and these people decide that this is a sample of ideal sound.
When it comes to harmonics (and I realize this thread is about whether or not we might "prefer" any certain kind of distortion), then overall I'd think that the most "realistic" reproduction of harmonics across the board would be the one most immune to criticism. But, then I don't think in terms of arriving at the best "recipe" for harmonics, but in leveling the playing field for for devices that are supposed dish out harmonics somewhere close to their original relationship.

To do that, we need to look at the biggest cause (IMO) of less than ideal harmonic performance and that is the "other" harmonics - line harmonics - or the "bad" harmonics. Cancel out those and the good harmonics come out unscathed, in virtually any system. And that's more of a noise-floor reduction/power-factor correction thing.
We covered all that in class yesterday. You know, the difference between harmonics and harmonic distortion.
I was playing hooky yesterday, but I still would answer the OP by saying that fundamentally speaking, that I don't think that there are distortions that we might prefer, just those that we might think we prefer until we hear it done better more properly and come to prefer it instead.
But then, I can't rule anything out either...the above is just my 2 cents.
@tatyana69, you're not the only one sceptical about the use of record player pucks.

Adding weight directly above the main bearing seems counter intuitive to say the least. On so many levels. 

I think the Rega and Technics decks get bearing/weight ratio just about right. Neither see the need for pucks.
Nelson Pass has been investigating the subject of "pleasant distortion." He made a presentation on the subject at the 2017 Burning Amp Festival. Here's a rundown on what he's been up to:

Whoa! I remember him from Crosby, Stills and Nash. Rock on!
I guess the question comes down to: How do you like your truth?.
A touch of reverb almost always seems to be universally preferred. The so called singing in a tiled bathroom effect.

I wonder why? Could it be that it somehow makes us feel safer?

Or is it some otherworldly dreamlike quality that we like.

Even better than real life?

Perhaps that's why Pop music has been processed in some way or other for decades. Some of the artists have enjoyed more than a little vocal assistance.
Flanging, whammy bar, wah wah pedal, pseudo quadraphonic, equalization, Dolby, echo.
Without reading all of this...
Strings.  The pure sound is the strings.
A violin a cello (etc) only distorts the sound from the strings, as it bounces around a bit before we hear it.   "Pure" is physics, and I love physics, but emotions are anything but pure.  

Here's the problem: All electronics make significant distortion, even though on paper it looks 'low'. But what is on paper is pretty much the Emperor's New Clothes.
However, the ear has a masking principle and in audio its sort of come to our rescue. Solid state amps make considerably less distortion than tube amps but tubes are still around because solid state is harsh. This harshness is caused by higher ordered harmonics. The thing is, there is less distortion in the solid state amp than in a tube amp, but in a tube amp there are also more lower ordered harmonics- in particular the 2nd and/or 3rd (our amps favor the 3rd, which is treated by the ear very much the way it does the second).

The presence of the lower ordered harmonics masks the presence of the higher ordered harmonics. This is significant, because when masked the amp sounds smoother, even though it has more distortion. The funny thing is that it can also sound more detailed and have a deeper wider soundstage- and this is directly on account of the higher distortion! So what is happening is the lower orders are helping the otherwise high distortion amps to sound more real- and the ear's masking principle has a lot to do with it.

Now the other bit is that the ear is keenly sensitive to higher ordered harmonics. The reason is we use them rather than the fundamental tones to sense sound pressure. So the ear **has** to be sensitive in this regard. The fact of the masking principle is what makes *any* sort of electronics listenable.
@atmasphere  a good reason to bring back the live v recorded demonstrations that were popular some 60 years ago.

Without an absolute reference as a comparison, testing gear is like shooting a randomly moving target. 
What kind of distortion is it when the electronics are not broken in and/or the cables aren’t broken in? 
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Are we talking about a woman here or a doll? 
Watson, come here quick! What is it, Sherlock? I have found a way to add more phlogiston to wires! Listen! Quite an improvement, I dare say!
I suspect wires made of lead would sound quite good, i.e., have very low distortion, you know, not having a crystalline structure like silver and copper or being fraught with the directionality issue. Lead fuse, anyone? Does anyone make 5 nines lead wire?