The use of equipment as "tone controls"

Several times in my Audiogon reading and posting over the last couple of years, I've noticed this or that contributor commenting along the lines of: "You shouldn't use your amp/cables/cartridge/whatever as a tone control."

I assume what this is supposed to mean is that there is some absolutely correct sound out there, and we ought not have audio equipment of any kind that deviates from that absolutely correct sound.

I might be able to buy into this if we were listening to live instruments (although their sound is, of course, affected by the space in which they are played, the position of the listener, etc., so is not itself "absolute"). But we're not listening to live music. We're listening to recordings. There are microphones, cables, recording equipment, mastering equipment, storage medium, etc, all of which come between us and the original sound--not to mention the taste and perception of the engineers, producers, etc. In that sense, what we hear coming out of our speakers is all illusion, anyway. And the illusion comes in quite a few "flavors." On one system I had, Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard sounded like he was in my living room. But Leonard Bernstein conducting the NY Phil in the early 60's was so shrill it made me run screaming from the room. In my current system, Bill Evans doesn't sound as "right there" as he used to (now I'm a few of rows back, yet still quite happy), but Leonard Bernstein doesn't make my ears bleed, either.

How did I work that? I experimented with different equipment. I used the equipment as "tone controls" (I guess). It's all respectible equipment: ARC, VTL, BAT, Cardas, etc. Maybe it reduced the "accuracy" of the reproduction of Bill Evans, but it increased the "accuracy" of the reproduction of Leonard Bernstein. Maybe. But who knows for sure?

We all tailor the sound of our systems to suit our preferences. What's wrong with that? And, most equipment has it's own sound character. That seems like a good thing, to me. It allows us to tailor our sound.

Now what we REALLY need is a good set of tone controls on our fancy pre-amps, so we can really tailor our sound!

Food for comment?
I suggest reading up on the Behringer DEQ2496:

Behringer's Ultimate Tone Control: Ultra High-Precision Digital 24-bit/96kHz EQ/RTA Mastering Equalizer

Review: Behringer DEQ2496 Equalizer

Behringer DEQ2496 - worth using in hi-end system?
you are absolutely right,recording are by no means perfect
as you pointed out the taste of the recording engineer and his equipment has a dominant effect on the recorded sound.I have found the ideal way to make the recording sound as close to live and non irritating is by using the Cello Audio Palette in my systems(I have two one for each system)I find that equalizer to be superb and a much better value than all the variety of cables or other accessories. Even live instruments have their own sound,for example I find the sound of certain brand of pianos to be harsh,with the Cello equalizer I can modify their sound to adjusted to my taste.I could not live without that component in my audio system.
Agree, our equipment has been wrestling the recorded effect for many years.

Without some kind of equalization or tone control(s) you have to split the balance of sound down the middle for your entire collection.
Yes, correcting the fault in one component with another faulty component is a bad idea IMHO.
Actually buying a tone control is different altogether. I have been told a tone control offers the least detriment to sound quality whereas equalizers will distort the sound more.
Just changing the output at 100 hz and 10,000 hz with a tone control is often enough to compensate for different recordings. Provided your system/room is not inherently faulted to begin with.
Okay, so what pre-amps of note out there have tone controls? Some McIntosh do. I snagged a 2nd hand c2200 very recently (don't even have it yet), but have been somewhat pained to note that it seems to have gotten mixed reviews among the Audiogon crowd. And a friendly source told me about an updated "remake" of the Citation One, from VAS. Has anybody heard that? The Absolute Sound seemed to like it (although I read just a bit of hesitation into that review...maybe it was just me). As far as I can tell, that's about it from "high end" land--at least in terms of tube gear of which I am aware.

Is there such thing as an "outboard" tone control, that you would plug in through the tape loop (I guess)?
since all components are imperfect, they alter the signal to the speakers, and of course, the speaker itself alters the signal as well.

what this means is that components have a sonic signature.

the issue of "tone control" arises when the consumer deliberately selects components each of which affect the sound in audible ways.

a stereo system and recording is a tone altering system.
Once the signal is converted to digital, "tone controls" are distortion free, as are the volume controls and any other desired signal processing. If you convert your CD to analog and then add these functions, as most do, you are adding lots of unnecessary distortion.
Rather than using equipment as "tone controls" it is far more efficient to actually get a preamp with tone controls or an outboard parametric EQ.
Rather than using equipment as "tone controls" it is far more efficient to actually get a preamp with tone controls or an outboard parametric EQ.

Thanks - sometimes the obvious really does need to be stated. People who buy and trade equipment in order to make tone control adjustments are really doing it the hard way.

I don't pay a lot of attention to this in listening demos as it can always be adjusted - however, ringing, thermal compression, warm muddy underdamped bass, reflex port chuffing, uneven dispersion/beaming, breakup, poor damping and IMD/THD distortion etc. etc. cannot be so easily corrected for!
It is very difficult to know what sound and performance were recorded, and we all have our preferences. Choosing equipment to adjust or control the sound is one approach and is used by many if not most audiophiles. It is MHO however, via my own experience, that changing the sound can also change the performance.

For instance, I once heard a very beautiful sounding system that was absolutely wonderful. Some recordings sounded as if the performers were in the room, but they were all great. Then I realized that everything sounded not only good, but practically the same. That cannot be right. If everything sounds the same then the system is very colored and is likely coloring the original recorded performance too, no matter how good it sounds.

I started building a stereo to attempt to reproduce the emotional essense or excitement of the original performance in my home. I would equate anything else sort of the equivalent of making love to a blowup doll instead of the real thing. Or marrying a model instead of a person. Unfortunately nothing is perfect, stereos included. I guess we must each find our own methods of determining what is best.
Thanks - sometimes the obvious really does need to be stated.
Perhaps, but what is often NOT obvious is how destructive the "obvious solution" can be.

A $200-300 equalizer maybe resolve some tonality issues, i.e., peaks and valleys, but it can also destroy the dynamic contrasts and spatial queues to a point where the effort to achieve a believable result is all for not.

"You shouldn't use your amp/cables/cartridge/whatever as a tone control."
Ultimately you should do whatever works for you without losing the magic in your system's performance that you have worked hard and paid much to achieve.

There are many ways to resolve tonality problems and an equalizer might be fine for a Walmart rack system but beyond that, it would be my last option.
"Then I realized that everything sounded not only good, but practically the same"

Glenn Garza, could you elaborate on this statement? I think you are saying that no matter what recording you choose they all sounded good but similar and no venue ambiance difference was noticable?

I personally will take slightly colored system as compared to tone controls or an Eq. Too much fiddling and you could change tonal and phase correctness pretty fast.

I agree with you 100% about about the dangers of using an EQ or tone control to compensate for inadequacies in the equipment. However, the same could said for swapping cables or amps to try and fix a harsh sounding speaker. Or selecting a speaker with extreme high sensitivity but bumpy frequency response in order to make up for an amplifiers lack of power. There are "destructive solutions" everwhere.

an equalizer might be fine for a Walmart rack system but beyond that, it would be my last option

Perhaps you are one of the lucky few with an absolutely perfect acoustically treated room and no minor room modes that can be improved upon/mitigated through the judicious use of a PEQ or pre amp tone controls. We mere Walmart mortals can often benefit from judicious application of some tone control...
The comments above indicate some misunderstanding of the recording process.Almost uniformly recording studios use equalizers.The Cello Audio Palette was primarily used by recording engineers,it's use in the home system does not detract in anyway from the quality of the sound,and has nothing to do with room equalizers.Should you use a low quality tone controls or equalizer the result ay indeed be deleterious to the sound.Try it you will like it.
For instance, I once heard a very beautiful sounding system that was absolutely wonderful. Some recordings sounded as if the performers were in the room, but they were all great. Then I realized that everything sounded not only good, but practically the same. That cannot be right.

"You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?"
[Takes a bite of steak]
"Ignorance is bliss. "
since all equipment is colored a stereo system is a tone control. you can't avoid coloration. all stereo systems are colored, since all components are imperfect.

the only issue is will the voicing be deliberate or unintended ?

Do you see it too?

I constantly see audio performance specifications raining down on me from all sides.

I thought it was just me ;-)
Nilthepill, when I wrote that everything sounded practically the same, I pretty much meant that. Though the groups, music, dates, etc. were all different, all could have been recorded in the same studio, and all artists were in the same or similar mood. I was not alone when listening to this system, but was the only pedestrian (non audio field related) that ended up with a negative impression of the system.

I have heard other types of systems that to me were a joke, incapable of producing anything approaching an actual performance, but others just thought that stuff was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I guess it just depends on what we want in our home with our money, which will in part be based on what we know.
Glenn-Garza: A year or two ago, I went on "the great speaker hunt," which involved listening to speakers at various audio stores within 250 miles of where I live. I was quite surprised at the number of systems that I heard that, to me, sounded upleasant, even irritating. In ALL cases, what was unpleasant was that the systems sounded too bright. You could certainly hear LOADS of detail, but there was nothing "real" about the sound. Hearing lots of detail is very exciting I suppose, but (to paraphrase Wireless200), at a certain point, you want the "steak"...assuming you know what "steak" tastes like. (I wonder if it's I've heard some speculate, that many "audiophiles" have actually heard relatively little live music, especially of an acoustic--as opposed to electric--nature?)
Eweedhome I agree with you.......and I've been listening to high end speakers for 30 years!
Out of the dozens that I've heard, I can count on one hand (with fingers left over), the speakers that sounded like 'music'!
I really blame speaker designers and their infuriating quasi-scientific cross-over formulas and soft-ware.
IME, I found that the amp made more difference than anything. Speakers put a particular spin on the sound but for musicality and brightness the amp held sway. Speaker placement, room acoustics, power source did not make much difference in my sytems. I switched to a McIntosh amp and most if not all the brightness problems disappeared. Cables help fine tune the sound. I listen to the Mc and say to myself "that doesn't have the bass punch of the Krell, the strings don't sound as sweet as the Krell, the warmth is not as much as the Musical Fidelity, then I forget those things in 10 seconds and sit and listen blissfully to the music for extended periods. It's the oddest thing. I don't sit and analyze my system constantly. I just think man this sounds good.
Halcro, tell us the speakers that sound like music (and take up less than one hand).

Wireless200 - As reported (I think), I just bought a 2nd hand Mac 2200 pre-amp so I could get tone controls and, I hope, a decent, non-bright sound. Any hope? What kind of Mac amp do you use? I would love to be able to sit back and "listen to the music for extended periods...and not analyze my system constantly." Isn't that what this is supposed to be about...eventually? It sure seems hard to get things set up that way.
Eweedhome, to my ears there have been only 1 set of commercially available speakers that sound like music.....the original Martin Logan CLS.
Those speakers 'opened' the sound stage and seemed to create space and transparency from whence real voices and instruments could be realistically imagined and positioned.
All other commercially available 'dynamic' speakers that I heave heard, apart form Planars, Electrostatics, Ribbons and Horns which have their own limitations and strengths, close into other music projects an ever increasing openess and bandwidth.
Most speakers I have heard are the exact opposite.
The only ones I have heard that approach convincing openness are those that are custom-made.
That's why I bought mine and I remember the set-up that the famous Garrott Brothers had with stacked electrostatics.
Eweedhome, I'm using an MC402. I had planned to buy a pre-amp - either a c45 or a c2x00 for the tone controls. I'm holding off right now or I should say I'm in no hurry. I don't exactly have room for it on my rack and the mc402 is sounding fine. All I can say is the McIntosh worked in my system. I'm using Cardas cables and running a Slim Device Transporter (DAC) straight into the amp.

I used to marvel, ooh and ah, at the dynamics, punch and resolution of my other amps and then need to leave the room after a song or two or three.

Lovin' the Mc and not really spending a lot of time every day looking and thinking "what do I need to do to this system to get it to sound great." I can't tell you how glad I am to get away from that mindset. Now I casually think maybe I'll upgrade my speaker cables, maybe I'll buy a pre-amp. That's about it.
" I used to marvel, ooh and ah, at the dynamics, punch and resolution of my other amps and then need to leave the room after a song or two or three."

A classic trap most of us fall in to when auditioning new components
The Behringer DEQ2496 is a last resort tool. Don't think of it as a solution. Get bass traps modify your room acoustical. Most people that I know use it only when the move their speaker or change thing in the room to see what the results are. The have it hooked up to their laptop/computer but not in their hifi sysytem.
A classic trap most of us fall in to when auditioning new components

It's how Pepsi won the "Pepsi Challenge" and caused the New Coke debacle. Pepsi is sweeter than Coke. They were legimately winning the "sip" test because the normal person will pick a sweeter taste over less sweet. In the panic the Pepsi challenge caused, what Coke executives didn't realize is customers drink a whole coke - not one sip. After they made New Coke sweeter than classic Coke people didn't like it. The rest is history.

I chaulk up many of the systems I've owned to that mistake. They sound "incredibly detailed" with "high resolution" and with great bass, the whole nine yards. But drink in a whole CD and they weren't so sweet.

That was a really great analogy - thanks!

The whole idea of the "BBC Dip" or "scooped" midrange sound of most hi-fi speakers is in order to make a pleasant sound that sells in a taste test. The truth is that it really does sell better.

Same as small ported speakers with poor transient reponse and an overall tendency towards one note bass.

In an A/B it is hard to appreciate that this pleasant coloration will effect your entire experience - everything you play - everything overly sweet and with an emphasis round one note in the bass.

I am one of those who prefer the old Coke.

I also need to drink wine with a meal before I am fully convinced that I like it. Preferably a full bottle ;-)
Agree. SWEET analogy;-)
Anything by Behringer makes Radio Shack gear look like high end audio.
I used to think that tone controls were for people who had an inferior audio system but there are some pieces out there that incorporate them that don't degrade the signal since by design they (the tone controls) are truly out of the signal path till they are engaged or set to 0db. There is nothing wrong with their use if you feel they improve what your listening to. Certain types of music can actually benefit from them. On critical listening & by engaging them you will lose some detail & transparency however life is full of compromises.

Upfront I am guilty of combining different equipment & cabling like many others trying to get a desired outcome, sounds spendy? Change one piece of gear & you might easily find yourself back on the merry-go-round looking for the perfect match. Some will look at this as a labor of love, others will view the search as I should of left well enough alone. My opinion is do what turns you on because you have to please yourself in the end. Don't let people push you into what they consider acceptable high end gear because who else would know better what sounds good working with your particular room, speakers, source and your tastes in music.
.... since by design they (tone controls) are truly out of the signal path till they are engaged or set to 0db
Oh how much so many of us would like this to be true. But essentially tone controls are cascaded filter circuits set to unity gain when at the "0db" setting. The signal is still going through them unless there is a bypass switch and then you have that to contend with as well. Look at all the attention made by many designers to incorporate volume controls (no filter at all) that do not affect the sound.
Jafox, I just caught your post. I agree with you that even if the tone controls are disengaged there is that nasty switch in the signal path to contend with and with most preamps, tone controls even set at 0db the circuit is still there present & active. However with some preamps their implimentation is less offensive than others and the settings are more subtle and if very musical that plays a big part. One case in point, the newer Mcintosh preamps by disclaimer states that when their tone controls are set at o db it does completely remove them from the signal path. The other alternative as mentioned is to stay with gear that don't use them period & resort to matching for the perfect sound. I am staying neutral not to offend anyone since I have been on both sides of the fence.
Phd - Why is it so hard for us (or some of us, anyway) to learn the lesson, as you say: "don't let people push you into what they consider acceptable high end gear"? It's so easy, even after years of experience that should leave one smarter, to fall into the lemming-like trap of paying too much attention to other people's ears. I've been fooling with this hobby, on and off, for nearly 25 years, and I'm still absolutely mystified, with some regularity, at how some piece of gear can sound really nice in one setting, and even unpleasant in another (especially my own house!). And vice versa. And the same is not infrequently true of recordings. As far as I can tell, in the end, experimentation in one's own home, with listening sessions longer than a quick half hour, is the only way to get yourself from point A to point B with some level of satisfaction.
Eweedhome, I can only speculate but there may be some lessons to learn here but as I mentioned and you seem to agree, it is what you like and what turns you on. I know how others opinions can have a profound influence on some audiophiles. You being an audiophile of 25 years (anyone who has been involved in this hobby for 25 years has my attention & respect) I'm positive you have come to your own conclusions as you said but trust your own instincts and go with your gut feelings.

There is nothing wrong with suggesting and or recommending a piece of gear but to say in absolute terms it will work for everyone could be misleading. Your particular room with its unique acoustics as well as the associated gear & speakers will influence your take on any given piece of equipment.

Of the five years I have sold on audiogon only one buyer has had the common sense to ask me what is my associated gear. This is important question to reach an intelligent purchasing decision and I know when that question is put to some sellers you can be dismissed as a tire kicker, not a serious buyer, it can be frustrating.

Anyhow my favorite music of choice is smooth jazz but I also like oldies from the 50's, dance, r&b, rock, some country, & electronica music. It is here sometimes I wish I could use one preamp for smooth jazz and another for the remainder. If you find yourself enjoying your current system and the music is very involving then you may have reached your goal. I think we are in agreement.
When listening to a wide variety of music and recordings, we've all discovered that there's a wide range of linear balance. I've found classical recordings sound best flat, but most pop and jazz recordings have stronger bass and need to be trimmed. It's not uncommon for older ADD recordings to be on the bright side. Tone controls may be anathema, but they are very useful to help correct for these variations among recordings. (And who knows what equipment was used for the mastering, or the personal taste of the recording engineer?) Using components for tone control applies the same contour to everything, a "one size fits all" approach. It doesn't allow for specific control.
The idea of tone controls is very different from the idea of using equipment **as** tone controls!

The whole point of high end audio (IMO) is to get as close to reproducing the original musical event as possible. If you have ever played with tone controls on a test bench, you find most of them to really mess with the signal, even set flat.

For this reason, for years the best tone controls made were in the Harmon Kardon Citation 1. Set flat, they were truly flat. But the circuit that drove them still added distortion while limiting bandwidth and detail.

This last bit is why high end products don't have tone controls (BTW, to my ear the Cello Palette never brought home the bacon either). It is simply an attempt to create a simpler signal path where less things can go wrong.

The problem after that is twofold- poor recordings and poor designs. To get after the recordings you have to get the original recording, usually from the country in which the recording was made. Almost universally that will get you to the best sound available for that recording.

The equipment is a lot trickier IMO, but one thing I have learned over the years is **do not** match weaknesses of one piece to countervail against the weaknesses in another piece. It might sound OK with certain recordings, but there will come along a record that will really show up what is wrong with that approach. That seems to be what has been discussed a lot in the above posts.

Instead one must choose equipment for compatibility, not synergy- synergy is the matching of weaknesses, compatibility is matching strengths. For more on this see

The better equipment is matched, the less will be the need or desire for tone controls.
Great response from Atmasphere on the issue of synergy. I agree wholeheartedly. "Balance", rather than synergy, has often been the word I have used to implement a system of products on their strengths. But "compatibility" is a great description of this process.
Given the option, what would people here choose?

1) Correct a bad recording which has a 4dB dip in the bass with tone controls.


2) Less distortion, less bass, and no tone controls.
I'd rather have an "anomaly" in the bass than run the signal through a filter and risk the loss of detail, ambiance, dynamic contrasts, etc., in the other 8-9 octaves. Now if you can correct this bass dip through a bi-amp process, whereas the upper octaves are sent directly to the associated amp, rather than also going through the "correction" device, that may be work out .... but this has its own set of problems and added cost. Ultimately, I find that simplicity wins for me every time.
I have plenty of recordings that seem bass deficient to me. I don't listen to recordings for bass or lack thereof- I listen to the music (unless I'm doing some sort of reference work). I do want honesty though, I'll take the lack of bass in some recordings any day!
Atmasphere, how about this. Some quality tube preamps have a tape monitor loop. Insert an equalizer in this loop, when you need it simple engage the loop, not used disengage, not much harm to the signal there. Or connect a quality sub to the extra pair of outputs on the preamp if they exist which would be the least offensive. I'm trying to give you more bass when needed. Good, well defined bass one way or another adds realism, emotion, & impact to some music.
While some may note lack of bass, the majority of complaints are about harsh highs. This is most often the result of the recording IME. I've yet to hear a piece of equipment that completely corrects boosted highs and compressed recordings. If someone wants the accuracy of these recordings, more power to 'em. Myself, I'd prefer to roll it off with a tone control.
Wireless200, as time has gone by and my equipment has improved, I have found that many 'bad' recordings were exacerbated by problems in the equipment. For years now I have used that as a yardstick. The playback should be unperturbed by a bad recording.

The result has been that many of those recordings that I had thought were 'harsh' and the like turned out to have a lot of energy, but not actual harshness. A good example is the Nonsuch recording 'Village Music of Bulgaria'. A stunning recording, one that in the old days I thought was really harsh. It isn't- just energetic, and amazing.

Phd, our preamps have such a loop. I've been thinking that a simple tone control system might be more in order than a parametric as the injection of the circuit would be less profound. Some LPs have a 6db rolloff at 100Hz and below due to EQ errors in the mastering process. Sure would be nice to sort *that* out :)