Jul 162017

Today’s essay on the Art of Tone is intended to be both a practical and a thought adventure about what it means to optimize musicality in a high-fidelity music system, as opposed to the usual audiophile emphasis of optimizing the non-musical artifacts of the recording process, like imaging and sound-staging information, for example.

I’ve realized I made a little bit of a mistake in the way I presented what I was trying to say in In Pursuit of the Art of Tone! Part 2. which caused confusion among my beloved readers about what I was trying to say, which I’m hoping I can patch up here in Part 3.


Let me first briefly recap Part 1, where I discussed pursuing a style of musicality for your hifi that lights up your heart & mind to transport you into a state of musical bliss during listening.

I also discussed the rather unnatural reductionist approach I use for evaluating musical & sonic performance of hifi gear that comes in for review, and what I listen for in that process so I can tell you something meaningful about its performance, and how that is different from listening to music for pleasure.

Then I discussed common traits in high-fidelity music systems that ‘push my pleasure buttons’ when listening to music for enjoyment, like being able to play realistically loud, realistically producing timbral textures of instruments & voices, and being able to realistically portray tempo, beat, and rhythm, for example.


In Part 2 I discussed having fun with your audio adventure by getting the most pleasure you can out of the music you listen to and love.

I mentioned how important (and fun) it is to get out and listen to live music, and how being familiar with what real instruments and music sounds & feels like is an important benchmark for discovering ultimate musicality in your home high-fidelity music system.

I also mentioned how rewarding I’ve found learning about understanding the fundamentals of music to be, how having a basic understanding of the fundamentals of music is important in understanding the music you are listening to, and it also gives the listener a greater awareness of how well their hifi reproduces those fundamentals of music.

I then mentioned how moving your audio equipment and listening seat around in a room can influence the musicality and sonics of your music listening experience, and I foolishly mentioned the rule of thirds.


Mentioning the rule of thirds was my mistake that diverted attention away from what I was trying to say about ‘the art of tone’ and sent the wrong message, which I am now trying to patch up in Part 3.

When I think about the rule of thirds it stimulates me to think more about audiophile-style sonics than it does optimizing musicality, because that’s largely how we’ve been conditioned to respond from reading about audio, and which I believe is largely counterproductive in my own life and listening.

While having a dedicated listening room can be a really nice approach, I’m also a great fan of integrating the music gear into one’s normal living environment, in an effort to make the music a part of the moment-by-moment fabric of our lives rather than just as a dedicated focused listening experience.

It’s not a bad thing to setup a solo room like that, but I think it’s important to realize that’s not the only way to do things to get intense musicality.

When I mentioned the positioning of equipment and listening seats within rooms, it was mostly to get across the idea that moving speakers and listening seats around changes the musicality and sonics of what you hear, but those ‘rule of x/y’ voicing strategies are traditionally used to dial in audiophile-style sonics to the greatest extent possible, rather than dialing in musicality to the greatest extent possible.

A Practical and Thought Adventure In Musicality

Now I want to drop in on a practical and thought adventure about what it means to optimize musicality in a high-fidelity music system.

A lot of people have had the experience of hearing music from a distance and recognizing it as live music, and sometimes we are fooled when what we thought was live music turns out to be recorded music.

This is what happened to Yazaki-san when hearing a pair of Altec’s playing jazz in a Tokyo jazz cafe from the street-side as a young college student. As Yazaki-san followed the sound inside to the jazz cafe he found out to his surprise that it was recorded music playing instead of live music, and that experience was partly responsible for his life-long adventure in ‘real sound’ in high-fidelity home music systems.

What magic trick is working when we mistake recorded music for live music from a distance, or another room?

Jim Smith’s stealth comment about that important triad of tone, dynamics, and presence is a peek behind that hugely important curtain of setting up a system for maximum musicality and emotional connection to the music.

An ‘Out of Room Experience’ Setup Strategy

Let me use a somewhat extreme ‘setup’ example, that I’ll refer to as ‘an out of room experience’ setup strategy, which is a play on words on an ‘out of body experience’.

At the moment I’m listening to my Altec A7 Voice of The Theatre loudspeakers and SPEC RSA-M3 EX amp (above) using a very non-traditional room setup strategy, called ‘an out of room experience’ setup strategy, where my listening seat is in another room, my living room (below), and the A7’s and SPEC amp are in a small office/bedroom you see down the hall to the right.

In the photo above you can see the green recliner listening position I’m referring to in my living room, and down the hall you can see a doorway to the right where my Altec A7’s live.

In the photo below you can see the view from the green recliner in my living room, my Westminster based music system.

In this listening position there is no visuospatial listening information like imaging, soundstage, or the like, from the Altec A7’s in the room down the hall, and yet you could be forgiven, if like Yazaki-san, you thought some live music was playing in that other room.

In fact, I’ll go on to say that ‘out of room experience’ setup strategy I’m listening to at the moment provides more musicality and emotional engagement – and sounds more like live music – than many audio systems I have listened to when seated in the same room with them, even though there is no visuospatial listening information present in an ‘out of room experience’ setup strategy.

The Tone, Dynamics, and Presence of Musicality

Why does that Altec A7 system sound a lot like live music from another room?

Well, as Jim aptly put it, because there’s tone, dynamics, and presence (TDP) in abundance in that system, enough so that it triggers all those ‘live music’ buttons of musicality that make live music so emotionally engaging, and that’s even with a seating position in another room.

So my ‘out of room experience’ setup strategy example is quite literally an ‘out of the box’ (the room) method that provides a remarkably natural and live-like musical experience in spite of it having no visuospatial listening information present when listening from another room, and that is because it emphasizes tone, dynamics, and presence (TDP), which are particularly important from a musicality perspective.

My ‘out of room experience’ setup strategy example is probably the clearest way to demonstrate the difference between what makes for live-like musicality and how it differs from audiophile-like sonics.

Okay, now with that practical and thought adventure complete, I hope you’re with me on the differences between musicality and audiophile-style sonics, and that it’s possible to optimize traits that emphasize musicality, just like it’s possible to optimize recording artifacts to emphasize audiophile-style sonics.

There are certain traits of live music, that when one becomes aware of them and what they are about, and are able to work those traits of tone, dynamics, and presence (TDP) into any listening environment, whether a ‘good’ dedicated listening room in the traditional audiophile sense, or a ‘terrible’ room, or from a seat in another room, one can achieve a rather remarkable level of live-like musicality that can be very emotionally engrossing.

Interestingly enough, some of the most musically enjoyable systems I have heard over the years have been setup in non-dedicated domestic rooms, so there is reason to be encouraged for both those with dedicated listening rooms, and those without.

So this of course begs the question of “How do you emphasize tone, dynamics, and presence (TDP) in a system to optimize musicality?”

Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer at least part of that question, or at least point you in the right direction, in future essays of In Pursuit of the Art of Tone.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and may the tone be with you!

 Posted by at 12:41 pm

  6 Responses to “In Pursuit of the Art of Tone! Part 3.”

  1. Jeff,

    Thanks for putting into words this feeling of hearing live music from a sound system playing recorded music. I had a system that gave me many moments like that where listening from another room or even from upstairs made me feel like the music sounded live to my ears; as if they were performing in there or down there, making me turn my head to look in that direction. It is definitely about “tone, dynamics, and presence” as you say. For me, I think tone because instruments and voices have rich harmonics and overtones, giving you a trumpet sounding so real that you could imagine seeing the burnish of the metal, rather than a kazoo like tone. Dynamics because soft levels retain their delicacy, and sudden, loud passages are immediate and unstrained. And presence because you can feel the proximity of the performer and their relationship to the microphone and the rest of the recording space; presence like how you can hear the wet reed of the saxophone mouthpiece. I think when each piece of equipment has good capabilities towards TDP that the system as a whole rewards us with that live sound and feel. Personally, I’ve found 845 based amps, 6H30 based CD players, and fully loaded horn speakers with wooden midranges do TDP in spades. Other topology obviously can do that as well. Looking forward to all you have to say on this subject. Thanks, Jeff.

    • Hi Bobby,

      Thanks for the terrific comment!

      I credit Jim Smith with the concept of TDP, and I think it really boils down a lot of what is important from a musicality perspective in a high-fidelity (to the music) system.

      Tone is the cornerstone for me too. I remember listening to a recording of an identical guitar to mine, a Gibson Custom Shop Advanced Jumbo with Brazilian Rosewood back & sides, and an Adirondack Spruce top (the one in the photo), played by Jorma Kaukonen on his album Blue Country Heart, on a very well known reviewer’s system. Instead of the AJ’s powerful and distinctive tone that I am intimately familiar with, the other reviewer’s system made it sound like a nylon string classical guitar, which was totally wrong from a tone/timbre perspective for the powerful steel string AJ. That system remains my mental poster child for how wrong a hifi can get the tone.

      I know Jim has thought a lot about these topics, and I am really looking forward to the day Jim’s Through the Sound Barrier books, DVDs, and test CD becomes available to read/hear his thoughts on getting the maximum musical involvement out of a hifi, I believe they will be a tremendous asset for us all.

      My example of isolating TDP from sonics was a fun thought exercise, and it raised some very interesting points for me that I’ll continue thinking about.

      I’m not opposed to good audiophile-style sonics, as long as they don’t do damage to overall musicality.

      Anyways, much more to come!



  2. Jeff,

    Isn’t that incredible that a system can reproduce a steel guitar you know so well and make it sound like a nylon string guitar? It’s the same as hearing a trumpet sound like a kazoo. I know there are many factors of a system that can make this happen, but seriously, it has got to be one thing more than another thing. A CD player or a cartridge? After all, that’s where the signal starts. Or is it possible that it gets screwed up afterwards? Particular resistors and capacitors in the preamp stage? As if you have not found out how those things affect sound! 🙂 I can only say that in my current system, low level playback sucks. Not enough tone. Raise the volume, though not too high, and there’s a little more richness. Wierd? I dunno. Just what I hear. Looking forward to hearing more from you! Thanks!

    • Hi Bobby,

      I was familiar with the loudspeakers, so I suspect it was a combination of the digital source, cables, and electronics that produced the aberrant tonal behavior.

      For those who like to listen at lower levels vintage gear included loudness contour settings for that to equalize for lower listening volumes.

      The flip side of that coin is that many systems struggle to play music at realistically loud levels, often getting harsh and amusical. While it is fairly straightforward to get good performance at low levels, it is much more difficult to get a natural sounding musical presentation at live-like levels.

      The low level listening does get richer as you turn it up, and that’s why the vintage gear allows boosting lower to midrange frequencies to compensate, as it helps increase naturalness at low levels.

      For live-like levels, the error is usually being too forward in the upper midrange or highs, or sounding ‘hard’, which is a bit tricker to deal with.

      Anyways, have fun! 🙂



  3. So glad I stumbled onto this site, was looking for reviews of Anolague Productions Prestige reissues and found so much more!
    You hit the nail on the head by describing what I’ve loved about my audio system for years, the fun of being in another room and hearing something ALIVE and MUSICAL going on down the hallway.
    Now with some Belden 8402 interconnects and WE14ga speaker wire breaking in my vintage/modern system sounds even more life like than I could have imagined! Thank you for all the great writing and advise and happpy new year!

    • Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for the kind words, very much appreciated!

      I’m glad you’re having fun, enjoy that Belden 8402 and WE14GA combination!

      Kind regards,


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