Over-etched sound

January 13, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Back in the days when movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn ruled Hollywood, cinematographers used soft lenses to enhance the beauty of their starlets.

The softening of the face was thought to add to the star’s beauty because we could not see skin imperfections like pores, wrinkles, and blemishes.

Today, we use razor-sharp lenses and apply makeup to remove the anomalies.

Both techniques were aimed at the same goal of reducing imperfections.

We can relate these practices to our own passions in audio.

Like an over-etched or over-sharpened image, some combinations of cables and transducers go too far by unnaturally emphasizing certain areas of sound (cables by means of unequal attrition and transducers by specific addition).

When this happens we’re at first enamored by the increase in detail but over time we’re less drawn into the music.

High levels of detail that are not in balance with the overall presentation of the music can act as a harsh light that makes us squint.

Perfection in an audio system is found when we achieve the perfect balance.

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36 comments on “Over-etched sound”

          1. My impression is that Wilson and Harbeth are very similar in that both are detailed but not etched. The 40.3 and Sabrina are also ball-park similar prices.

            The fundamental difference is aesthetic. 40.3 are big fat ugly boxes and Sabrina are sleek and elegant in metallic grey. At least that’s what my wife and I think.

            I take a bit of slack on the forum over form/design, but I suspect for many it’s critical. I find all BBC boxes ugly, unless you live in a 1970s time warp, the problem is Harbeth sound so good and are (or were) well priced.

            1. Form and design are more critical than most people will admit. You don’t choose your spouse or your car simply by accident (though either may turn out that way). Personally, I like the sound and love the wood finishes of Harbeth speakers, but I can’t get past all those screw heads on the front baffle.

              1. That is most amusing! For those living under a rock, the screw heads are the only practical way of implementing the thin wall design, fundamental to all BBC-type speakers. It’s a bit like saying you love the concept of a car except for the round things on each corner.

                Of course the Harbeth grilles are not acoustically transparent and should not be removed, so you shouldn’t be looking at the screws.

                Many people love Harbeth looks. I don’t, but used them for years. My wife is uncompromising in banning anything shiny from the house. No chrome, stainless steel, gloss finishes, gold makes her flesh creep. Some people talk about WAF as if negotiation is involved. Not where I come from.

                1. You poor sod, having to live with all of those restrictions; my wife is the complete opposite.
                  She is impressed by the overall design & look of my DeVore Fidelity – ‘O/93’s…Harbeth-like without the screws & without the baffle grilles.

                  1. I’m almost as anti-bling as her.

                    Your (apparently superb) speakers immediately said Audio Note, especially the AN-E. Also fabulous speakers that are never etched.

                    1. Steven,
                      Of course you understand that I’m just stirring.
                      (Thankfully Alan Shaw uses black screws)
                      My wife & I are also not ‘bling’ orientated.
                      In fact the most expensive thing that we (I) own is my current home-audio rig.
                      She doesn’t wear any make-up; none of it…a natural, low-maintenance beauty.
                      I’m one very lucky Rat ๐Ÿ˜€

                    1. They sell a lot of them, for sure, and they’ve been in business for a long time, so you can’t argue that.
                      It just seem a little dated that part of their corporate identity is the Phillips head screw. It certainly differentiates them from everyone else.

    1. I agree, one person’s over etched is another person’s inner detail and micro dynamics.

      Off Topic: I assume most of you have heard that Ronnie Spector died yesterday. She was an incredible talent.

  1. Somehow the way that the Marantz – ‘SA-12 SE’ processes everything in DSD before it converts it back to analogue, seems to smooth-out my previously etchy Redbook CDs, but still retains an amazing amount of detail & air…it’s magic …no it’s science…psyche!!! ๐Ÿ˜€

    I bought some IsoAcoustics – ‘Iso-Puck’s to put under my
    loudspeakers & under the above-mentioned ‘SA-12 SE’; result?
    WOW…straight-up, greater focus, greater imaging & tighter
    & more extended bass response.
    It’s hard to believe that there’s no subwoofer in my listening room ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

    In memoriam:

    1. Hi Fat Rat can certainly agree with you over the ISO Accoustic Pucks I think they are good and I use them under my equipment, think I would try them under my speakers but use spikes as its a concrete carpeted floor

      1. Hello Alan,
        I spiked for decades believing that it was the best way to go, & for my beloved Celestion’s it was, considering the knowledge & belief that we audio-personnel held at the time.
        Loudspeakers should be held rock-steady…immovable!
        For the last year, & with the advent of me changing my floorstanders, I decided
        to experiment with wooden (bamboo) platforms interleaved with 6mm thick cork sheets, again giving a rock-steady base, but with some degree of vibration absorption .
        The Iso-Pucks had me unconvinced because my loudspeakers moved (wobbled) slightly atop of said Pucks & so I thought, ‘This ain’t gonna work!’
        Boy was I wrong…you can teach an old dog new tricks!
        My DeVore’s, which do look a lot like AudioNote – ‘AN-E’ knock-offs (sorry JD), are also sitting on 19cm thick concrete blocks, mainly to get the tweeters where I want them, & the Iso-Pucks work very well betwixt bottom of loudspeaker & top of block.

        1. that is brilliant Martin I agree the initial wobble would have worried me but its food for thought I may give it a try on my KEFs as under everything else its proved a revelation

  2. Many swear by Mr. Townsend’s platforms. Pauls new speakers appear to be suspended. With my about 200 LB. Wilsons, I tried a set of expensive Stillpoints and found they detracted from the sound as these speakers were designed to be coupled to the floor with spikes. Magico seems to like a similar tuned suspension system for their speakers. I suspect a lot depends on your floor surface as well. That said, Wilson seems to have developed a new footing device that may isolate as well. Your ears, your money.

    RIP Mr. Townsend…

    Happy New Year to all.


  3. I think that as a hobby that the quest for absolute fidelity has taken a toll on our appreciation for the sound of music.

    There are guys who listen for sounds….and if you read reviews, MANY of them are just that, a laundry list of how well things produce noise. Sure, they will give a couple of paragraphs that mention the music but it’s often just a small portion of the review.

    I’m biased, but I think back to manufacturers like AR and Bozak…..and the standard that they used was comparison to live music. Above all else, their products were musical….certainly not hyper detailed and without a lot of the audiophile goodies we can’t live without today….but they were musical. I have a pair of Bozak Concert Grands….and they don’t image great, rolled off highs but, man, do they play music like nobody’s business.

    As and aside, if you ever want to read great copy, I encourage you to read some of the old Bozak literature.

    Same thing with, say, an old AR turntable or an inexpensive Rega deck today……yes, there are things to nitpick, but, man, it is hard to deny just how musical an old AR turntable is.

    All about the music….the rest is just fancy window dressing, IMHO.

  4. What about analog circuit overshoot? Can this overshoot lead to an emphasis on leading edge transients, resulting in “over-etched” sound in playback? I have often wondered about what the effects of this overshoot (often seen 10 kHz square wave amplifier tests).

  5. Years ago when the first movie with digital sound came to town I had to go to see it and I did. As the tendency is with something new the volume was turned up to a very very loud level and to make matters worse the top end digital screech was unbearable. I left the hall and did not go back. Same with sound systems. The sound becomes unbearable and one has to leave the room unless one is at a party and and has had a few and dancing away. Proper balance indeed is the only way. Regards.

  6. Caught myself being overly drawn into a TV series called Person of Interest. After some deep thought I realized that the action was causing a release of dopamine which creates an addictive cycle.
    The types of music, cadence, etched or smooth mellow mid-range also cause an elevated release of dopamine. To me etched highs and mid-range is exciting, desirable at times and other times I prefer mid-range timbre that gels everything together.
    My point is, it is all about personal preference. Currently use 3 sets of speakers I swap in and out during the year, all with different attributes that puts a smile on my face.

  7. I got an email this morning that Leica brought out a new M camera today, a product line going back to 1954. I’m obviously behind the times as checking into the Leica user forum there has been a thread running for 9 months (long after I last visited) with 6,000 posts (even more than the FR-30 thread). So I checked a couple of online reviews and one well-known USA writer (Steve Huff, who also appears to review hifi) says it has too much resolution. From what he said, I tend to agree with him.

    The key to his argument is that in a data capture and processing system like a camera, at different stages you can have a mismatch of technologies that results in a poor image. I suspect the same can be said for audio.

  8. A lot depends on how you use your audio system. High resolution and vivid transparency can go a long way to making you feel like you are at the concert. If you listen to an LP or CD as if you were going to a concert for just that one recording in a given evening, that can be an exhilarating experience. If you binge listen to a variety of music for four or more hours every evening like some people watch television, you might prefer to tone down the resolution and transparency.

    1. Interesting perspective. I have to admit that even though we are both retired and listen to music almost everyday, by in large we listen to an album or maybe two. I cannot remember the last time we went for more than that

          1. Right, FR, and another thing, there is always the tonearm lift lever and the CD eject button, which are important game changers in their own way. ๐Ÿ˜Ž

  9. The problem lies in the quality of the cables used in the recording and mastering process. Lesser quality cables filter out or taper off the high end.

    With that being said, if a recording studio uses lesser quality cables, they are going to boost the top end to compensate.

    So if we have a highly resolving system with high quality cables our system is going to reveal the boosted top end in the master.

    Nothing wrong with our system. It reveals the flaws made in the recording process.

    At this time in my audiophile journey, I would rather have an accurate experience rather than a filtered one.

    1. HRA,
      I think that you hit the nail on the head.
      I’m listening to Bon Jovi’s – ‘Slippery When Wet’ CD album right now & the top end is etchy as hell & I suspect probably for the exact reason that you have stated in your 7:26pm post.

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