Sonic Descriptions of Loudspeakers

default -- Fri, 06/19/2009 - 23:39

I am surprised no-one has talked about this...but audio writers (and JV in particular), sometimes describe loudspeakers as having "tone colors" and an "airy treble", etc. But the problem is that a loudspeaker *cannot have these things*. They can only reveal what's on the recording, along with adding distortions and colorations that were not in the original music. In other words, if a loudspeaker has an "airy" treble, it's because it was in the music being auditioned. Not all recordings capture the spatial effects of say, a concert hall...because many recordings were *not* made in a concert hall !!
What writers *should* say is that the speaker "revealed the highs better than any transducer I've heard to date". etc. I'm sure JV (and co.) don't want - or think they need - a lecture. This is only a loose recommendation.
Finally, I've noticed that JV has described certain types of music as being "rich in tone color". I am not aware of any kind of music that has this sound. It might even come as a surprise to the musicians -themselves- that they're creating this "blend" of sound !!
I hope JV (and other audio writers) don't take this as an attack - they're just observations of how we go about doing things........

JR-1 (not verified) -- Fri, 06/19/2009 - 23:41

That's me, JR-1, above. Missed typing the field in again !!

Robert Harley -- Mon, 06/22/2009 - 13:51

I've found Jonathan's pioneering use of the phrase "richness" or "density" or "saturation" of tone color to be particulalry useful. To me, a loudspeaker that de-emphasizes the lower midrange, or emphasizes the upper midrange, makes tone colors sound thin, bleached, and de-saturated, much like an overexposed photograph.

JR-1 (not verified) -- Mon, 06/22/2009 - 18:57

But what are "tone colors" ? Like I said, even musicians (that produce the sound) don't know what this is. I think what you're referring to is *tonal balance*. And that should be described in terms of energy appropriated towards each driver, balanced or not........

Robert Harley -- Tue, 06/23/2009 - 15:34

Perhaps a more musically precise word is "timbre."

audiomage (not verified) -- Thu, 06/25/2009 - 14:34

JR1 makes a Valin, er valid point. In the search for new ways to describe sound, many of our greatest audio writers have perhaps been more poetic than clear. And while I no more want solid state digital prose than I want to swear off SET's, it may help to keep a sharp eye (ear?) out for those instances where critique obscura creeps in.
Still, sometimes conveying the feeling and impression of a speaker requires going beyond dry technical descriptors.
'You had to be there', and if you weren't, it is wonderful to have someone who can make you feel as if you were.
So, a little tweaking maybe. A sea change in style? Lord no! That would greatly increase a negative feedback loop into a first rate component of this magazine.

wazmo (not verified) -- Thu, 06/25/2009 - 22:18

The expression of one sensory experience through the medium of another is called synesthesia.  Bob Dylan used it when he wrote about "chimes of freedom flashing."  As what we attempt differentiate and describe becomes more complex and subtle we rely more on metaphors of this type.  I find them very helpfull.

Robert Harley -- Fri, 06/26/2009 - 17:03

Describing reproduced sound in a way that conveys the experience to someone who has not heard the sound is quite a challenge, and one that we struggle with every time we write a review.

Gordy (not verified) -- Tue, 06/30/2009 - 19:03

Nice discussion on a small range of the topic.
Can you recommend a more definitive guide, possilbly with CD or DVD demonstrating the terminology and the sound?  I'd like to improve my listening skills to make sure I'm getting the most out of system and listening environment improvements.  I have my own acoustic preferences, but would like to be able and tell more nuances.
I'm currently reading a recently published book on voicing systems and could use some guidance on the listening end to evaluate if my improvements are effective.

paul 50 (not verified) -- Mon, 07/13/2009 - 11:13

'You had to be there', and if you weren't, it is wonderful to have someone who can make you feel as if you were. <a href=>xfiless</a>

Steven Stone -- Mon, 07/13/2009 - 11:54

 More than a few years ago J. Gordon Holt wrote an audio glossary. It is still the definitive work on descriptive terms for audio.
here's a link:
If you want the whole printed book here's a link to Barnes and Noble:

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

oldtimer (not verified) -- Tue, 07/14/2009 - 09:36

 I'd like to touch on a little more technical aspect of sonic descriptions (& comparisons) of speakers, especially those describing airiness and/or sense of space around the instrument (and/or retrieval of musical artifacts that were not heard when listening to different and usually, more modestly priced gear): 
To me (empirically, over many decades of reading such assessments), they seem typically applied to larger, very expensive, multi-driver speakers, fed by equally expensive gear upstream; also, usually driven by high-power amplifiers.  I concede that these effects are there to be heard, but I can't help wondering if these listening test conclusions are fair or even objective.  Specifically, does the reviewer have another roughly comparable pair of speakers to alternate listening to?  And when this is done, is care taken to place them in the same (or optimal) positions, relative to their design principles?  Are sound levels matched as closely as possible?  Is the reviewer actually hearing differences due to small but significantly different room coupling or speaker directivity effects?  I've also wondered if the larger volume of air moved by a large multi-driver array may produce such effects, even when the SPL measured at the listening chair is the same (point SPL vs average room SPL).  This may be accentuated by speaker tonal balance, sensitivity and/or response time differences, with comparative lack of clarity caused by poorer control over speaker diaphragms at higher SPLs.  I suspect the effect is more plainly manifest at the higher SPLs used in listening tests, encouraged by high-end systems' very low distortion and exceptional signal to noise performance.
I'm not trying to denigrate reviewers or high-end equipment_ by all means, buy the speaker that produces the sound you like,  I'm just suggesting that what is heard is not just due to the speakers..there are many other factors, and very significantly, how you place your speakers in your room, assuming that you can't do much with your room. 

Cemil Gandur -- Sat, 07/18/2009 - 02:09

You're absolutly right in saying that there are many factors which affect the sound we hear - the room being perhaps the largest factor. However, the sense of space around the instruments has more to do with the reproduction chain than the room. These low level reverb signals are often masked by less than complete reproduction. Given my pair of speakers, I have found that the amp and source choices have had the most effect there. 

oldtimer (not verified) -- Sat, 07/18/2009 - 04:40

 Zeb, I think we're on the same page, but you may be moving into a different chapter, going by your last sentence.  For a given pair of speakers already located optimally in a room, it goes without saying that using different amps and sources will produce differences in perceived sound.  No argument there.  And usually, but not always, bigger/more bucks buys better sound, but with a diminishing return.  Putting cliches aside:    
At the risk of repeating myself in different words, in my experience, finding the optimal position (width, height, toe-in, distance from walls/corners and listening position) for the speakers _ given a fixed listening position and keeping the preceding audio chain constant_ can reveal a surprising improvement in perceived reality (& hence, perceived speaker "quality"), wrt space, sound-staging depth/height, invisibility of speakers, bass quality.  Some of this so-called ambient environment retrieval effect can be achieved simply by pushing a bit more power in, and I've noticed this to be "truer" with large speakers, eg, Magneplanar Tympanis, Martin Logans (but also, with power-hungry small monitor speakers).  It suggests that low level reverb signals can be heard if you push more air and/or, get better room/signal path reinforcement, but they won't be heard if they aren't there in the first place.  My point was (is), you cannot compare speakers fairly and say one reproduces low level artifacts better than another unless you eliminate as many of the variables as practical.   So, for that matter, using the same speakers but changing electronic equipment, one should at least ensure one is testing at the same SPL, so that you are more certain of hearing the difference in electronics/electronic signals (or maybe also their coupling in the chain).  Even a 1-2 dB difference can be psychoacoutically significant.  Sadly, I have not come across this test standard being stated or declared in most of the reviews I've read.  Reviews are now more subjective, and they seem to wax most eloquent when uber-high cost gear is being tested, and of course, everything in the chain must then be up to snuff too.  I can imagine with all that super gear, test-listening levels will be high, higher than normal, and evrrything is less stressed because they're operating comfortably within their operating parameters.   

David Matz -- Tue, 07/14/2009 - 19:28

One thing to keep in mind, and to put things in perspective is that audio is experiential.  No matter what words are used, if you have limited or no experience with the products, most of the reviews are useless.  Most people who obsess over reviews usually don't understand this. 
Despite the review, if you go to a restaurant, you won't know how much you acually like the food, the service, and the atmosphere until you are there consuming the meal.  You can read a travel brochure or website about snorkeling in Hawaii all you want, but you can't really evaluate the experience or feel the sheer bliss of the experience until you are there.  Relying on reviews without experiencing the product first is kind of like relying on your family and friends for movie advice.  If you interpret or respond to the same stimuli in a similar way, great.  But people generally respond differently to the same stimuli. Many have left a movie theater disappointed after going to see the movie based on friend's recommendation.
How does Conrad Johnson of old differ or is similar to Cary or Rogue?  All can be described as warm or romantic.   How do they really differ? Good luck giguring that one out if you have never listened to all three.   If you have some experience with the products, the reviews can be very helpful, if you and the reviewer share similar tastes.   I recently re-read Roy Gregory's review of the CJ Act2 review.  Having lived with unit for a long time, he nails the review.  Having read it before the purchasing was worthless.  Having listened to Magico V3 for myself for a while and then reading R. Harley's and J. Atkinson's reviews, I have no idea how they can praise this awful sounding (to me!) speaker (and recommend people shell out $30K for it!) no matter what analogies they use.
Bottom line: go listen to a bunch of stuff for a while, learn what it sounds like and experience it, then worry about the words and the analogies.

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