Whatever Happened to Tone?

Written by Bill Leebens

During  the way-too-many years that I’ve been involved with audio, a number of terms that were first used by JGH, HP, JA , and other initialed Editors,  have risen to common usage. Before them, I think you’d have difficulty finding terms like “soundstaging”, “imaging”, “image specificity”, and the like. Along the way, the only term my parents and grandparents ever used to describe sound quality seems to have disappeared.

Whatever happened to “tone”?

I think one of the reasons that audiophilic pursuits came to be viewed as the acts of a bunch of antisocial navel-gazers is the obsession with imaging. Yes, it’s important, and certainly imaging specificity aids in the creation of that holy-crap-they’re -HERE sensation we all love…but is that all there is? Oftentimes, I hear many audiophile-darling products sounding sterile, bleached, lacking body—but boy, that image location is needle-sharp.

But is that even real? When I’m at a concert or even listening to a church choir, it’s not all that easy to say “that third old lady in the soprano section clearly has a bit of asthmatic wheeze”, or “fourth chair violin is tuned half a semitone sharp”. One of the points of having a large body of musicians is that their sounds intermingle, intermodulate, and the group produces something altogether more  than just a bunch of separate, disparate sounds. And certainly, when one listens to music at home with a bunch of, shall we say, laymen, they may say something like, “man, it’s like we’re right there“…but they’re not going to say, “oh, Christian McBride’s bass is clearly 3.2 meters to the left of and half a meter behind Diana’s piano”….which might be the sort of thing you’d hear at an audiophile society meeting. I exaggerate, but not much.

We’re talking about the difference between listening to music for enjoyment, and as a social act– or listening critically to a bunch of sounds.

Back to my parents: as was true of many of their generation (born WW I, fought in WW II) they grew up with music on the radio, on records, in movies. Theirs was probably the first generation which could be constantly exposed to music without actually performing it, thanks primarily to radio. Music was heard over AM radio or on 78 records, both of which had rolled-off high ends, but could still sound very present and real, when done right (go figure).  The music my parents favored was big bands or the small combos of Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Clooney. Melody was king. On those rare occasions when they spoke of the quality of reproduced sound, their touchstone was tone.

Even the kitchen radio was judged by that standard: rejects were said to sound “shrill”, or “thin”. The ultimate accolade? “Oh, it has such nice tone.”

Look at the beautiful first-generation Fisher 500 receiver at the top of this page. Aside from being one of the first real hi-fi receivers and a technical marvel—just look at it. Look at that beautiful, golden-bronze sheen: that’s the visual analogy for the sort of sound that was sought in those days, warm and non-fatiguing and…well,  nice. Pleasant. Just what you’d expect from those pictures of easy-chair-seated,  pipe-smoking, sweater-clad dad reading a book in a golden pool of light while the hi-fi played Copland or Kenton. It was an immersive approach to music, not an analytic one; even when music was analyzed in school, it consisted of following individual instrumental lines in a symphonic piece—not scrutinizing placement of singers in the “soundstage”.

I suppose I’m a bit of a hypocrite, kvetching about the overimportance given to imaging, while owning speakers that are famously good at just that. But the magic of the Spica Angelus to me is just how unobtrusive they can be, with that imaging well-matched to good control at the frequency extremes, and sound that stays the same all over the room. To me, most audiophile-fave speakers constantly draw attention to themselves, pointing out just how pinpoint their imaging is, how high they’ll go, and by God, you’d better sit RIGHT THERE. Pfui. As my then-10-year-old son once said of Diana Krall, they just don’t “sound sincere.”

Give me a nice, humble, sincere speaker any day over those quarter-million-dollar monoliths. They just don’t have good tone.

You’ll note that the big Fisher at the top of the page has bass, treble, and loudness controls—tone controls. Is it a coincidence that we lost tone controls about the same time that high-end gear lost tone? I don’t think so.

One last thing: I admired the late Harvey “Gizmo” Rosenberg, and had many phone conversations with him, though we never met. He may have been a flamboyant kilt-clad crazy in public, but in private he was a generous, patient man very willing to share his considerable knowledge of audio. Besides that, in his own way, he was a savvy marketer… who applauded my idea of a craft beer shipped in pony-sized bottles shaped like 300B tubes.

The slogan? “300B: The beer with the beautiful tone.”

Try selling a beer on the basis of imaging. Pfui, again.

Admit it: it could work.

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