Solving the "complex music problem"?

I have noticed that, regardless of the system, simple music (i.e. music with only a few sounds at the same time, such as a solo instrument) sounds way better than what I'll call here "complex music", meaning music like symphony that has a lot of instruments all playing different sounds at the same time. I'm assuming that this is an inherent problem for audio equipment. In a live symphony, you might have, say, 15 different unique instruments (i.e. counting all the violins as 1 unique instrument), each of which is vibrating in a different way; but in a speaker, each driver might be trying to reproduce 10 of those sounds at the same time. So each driver is a single physical object trying to vibrate in 10 different ways at the same time. The result is that the music sounds muddy, all the different parts blend together and you lose a lot of the detail.

I have a number of questions about this that I'm hoping all you experts can help me with.

1. Is there an established name or term for this issue? 

2. Do you think my diagnosis of the problem above is correct? Or is something else going on?

3. Although this is always a problem, it's a much bigger problem on some systems than others. Are there some types of components, or some brands, that are particularly good (or bad) when it comes to this issue?

4. To what extent is this issue related to the components you have as compared to speaker placement and room acoustics?

5. To me, this is a huge issue. But I don't see it discussed all that often. Why do you think that is? Or, perhaps, it is being discussed all the time, but people are using a term I don't recognize? (hence question 1).  


Full disclosure, I asked a related question under the heading "need amp recommendations for more separation of instruments" and got a lot of super helpful responses. I'm very grateful to everyone who took the time to respond there. That discussion was focused on a solution to my particular problem. Here I'm hoping to have a more general discussion of the issue. I know it's bad form to post the same question twice, but in my mind, this is a significantly different question. Thanks.


I have noticed that, regardless of the system, simple music (i.e. music with only a few sounds at the same time, such as a solo instrument) sounds way better than what I’ll call here "complex music", meaning music like symphony that has a lot of instruments all playing different sounds at the same time. I’m assuming that this is an inherent problem for audio equipment. In a live symphony,


The room has a much more difficult time with this than electronics. Excess early reflections and too long a reverberant field all contribute to this effect, along with harshness or compression at louder levels.

Try listening to your speakers 2’ away from them and see if this problem goes away. This will tell you if it’s your speakers or the room.

A counterpoint to this is that speakers with more controlled dispersions (ESLs, horns, line arrays,etc.) outperform wide dispersion speakers in excessively lively environments.

I agree with erik, the room can be a major contributor to incoherence in a system.  The best electronics can only take you so far if your room is the limiting factor.

@ahuvia  what are the dimensions of your room and what equipment are you using?  Have you treated any of the room acoustically?


You are correct, go to an audio show and the demos are primarily simple acoustic music.

When you try to jam complex music into just two speakers you get compression. Then people run to get bigger speakers with more dynamic range. That is a workaround, fine. My solution has been to add more speakers in addition to more dynamic range. If you are familiar with Tomlinson Holman (THX) you might like this article:


Another work around for this problem of complex music compression is using active speakers where the crossover design has some advantages in controlling the signal making it far less prone to losses and distortion:


Another workaround is object based audio and atmos music. I have a similar setup (9.2.7) and can confirm the experience they describe in this video:


resolving source + muddy amp = audio that is less detailed

resolving source + transparent amp = audio that sounds realistic

resolving source + transparent amp + resolving transducer (s)= audio nirvana


In terms of importance, it goes like this:

1) Transducer(s) (headphones or speakers)

2) Amplifier (solid-state or tube)

3) Source component (DAC, CD player, record player etc.)


Because the headphones or speakers is the final point of contact beween you the total sum of your system, how resolving they are will greatly influence what you hear.

A bad amplifier (that is not audibly transparent or a wire-with-gain, in other words colored-sounding), will limit the full potential of your source component(s) and headphones/speakers.

You could have an incredibly detailed DAC, CD player etc. that provides the true analog-sound (like real life) sound of digital, or even top-notch vinyl. But if the sum of all parts are not aligned, it will be like looking at a beautfiul sight through a foggy window (in terms of what your ears are able to discern and appreciate).


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I can't figure out how to reply to a specific post. But thanks all for your input.


I can't figure out how to reply to a specific post. But thanks all for your input.

I just copy and paste what I am replying to and link the member who posted

A lot of good responses already. I agree with getting closer to the speakers or using more directional speakers and/or room treatments, and using active crossovers with steep slopes and more drivers, or adding more speakers and listening to multi-channel music such as Atmos as all good ways to help clarify complex music and provide better separation. A very smooth broadband frequency response at the listening position is also very important. And hugely important, at least for me, is anything you can do to improve the apparent width and clarity of the stereo soundstage. Having different sounds come from very distinctly different apparent directions helps abundantly. That’s where the multi-channel Atmos recordings can really help if done well. Crosstalk elimination methods really help for 2 channel recordings. A divider wall between the speakers is a fantastic improvement in my opinion compared to any 2 channel setup with both speakers playing into both ears at the same time. Polk and Carver came up with analog methods of electronically reducing crosstalk. They work to varying degrees. I’ve tried both. A simple setup I’ve been experimenting with for a few months now that I like much better uses 3 speakers in a close array - about 1 foot apart center to center. It requires matrixing the signal into L-R, L+R, and R-L, which is the kind of stuff Hafler was playing with a long time ago. The interesting thing about putting this array of speakers close together and in front of you is that it provides some pretty effective crosstalk elimination without sounding at all processed, and produces an excellent sound stage which is very good at separating out complex music. I find myself no longer seeking out simpler recordings because I need some relief. The simple stuff sounds great as usual but the complex stuff is not falling apart either, so I’ve been focusing on it, practically looking for something that will overwhelm the setup or make me pine to go back to a traditional 2 speaker setup. At this point I don’t see it happening. The good news is I can run this setup with a standard 2 channel system. I just have to matrix the signal and run 2 of the speakers in parallel, with one out of phase of the other. So, the amp will need to be up to the task of running a lower impedance in one channel than the other. One channel runs the center speaker, the other channel runs the two side speakers. So you need an extra speaker and the matrixer. I use my computer to matrix the signals.

I’ve heard some weird stuff on Atmos recordings - like a whole string section of instruments all globbed together coming from one distinct location. I’m guessing that was the track they had to work with - a mono strings track and they had to put it somewhere in the sound field. So that part of the recording lacked clarity and separation but it was nicely separated from other things in the recording. Maybe there was some artistic intent there? I’ve heard that with some vocal harmonizing too. It's like there's a pocket AM radio playing along with the other instruments. 

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And hugely important, at least for me, is anything you can do to improve the apparent width and clarity of the stereo soundstage.

This is why I posted that article re: Tomlinson Holman. His research shows that wide channels are more important than height channels. They need to be at 60 degree angles and then WOW, soundstage that is just amazing.

You mention Carver, I bought the Sunfire Theater Grand 3 in 2002 which had side axis (wide) channels that were not just an extension of the left and right but using a matrixed wide channel to fill in the gap between the front and side surrounds. It worked great.


The engineers mixing in atmos agree that two channels is very limiting and the atmos "palette" let’s them place the musical objects much more realistically.

Yes, there are bad and good atmos mixes, just like everything else. I find the atmos renderer in the X-Box works well for music and movies mixed in 2, 5, or 7 channel. The Auro-3D, The Audyssey DSX, and DTS-Neo X (not dts-x) all work well for complex music as well as very dynamic music. If you want a GREAT Atmos mix get the Kraftwek 3D blueray or the new Harry Styles atmos mix you can stream.


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The relative scale of music recordings is a very good topic and something that does not get the attention it merits in discussions about good sound at home

It’s true the room is the biggest difference maker in the end especially for recordings of large scale ensembles where you essentially stuff a sound meant for a concert hall into a tiny room at home. For the most part it’s all a matter of relative scale. The good news for all in regards to cost: in a small room, less is often more.

I've been struck with similar observations while listening @ahuvia . And I think I agree that small combinations of instruments often seem easier to present nicely. I also agree that this may be why one often hears sparse arrangements at audio shows and environments designed to show off hi-fi equipment. But what if the space provided by fewer instruments simply allows easier brain processing that gives the impression of enhanced fidelity? Or allows subtler details to stand out (a breath here, a brief string buzz there) simply because they're not masked by other noises, giving an impression of greater detail and clarity? I have no idea if explanations like these are actually true, but I mention it because I'm pretty sure the assumptions you've made to explain this (potential) phenomenon aren't right. 

I mean, your speakers aren't fighting to create the sound of the instruments that were playing, right? They're delivering information stored in the recording of the instruments that were playing -- a very different thing. You're worrying that the speakers are attempting to deliver too much information while being inadequate for the task, but in fact the microphones that recorded the instruments themselves have already squashed the entirety of those data into something different, haven't they? Your speakers have only to correctly deliver that information. Your whole system knows nothing of 15 instruments, it only knows up, down, right, left... Or, you know, zeros and ones. 

But for the original question I hope someone with much more knowledge than I can weigh in on why less info. in a recording seems easier to make sound good? 

One reason is when there is less for one to focus on, it is easier to take it all in. 

I agree with @erik_squires that it's usually the room acoustics that are the bottleneck. One way of thinking about that is that a good set of headphones usually doesn't have the issue to anything like the same degree. The main difference is that headphones pipe sound directly into the ear, without its being influenced by the room.

Anuvia I agree the room is a big part. When I play complex music , I use my KLH model 9, my Andra, or the Tekton Ps 12 Speakers. I get good results this way. I think Erik Alexander has explanations on your thread. On my systems my Tekton ps 12 and Impact Monitors both does well on classical.

I experienced this same problem with complex music.  While all components play at least a minor role, I found that the amplifier played the largest role in resolving this problem.

Mapman you are right recording is also a big part..And a system that is well synergize with a capable speakers as well.

I wondered about this issue as well. No actual name that I have read.

If you consider that in symphonic music live you hear each instrument  however in a two channel stereo you hear only on instrument ,the driver, it seem obvious that

the two can not compete.

Room acoustics are key for ALL music, maybe even more important for simple music. Try listening to a solo piano in a reflective room, like cats fighting. Do you think a Norah Jones recording would sound better than the 1812 Overture (Lone Ranger theme) in a bad room? No.

So, you get the room right. There is STILL a difference between simple and complex music in a good room that is a problem.

I completely agree that the speakers have to be matched to the room to resolve the problem of complex music presentation. I agree with many of the work arounds presented like the big full range speakers @jayctoy uses, I also agree that quality electronics are important as the speakers can’t produce a signal they don’t get and it will sound mushed coming out. When I am listening to complex music I can send the stereo signal to my Sony Signature DAC which remasters the signal in DSD. My processor then upmixes the signal for my 9.2.7 speakers. I just listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto streaming on Stingray Music through Plex tonight. Not a full scale orchestra but not a quartet either. It lifted me right into the hall they were playing in.

Now, I sometimes will set my X-Box Series S to output in other formats. The other night it was Michael Buble with a HUGE big band recorded in Vegas streamed via Qwest TV on Plex. I set the X-Box to stream it in DTS 7.1 then upmixed it in my processor to 9.2.2. Fan f----tastic. The audience applause envelop you like you are there. The DTS renderer in the X-Box and the DTS-Neo-X upmixer in my Marantz processor layout notes and instruments in a way I have never heard in two channel with both dynamics and precision. For my taste in a complex music presentation wide channels are key, much more so than height channels.

You get the idea. This is the youtube version of that video:


Great question. I always just assumed this was a given… and a problem that speakers had difficulty dealing with. Only a few sounds… easy… lots of sounds at the same time… difficult. Assuming three individual drivers trying to reproduce the whole audio spectrum. Ideally you would use a thousand speakers with different diameters.. but crossovers would completely destroy the sound.

So, I figured this is a problem that is addressed by better speaker technology allowing faster reaction and recovery to inputs… ok, a grossly oversimplified characterization, but at least gets my point across.

I’ve had the same problem.

Amplifier and preamplifier quality and compatibility solved it, though all the other necessary ducks were in a row first, quality FM tuner, speaker placement, speaker isolation, cables, etc.

@ahuvia The conductor has the best seat in the house standing 6-7’ above the musicians inside the string section. The high priced seats are mid-hall center where a blend is achieved. My favorite seat is front row center which is as close to being on stage as possible. I love the instrumental separation from that perspective.

Since you are asking about large groups, I assume you have a good collection of symphonic recordings, hopefully from all stereophonic eras, 1960 to the present. Is your system resolving enough to parse out the engineering of each recording? You should be able to hear how close the mikes are to the group by hall reverberations and instrumental separation, and whether there was spot mikeing and mixing board shenanigans. Early stereo often was not natural. Today anything goes.

One of the most revealing recordings I have recently encountered is the SACD of the Cleveland Orchestra playing Schnittke Piano Concerto. It is a live performance with the mikes directly over the group. The separation is uncanny. Hopefully you are not afraid of contemporary music. The piece is a blast!

If you cannot hear these differences, then address your room and system. Don’t forget to do ALL the TWEAKS>

I think Kota1 post is so true.On his other post he said good preamp can’t  compensate for the music that comes out since the source is the one responsible for that. Good dac and transport produce big soundstage IMS, especially if my speakers are further part at least 9 foot.Rememer big soundstage usually instruments are more easily detected on their proper place.Speakers placement does aa big part solving the problem playing complex music, cable as well.My Audioquest diamond interconnect is well known for 3D IMS.There are few cables are capable of holographic sound.Digital cable like the Marigo apparition Has more air and holographic than my d60 Kimber,  though the d60 is a bit more detail.Tube gear are also capable of 3D sound. This is considering the system is synergize.To really achieve the best out of your system, keep listening till you become  familiar with your components and cables and tweaks.

What I do to test if my system is really capable of holographic sound , I will play music that are holographic like Pentatonix very easy to listen.Fairfield Four is onother cd I played.

On classical I used Winston Ma DECCA box set FIM label. This box set will really test your system if indeed is capable playing complex music.

Why do you think many Demos and Audio Show exhibits use music like Dianna Krall and a few Piano notes? They rarely play Complex Music. I have fun with my favorite store owner when he puts out videos with Simple music.

I have never heard a system where I could hear every instrument in an orchestra, especially at louder volumes. Even with headphones. There’s something about live music, with a good sound system, in a well designed venue 

Agree with @dcoffee.  No matter what the recorded performance is, there is always just one complex signal going down your speaker wires. It's the sum of what was laid down for that channel.  Unless one's electronics are that unresolving, I'm thinking that the speaker driver is usually the limiting factor in accurate reproduction.  It would seem to be the more difficult task.  


I have never heard a system where I could hear every instrument in an orchestra, especially at louder volumes.

I don't know of a one size fits all solution, even at a live performance you need good seats for that. That problem has been studied by Tomlinson Holman and they did a lot of research into great halls and acoustics. The first reflection points and the space above the performers are key and he developed a system of speaker placement to replicate that, check this out:


It isn't just the signal going out to the speakers, it is also the signal goijng into the mic that compresses complex music. Hopefully new microphone technology will help resolve this problem:




I have not attended as many live events in relatively recent history as you have but I've also noticed on those occasions  that if I closed my eyes it was difficult to tell exactly where sounds were coming from. At the last concert there was a choir and one voice stood out. I could see who she was. If I closed my eyes her apparent location shifted further to the left and would move around a bit depending on which note she was singing. So yeah, pinpoint sound staging could be considered somewhat of a parlor trick but considering other limitations of sound reproduction I find it helpful to get a little boost there. I consider reproduced sound to be a bit of an art all it's own - like photographs or film needing curves applied to make up for the fact that printed paper or even newer HDR displays can't reproduce the actual dynamic range of many real scenes. We have to fudge a bit to get the apparent contrast or separation clarity to perceptually remind us more of reality. 

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Micheal Romanowski calls the problem of complex music the "two speaker" problem, he basically is sharing that atmos is superior to two channel:


 The amazing part of all this is the fact that the tiny interworkings in our ears can convert countless soundwaves into signals our brains interpert. Then we decide the quality of the sound.

And thats only a nano example of Gods amazing creations.

Wanna hear the result of "room acoustics?" Go listen to a live symphony. A good system in any reasonable room (with a good recording) can easily reproduce either a solo instrument OR a symphony brilliantly, they’ve been able to do that for decades. Sorry, that’s the truth. All the elements are there in the recording for you to enjoy, even with some "room sound" unless you listen only in your vast, neighborless yard.  

I agree about room acoustics, what you hear is mostly the room.


That said, the next major issue is 2 way low sensitivity speakers. No matter how good the room is, it is limited to what the speakers produce.
The critical bandwidth in a 2 way speaker almost always contains the crossover point.


If you really want to hear every instrument and all their dynamic range, then 3 way high sensitivity speakers might be in your future.


Not sure how that solves anything.

Powered speakers have the same issues as passives.

Active crossovers are another animal entirely, I expect there are very few option for a powered speaker with an active crossover, and even fewer that would be considered good.

Unless you mean DSP, then that does not solve the issue of the room in this context let alone crossover points.


The critical bandwidth in a 2 way speaker almost always contains the crossover point.

Complex music can benefit from active speakers by:

1) Placing the crossover right before the amp giving the amp more control. In complex music with high level dynamics lack of control can smear the music:

In a passive crossover all that speaker wire is a choke point, do you think they get the best speaker wire or the cheapest for a crossover?

Many active speakers (including my own) are biamped or triamped with each amp chosen by the speaker designer for that particular driver. This makes the presentation exceptionally clear and articulate. You know how much clean articulate amps cost right? This is a budget friendly strategy to get a clear and articulate signal for the cost of that amp/speaker system:

Biamping and active crossover networks


@wolf_garcia ..”Wanna hear the result of "room acoustics?" Go listen to a live symphony. A good system in any reasonable room (with a good recording) can easily reproduce either a solo instrument OR a symphony brilliantly, they’ve been able to do that for decades.”


+1. Very important .


I have been attending a live symphony for ten years religiously. It changed the direction of my audio system upgrades completely.

I have spend time simply listening to the ambiance… the reflections from walls and ceiling. Also, individual instruments, then as they are used en mass… purposefully to create a wall of undifferentiatable sound. Sometimes starting on the stage right with the basses, violas and cellos and migrating to stage left causing a cascading wave of sound roaring across the auditorium. This sounds like a tube of a crashing wave.

Among the many reasons great classical composers remain popular is the skill they exhibit at all levels of using an orchestra to create incredible sonic experiences. Also, allowing conductors to mold the pieces into different experiences.

One of the most fundamental tools is the individual instrument versus the massed undifferentiated sound wave… the character of this sound wave they control in the amount of bass, midrange, treble and location. Symphonic orchestras are among the most amazing and complex creation of man.

I like air or vacuum capacitors, electrostatic speakers, air bearings in 3D, and Koetsu’s. None of these are cheap, and some are DIY only. But each makes its contribution, as does the room.

Digital literally gives me pain. YMMV



Looking only at the speaker, what you are describing is intermodulation distortion. It’s intermodulation distortion in components too, but unless you have poor or poorly set up vinyl (or listening to inner groove songs) , or highly distorting tube gear the rest of your component aren’t contributing much to this (always rare exceptions).


The rest of the issue and probably dominant is your speakers and room as a system. Too strong of first reflections off walls, floor and ceiling, too much back wall reflection energy, front was reinforcement and suckout, and reverberation in general. *Add in that all these reflections in combination with the speaker dispersion can have vastly different effect depending on frequency. That’s why some component changes can appear to help the problem by changing tonal balance but at that point you are painting the pig.*


What can you do?

  • Get your speakers away from walls if you can
  • Toe the speakers more in towards the listening position
  • Treat the first reflections points and front and back walls
  • Fix bass nodes issues
  • Use advanced room correction
  • Use speakers with better (and consistent) directivity control. Speakers with waveguides, well designed horns, etc. Floor to ceiling line sources can be good too but can introduce new problems if you don’t implement properly.


Multichannel has advantages as the direct sound will be louder in the intended direction towards your ears, but you still need to address the room. It is not a magic bullet.


I agree with many points in this thread - how to improve the playback system, and not least, the integration with the room. Yet I think many problems of ’complex music’ are inherent in the recording. You can reduce them in the playback but they don’t go away.

I would rather think of the problem like this:

recording problems x format limits x playback limits

Meaning that whatever problem is there in the recording, will be accenuated with a poor format and playback system (even if ’masked’ by low resolution etc).

We could use + rather than x, in this formula. But in my experience, the problems tend to interact. So if the recording is medium but the format and playback poor, they will appear larger. The sound will be even worse.

Maybe we should put x2 for the recording factor. It means a lot. With high dynamic and complex music, recording can become very difficult. Witness, from way back when, Procol Harum: In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, a pioneer effort from 1972. And we still hear recording problems, e g when The National plus guests try to redo the grand Grateful Dead song Terrapin Station, sounding noticeably worse than most of the more simple tracks on this Day of the dead 10xLP box, 2016.

Why? Recording a lot of instruments and voices together, each sounding their best, is hard to do. Integrating them into coherent sound is difficult. A notable "problem area", just mentioned, is integrating a band and a symphony orchestra, pioneered by prog rock bands like Procol Harum, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. The best recordings succeeded, like Dark Side of the Moon, but then again, this was due to heavy production - we dont hear a lot of individual players.

My best-sounding recent LPs are less complex music. Like Bhatt and Cooder: A meeting by the river. Two string instruments. Or piano and voice, like D Krall or P Barber. My less-complex music sounds great, the problem is the complex music.

For a problem case, compare the Danish group Mew. I like them a lot, and have heard them live, plus on cd, and on lp. They switch from soft (simple) to strong (complex) passages, and the sound is clearly better on the soft parts. We heard the same thing from Mew live, some years ago. The sound on the strong parts was too loud. (cf Mew: No more stories... LP 2009)