What We Listened For in 2005: Brass Timbre and Tonality

This superb copy just went up today

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

This 2005 commentary discusses how easy it is to be fooled by tweaks that seem to offer more transparency and detail at the expense of weight and heft. It took the brass on this album to set me straight.

I was playing this record today (5/24/05) after having made some changes in my stereo over the weekend, and I noticed some things didn’t sound quite right. Knowing that this is an exceptionally good sounding record, albeit a very challenging one, I started playing around with the stereo, trying to recapture the sound as I remembered it from the last copy that had come in a few months back.

As I tweaked and untweaked the system around this record I could hear immediately what was better and what was worse, what was more musical and what was more Hi-Fi. The track I was playing was Night In Tunisia, which has practically every brass instrument known to man, in every combination one can imagine. Since this is a Mono pressing I didn’t have to worry about silly issues like soundstaging, which can be very deceptive. I was concerned with tonality and the overall presentation of the various elements in the recording.

To make a long story short, I ended up undoing all the things that I had done to the system over the weekend! In other words, what improvements I thought I had made turned out not to be improvements at all. And this is the album that showed me the error of my ways.

Brass instruments are some of the most difficult to reproduce, especially brass choirs. You have to get the leading edges so that the instruments have “bite”. You can’t have too much harmonic distortion or smearing, because harmonic distortion and smearing are very obvious on brass instruments.

But the one thing above all that is intolerable when trying to reproduce brass is a lack of weight or heft. There is nothing worse than thin sounding brass. It becomes hard, shrill, sour and altogether unpleasant. (This is another reason why I don’t like small speakers: they have trouble reproducing the weight of brass instruments, in both jazz and classical music.)

The tweaking I had done over the weekend resulted in greater transparency and openness. But greater transparency and openness at the expense of richness, fullness, correct tonality and proper overall presentation is a bad trade-off. Many audiophiles fall into this trap. I fell into it myself. Thank goodness I had this wonderful jazz record to help me find my way out. If I had been playing Patricia Barber I would have never realized how wrong I had gone.

This is yet another reason that it’s important to play REAL MUSIC recorded by real engineers and not AUDIOPHILE MUSIC recorded by audiophile engineers when adjusting or tweaking your system.

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