Distortion vs. spice

May 1, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

When we add to an avocado a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of paprika, and a spot of lemon, we’re distorting it. It is no longer that pure, green, fresh-cut perfection.

But it tastes better.

I wonder if the same applies to audio. We’re all so ingrained with the notion that distortion is an ugly word. That doing anything outside the realm of purity is a sin.

And yet we are alright with manipulating the frequency response curves of loudspeakers as long as it falls within the accepted parameters of the practical.

There are no perfect amps or speakers. None are truly pure.

I see no harm in adding a bit of spice here and there if it makes it sound better.

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

36 comments on “Distortion vs. spice”

  1. Seeing these lowest level of distortions in modern audio gear, Paul, is it really relevant to address this topic when these distortions are barely audible? I am not talking here about unwanted distortions induced by EMI or RFI from non audio gear (all kind of SMPSs and routers and computers) located near to the stereo system. Shouldn’t it be more relevant to ask why specific brands favor a brand specific “sound” (no ruler flat frequency response) depending on the loudspeakers they used for the final voicing? Or aren’t phase-shifts between drivers in a loudspeaker or comb-filter-effects induced by inter-loudspeaker-crosstalk or unwanted effects due to bad room acoustics much more relevant?

  2. What makes a Bob Ludwig remastered Strolling Bones – ‘Exile On Main Street’
    album sound better than the original recording…is it distortion or manipulation?
    More to the point…does it matter?

    And now I have to wonder how much salt & chilli powder has Chris Brunhaver
    sprinkled over the crossovers in the Aspen FR30’s?

        1. I think he is correct and this device will be a quick fix for all these room problems. However being limited to nearfield-listening this device will only compatible with tiny studio monitor – preferably single driver crossover-less widebanders. And you have to be seated on your subwoofer!? 😉 But the company sells only in the US. I would give it a try for my Phantoms from Devialet because the physics of sound seem to be respected carefully.

          1. Agreed…it’s not a panacea for home-audio, however
            many audio enthusiasts on this planet do live in apartments
            these days & are choosing near/medium field listening.
            If there’s enough of an interest for this ‘passive device’
            outside of the US then ‘TigerFox’ can expand internationally,
            or China could steal the patent, build & export it themselves.

            I do sit on my subwoofer (bass-chair); it is a chair with
            2 x Alpine – ‘SWS-BE45’ bass engines attached on the
            underside (I believe that American’s call them ‘butt-kickers’)
            & it works very well to give me a good dose of ‘feelable’
            bass through my body without pissing my neighbours off.

            1. That reminds me of my former car stereo system (clean battery power supply!) Pioneer Centrate – near field listening and an active subwoofer placed under the driver seat. 🙂

  3. How about also using high quality analog or digital passive or active equalization methods to take out some spice that shouldn’t be there? I would play around with the lows with electronic crossovers and EQing on a subwoofer but I rather stay out of messing with the mids and highs on 99% of recordings. Whats better high pass or low pass crossovers when using a subwoofer? Passive or electronic crossovers? Which one’s causes the least harm to the upper frequencies? I agree with FR. Phase-shifts, comb-filtering & driver crosstalk are concerns.

  4. “amps or speakers. None are truly pure.”
    Thereon lies the crux. In the food analogy we have the choice of pure. In the audio world we do not so adding the spice, or whatever you want to call it, is not an option but essential.

  5. Any recording naturally loses something from the live performance. I’m convinced that I’m actually asking my system add that “something” back, not play back the recording verbatim. Properly applied/managed distortion feels like the only way to get there.

    Past experience with passive preamps & over focusing solely on measurements (like Audio Science Review) doesn’t cut it for me. That path has led me to very detailed and boring sound.

  6. Anything not part of the original signal is distortion right? How many great recordings have had reverb added? Delay? Compression? All are forms of distortion. Used properly, they enhance the listening experience. I once worked with a mastering engineer who recorded the Chicago Symphony at Symphony Hall. He told me they added a touch of reverb because the room didn’t quit “ring” right. With the goal of 0% clipping, harmonic distortion, intermodulation, etc., there are, indeed, some forms of distortion that are the salt on the avocado. Oh yeah, and electric guitars. Don’t we like our pop/rock guitars crunchy? Overdrive, distortion pedals, flangers, so many flavors!

  7. How do you define better in high fidelity? I assume that’s personal. I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll repeat. For me spice is linear dynamics. accurate level changes from micro to macro. I find that’s where a sense of live sound comes from. Unfortunately while we can select audio gear for dynamic linearity, the one item we have no control of is the source. Pray for great recordings with dynamac linearity like Octave records seems to do.

  8. Food analogies do not work for me. I describe my audio journey as striving to have full spectrum, high dynamic range neutrality. The things that have made the greatest difference in my sound system is full extension speakers and enough amplifier power to drive them properly.

    Sugar and spice and everything nice is fine for food, but not for my sound system.

    1. Don’t be a lumper. There are sierra-y (keep it family friendly) tone controls, but also good ones Yes, analog tone controls introduce some phase shift that can mess with the imaging. If that is really, really important to you, that’s fine; but remember that you are not everybody. As an A.S.T.M. certified good tone kind of guy, “That don’t bother me at all.”* If a little finessing of the frequency spectrum improves the overall listening experience, I call that a win. Viva tone controls!

      Oh look. Here comes the Brain Police to confiscate my audiophile card. Yet again. Fortunately I have a good stock of used nose drool tissues on hand. Funny that they haven’t figured out that ploy yet.

      [ominous laugh font on] Heh-heh-heh. [ominous laugh font off]

      *”Two Hangmen” — Mason Profit (1969)

    1. Love to see it but unfortunately the link didn’t travel that well. This is part of what I got…..
      “ We’re sorry, but our international business has
      closed down and we are unable to process orders
      for customers outside of the United States.”

  9. Bob Katz, masterful masterier built a nuvistor distortion blender into pure music and it wasn’t detected until three percent.

    I recall it was in a headphones forum Innerfidelity. Fascinating result.

    We know that the nature of that distortion is of the essence. Add an octave to music, it is enriched. A fifth also tasteful Thirteenths nasty in tiny amounts.

  10. I absolutely get it. Some distortion is actually pleasing to our brains and of course when recording music compression shouldn’t be a dirty word either. The problem is when there is too much spice (compression + THD) it gets real ugly real fast.

    Recently, I had a big schooling lesson that audio measurements can’t be trusted in every capacity. That whole thing with Amir and the P12 taught me some valuable lessons not to mention how audio measuring tools can manipulate results greatly.

    Anyway my friends. This is a good post. Also lately I’ve been spinning a 2002 release of the Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta on SACD and even though it is slightly louder and more full in the bass than the original A&M CD release doesn’t make it better or worse. It actually comes down to taste. The spice if you will. 🙂

  11. ” When we add to an avocado a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of paprika, and a spot of lemon, we’re distorting it. It is no longer that pure, green, fresh-cut perfection.”

    That’s a distortion of what distortion is!

    Those ingredients enhance and improve an otherwise bland avocado… not distort it.

    Sorry, if that was in “bad taste.” Had to say it. 😉

    1. [Those ingredients enhance and improve an otherwise bland avocado… not distort it.]


      “Those distortions enhance and improve otherwise bland recordings…not change it’s flavor.”!?!

  12. So, we don’t love the natural taste anymore, so we add spice to make it more palatable? Or we are so accustomed to a salt, pepper or sugar-rich diet that our taste buds are de-sensitized and we crave even more? I have always believed that lifelong exposure to sound changes our tastes in audio equipment. Over time, what used to sound amazing no long cuts it and we need to add more zest or bling.

  13. My speaker’s sound great and when they don’t sound great it’s because of the recording that usually has nothing to do with frequency response. There’s nothing you can do to make it sound good. If you like the song you accept the recording for what it is to enjoy the song, not to evaluate your system. I don’t agree that better speaker’s make a crappy recording sound worse. A crappy recording played on a crappy system sounds even worse.

  14. All I’ve ever asked/tried to achieve with my audio system is that with great music/great recordings, it acoustically transforms me into the live event venue. To date, no more need to sugar coat or spice it up…I’m There!

    The surprising upside, my 45 yr. music library crappy recordings and some ho-hum musical performances offer more tolerable and even enjoyable listening sessions! 😉

  15. Cooking is a great analogy. Recording engineers add spice to recordings all the time. We might choose a Neve 1073 over an API 512 for the unique flavor it adds. Purists might say that we should always use the gear with the least color, but that would result in boring recordings. There’s a reason why vintage microphones and preamps are so coveted by recording engineers. Perfect reproduction is boring. We need to add some spice.

Leave a Reply

Stop by for a tour:
Mon-Fri, 8:30am-5pm MST

4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

Stop by for a tour:
4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram