After many, many years as an audiophile, I’ve come to a conclusion that a goal of tonal balance is far more rewarding and less crazy producing than the quest for greater and greater definition. Of course, both together is Nirvana. But so many audiophiles go awry in the holy quest for lucidity. Years ago I had a system that was far less defined than the system I have today. But, tonally, it was in perfect balance. A violin sounded like a violin, an oboe like an oboe, a trumpet like a trumpet, you get the idea. But, it was lacking in those elusive fine points of definition that I thought I needed. Then began a many year’s quest to find the right component, wire, fuse, what have you to get the sharpest picture I could attain. Trouble is, I would improve one aspect at the expense of another. More piling on of fixes and I couldn’t get to the place of happiness I had before I started. Finally, probably by luck and after thousands of dollars I’ve reached the point of content I was at several years ago. Maybe my system is better defined now, but it also has achieved that synergy. My point is, was it worth the torture?
Far as I’m concerned; if a system is truly, "transparent", or- "high-definition", it’ll pass whatever, "tonality" is in the recording and all other musical/venue information, without editorializing anything. Hopefully, presenting a reasonable facsimile, of the event. That’s not, "Nirvana". It’s just accuracy!
I would not listen to speakers that couldn't approximate enough in their tone and timbre presentation. You add resolution with source, electronics and cables, and of course with power management. So, for me tone first. Along with dynamics.
This popped into my head when reading the OP's question. Wouldn't it be cool if there were an app that would allow you to "plug in" various components and it would spit out the overall sound characteristics of that system? It might save a lot of fussing around with the trial and error approach. Basically you could create a virtual system and get feedback on how it sounds. Of course it would require a huge amount of data. (Watch, someone will develop this and make millions).
RV, I agree with you and some of the others who consider tonality and timbre to be the most important of the various sonic traits that can be attributed to a system. And I agree that those are the keys to making "a violin sound like a violin, an oboe like an oboe, a trumpet like a trumpet," etc.
But the difficulty, as I see it, is that many things contribute to perceived tonality and timbre, while at the same time contributing to "definition." Including frequency response flatness, harmonic content, numerous forms of distortion, coherence, transient response, and yes (as Messrs. Rodman and David_Ten alluded to), clarity, resolution, and transparency.
As is usual in audio, there are no easy answers. But if I were to attempt to translate the ability of a system to reproduce realistic tonality and timbre into just a couple of words that encompass many of these other terms, and that are somewhat more hardware-related, I would say that first and foremost is "harmonic accuracy."
The following thread from 2010 may be of interest:
I agree with the OP, with data to back it up. My view is that "definition" is artificial, and deliberately enhanced.
It often happens in the frequency response curves. By using relatively tight peaks and valleys of frequency response, a speaker can bring out certain details that an actually neutral speaker would not, but at the same time, it would do so at the expense of other notes.
I have written quite a bit about the "Stereophile curve" here:
I personally feel the same way about the soundstaging trick. The high end audio magazines decided that this was a desirable characteristic and the audio manufacturers started tuning for this characteristic to the detriment of tone. The tail was wagging the dog, again.
IMHO the high end audio magazines sent the audio manufacturers in the wrong direction with the emphasis on transparency and soundstaging, for me anyway. I have no animus for my friends that prefer to tune their gear for these properties. It would be a boring world if all rigs sounded the same.
I recommend you to stop paying attention to sound and just enjoy the music.
There is an old story. In the version I heard Alan Watts tell, a Zen Master says, "In the beginning mountains are mountains, waters are waters. Later on you see mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters. Later still mountains are mountains, waters are waters."
Or something like that. We begin knowing music is music. Then we learn music is inner detail, pace, timing, attack, decay, frequency response, harmonic development.... That music is not music.
Absolutely. I would call that balance. Like TV to use an analogy: You want the highest definition possible but colour, contrast, black levels and brightness must be authentic and accurate. High definition with exaggeration is eye catching initially but quickly becomes tiring.
Yep, a dip around 2.4 kHz in the response seems to do this. It’s kind of a convenient point too, as crossovers often occur in this range so as a speaker designer, all I have to do is push the high pass and low pass filters a little further apart than optimal, and voila, exaggerated soundstage.
As I recall, some Wilsons did this.
On a related note, many years ago, budding audiophile me, did blind testing with speaker cables and neighbors. I preferred sound staging, they much preferred the more neutral and liveliness of the cheaper cables. We agreed on what we heard, but disagreed on what was more important.
Harry Pearson started the obsession with the "soundstage" in his first issues of TAS. Gordon Holt’s first concern was with the timbre (pronounced tamber; I often hear it mispronounced timber) of acoustic instruments and voices. He looked for any "vowel" colorations in loudspeakers, and with any "grain" added to the source material by electronics. Second was the reproduction of the orchestra’s balance; the heft and weight of the tuba, the double bass, the left-hand registers of the piano, the bass pedals of the pipe organ at one end, the sheen of violin strings, piercing blast of the trumpet, and delicate peep coming out of the piccolo at the other. Plus all the harmonic overtones produced by all acoustic instruments and voices. He valued transparency for the role it played in allowing all the "voices" in the orchestra to be heard. For a stunning example of that kind of inner detail, try to hear any of Bob Fulton’s ARK label recordings. They allow every single voice in the large Minnesota church choirs he recorded to be clearly heard, all the individual threads of the vocal tapestry revealed. He also captured the awesome power of the local cathedral pipe organs. Incredible recordings, fully the equal (if not better) of those of Dave Wilson.
By the way, the difference in timbre produced by two instruments playing the same note is the result of the relative strength of all the harmonics of the fundamental tone produced. The same is also partially true of the difference in timbre between two, say, violins. Partially because there is also the matter of the resonance of the wood used to make the violin, it’s shape and internal construction, and how it is finished. Gretsch drums were for many years the preferred make by players who appreciated their superior resonance, a result of the nature of the design and construction of their shells. All six plies were butt-joined, unlike the scarf-joint construction of all other makes.
There are those who believe if the “soundstage” is right, the timbre will automatically be a right as well.
Well, kind of. The trouble is I disagree with what "right" is. I mean, yes, sound stage and timbre is intimately linked, but those who like exaggerated sound stages also like a timber which is off neutral in absolute terms, and this is what has become the high-end bias. It's not better, it's just different but it sure does command higher prices.
I'm in the same camp as the OP, @oregonpapa , and @erik_squires on this one. I have heard systems with impressive soundstaging and dynamics and extended FR in both directions, and yet . . . when I listened to an orchestral recording, I couldn't tell what instrument was playing, because the timbres were all wrong. In the end, I found that a discouraging experience. To those who say, it's all in the recording: I'm the first to agree that recordings vary a lot. That doesn't negate that, to my ears, differences in audio systems' timbre reproduction are noticeable across a cross-section of recordings.
My observation, no big shock here, is that there is not a single answer that applies to everyone.
In my own case, the tone, especially for piano, saxophone, trumpet, and snare drums has to be right...or I find my mind wondering away from the music and thinking about "fixes".
On the other hand, I have two friends who don't care so much about the tone. For one, its all about the bass; if it isn't pushing him into his chair, then he isn't happy. For the other, its all about the volume; it has to be loud and anything below 90db just doesn't sound right to him.
My understanding of it is like this: To perceive the most accurate quality of the reproduced music, it's necessary to successfully generate the correct harmonic structure - the primary tone plus as many of the original harmonics as possible. The problem with retrieving as much information as possible is that the higher frequency harmonics can have lower amplitude and consequently be more difficult to amplify without gathering distortion in the amplification (and source retrieval) process. These added distortions make the sound harder and brighter and alter the timbre.