The Bark Syndrome

September 20, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

When working within a complex system like that of a modern two-channel stereo, one of the most difficult tasks turns out to be accurate finger pointing. Identifying a specific culprit responsible for what we hear.

I’ll share with you a good example. One of my tasks at Octave Records is to be the judge and jury of what does and does not get published. If the track isn’t something I would play at a HiFi show (if we ever have HiFi shows again), or the music isn’t of a caliber worthy of our audience, it gets rejected.

While listening to a recent work of extraordinary qualities we ran into a problem I like to refer to as the Bark Syndrome. As might be gleaned from the title, the Bark Syndrome can occur when a voice or instrument exceeds a certain level or quality that makes one’s face scrunch.

Maybe I should have named it the Wince Syndrome.

I hear this mostly on voice and I believe that is because the voice is so easy to judge. We’ve spent most of our lives hearing voices in the wild.

The most difficult challenge with the Bark Syndrome is identifying where in the chain it occurs. This requires first a reference reproduction system devoid of the problem—something few of us either have or know for certain theirs is free of it.

Tomorrow I’ll share with you the first time I became aware of the problem and how we began to address it.

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44 comments on “The Bark Syndrome”

      1. I was also following that story closely as many people were around the world and praying for the best but my gut was telling me the outcome was not going to be a happy one. Very sad. 🙁 My deepest sympathy to the family. As a parent of two including a daughter I know how horrifying something like this must be to go through. Gabby RIP little Angel.

      1. I don’t agree that this was white privilege but rather it got it’s coverage due to all of the bizarre circumstances surrounding this case. There are many missing white people that get little or no media coverage. Usually the deaths of white people particularly by the police or by a black person get little or no media coverage. No riots in the streets for months either. Sad that everything these days has to be politicized.

      2. “Missing white girl syndrome”, vs. the disappearance of Saniyya Dennis, another recent missing young woman, also from a well-to-do family, a college student, from upstate New York. The only difference is that Saniyya is black.

        Somewhat related is this quiz:
        1. Name 10 historical white men.
        2. Name 10 historical white women.
        3. Name 10 historical black men.
        4. Name 10 historical black women.

        If number one is easy to answer, but questions 2, 3, and 4 are difficult, is this not bias in our school system?

  1. I am not quite sure about the „quality“ aspect you want to address here, Paul. It seems to be a negative one? Is this „quality“ also always present when listening to your headphones instead of listening to the monitor loudspeakers? I always encountered the “wince syndrome” when listening to some German loudspeaker designs of the 70th (Canton, Heco, etc) following the so-called “Taunus Sound” voicing scheme while I was most familiar with the quality of some BBC monitor designs as Spendor BC1 and BC2.

    1. paulsquirrel,
      In my experience of home audio loudspeakers over the decades, generally,
      the wince factor has always been higher in German, American & Japanese
      loudspeakers, but hardly ever present in British or Danish ones.

      1. I cannot but fully agree in general. However there are always some exceptions from small boutique manufacturers. Recently I could attend some nice presentations of loudspeakers from two Danish companies: Raidho and Børresen.

      2. I’ve no experience of many of the brands mentioned but feel I must put in a good word for the German brand Audio Physic. I am biased though, now on my second pair.

        1. Audio Physic’s founder and speaker designer Joachim Gerhard is one of the few speaker designers who always has a holistic view and recommends near-field listening and a specific speaker set-up minimizing crosstalk-effects and unwanted room interactions. He still manufactures nice boutique products – one of his actual brands is Suesskind Audio. I had a pair of active subwoofers from Audio Physic – one of the last designs of Mr. Gerhard before he sold Audio Physic. A most smart guy!

          1. I used to have a pair of Audio Physic Virgo III’s which I purchased in 2002 which I think was when Gerhard was still there. I would describe them as a very polite speaker. One does pay a certain price for having extremely neutral speakers which is how I would describe the speakers I have now ( Magico S7’s ). A couple of months ago my wife and I were listening to an SACD we have of a very famous male musician ( who I will not name ) that we play once or twice a year. We both thought it sounded terrible which is not how we had previously thought of it. The musician was playing and singing and there were backup singers. The S7’s allowed us to separate out the voices better than the Virgo III’s did and it was painfully obvious that the lead singer was badly out of tune. Since it was a recording of a live performance maybe the poor man had a cold or a sore throat but went on away ( the show must go on ).

      3. My speaker history includes two BBC-licensees (Jim Rogers and Harbeth), PMC (ex-BBC engineer), Epos (British modern classics), Dynaudio and Raidho (Danish). Is there something going on here? So how come my main speakers come from Utah? They are very polite in a British/Danish way.

  2. You can’t cover up poor recordings or playback of voice. The BBC was the first national and global broadcaster, in well of 100 languages, has had an extensive research department for some 90 years and a lot of their output is spoken word. Hence the global popularity of speakers made under license to the BBC, by the likes of Spendor, Harbeth, Falcon Acoustics etc.

    Although considered somewhat idiosyncratic, to put it politely, Harbeth are quite brave in playing a lot of BBC spoken word recordings at HiFI shows. It does not cost a lot of money to accurately monitor and play back. There are hundreds of thousands of pairs of speakers made licensed to the BBC LS3/5A design, like the Harbeth P3ESR. I think the PS Audio design team use them.

    LS3/5A designs are not expensive and are portable, originally designed primarily for monitoring outside broadcasts, allowing BBC engineers to get their equipment in the trunk of a car and live broadcast from venues around the UK to the BBC’s very high standards.

    For the same reasons, the BBC also did extensive research on microphones, all of which is available online.

    1. The few lousy dollars I spent on a pair of used Spendor BC1 speakers to feed my every night tv is the best audio spend ever.

      TV isn’t explosions, it’s basically talking heads and requires natural sounding voice.

  3. I have a fairly inexpensive home audio (HA) rig, very basic, & I can hear the difference between bad, acceptable & good when it comes to “a specific culprit”, ie. the recording.
    When I play, for example, Donald Fagen’s – ‘The Nightfly’ through my HA rig, there’s not one bit of “culprit” to frustrate (wince) my ears/brain from start to finish, so I know that it’s not the equipment.

    I will, hopefully, receive my very first ‘Octave Records’ CD within the next
    3 weeks & I am highly curious to hear it’s contents through my HA rig.
    Woof, woof! 🙂

    1. I’m also watching my mailbox. Ordered my first two Octave CD’s – Say Something and Masters Volume One. Cannot wait to spend a nice evening listening to both. May even buy a new bottle of Angels Envy for the occasion!

      1. Hi Tony,
        Love your work.

        Ok, so here’s some perspective…
        My amp in Australia AU$6k…I paid AU$4.8k
        Your amp in Australia AU$70k
        My floorstanders in Australia AU$3k…I paid AU$1.5k
        Your floorstanders in Australia AU$96k
        My CD player in Australia AU$1,250…I paid AU$710
        Do I need to continue?

        I’ll let you do the math 😉

        ps. It ain’t shiny…it’s more of a matt/satin silver finish.

  4. Interesting. I believe that during an interview some time ago, Linda Ronstadt said she stopped live performances and singing when she realized she was ‘barking’ at her audience! Never forgot that.

  5. O yes, i reconise this problem.
    I’ve been chasing my tail for a excessive mid/high peak problem in my system for over a year.
    The problem which didn’t help me was the fact that i had only one source which was good enough to really judge my system. (Cd player). In the end it turned out there where two main culprits. First it turned out the caps and resistors in my speakers where of disputabele
    Quality. Upgrading solved part of the problem. Only two weeks ago i replaced the buffercaps and upgraded the rectifiers in the preamp part of my intergrated amp.
    The peak in high mids and siblings are gone, and transparancy and a beautifull smooth yet revealing sound was my reward. After more than a year of tweaking, and lots of listening tests this was and still is a fantastic experience.

    1. This confirms my guess that the biggest enemy in every audio systems are the (often poor designed) linear power supplies whose rectifiers inherently contaminate upstream the whole system. Thus unless you can replace them by a battery and ultra-cap based power supply you have to add filters in the power lines supplied from the power distribution bar in order to get the best sound from your system.

      1. Hi Paul,

        In my case the design itself was ok, but the (standard) 1A diodes used where not as good as they should be. This was an easy to correct flaw. A schoolexample of a budget choice. You be surprised how many highend products use cheap parts on the wrong places!
        They where replaced with high quality 2A fast recovery diodes from Vishay.
        The buffercaps where of a audiophile good quality, exept not to my taste.
        The Elna Cerafine that where used,which I don’t like too much, remove harmonic’s. And add mid/highs. Harmonics are essential for the right reproduction of instruments and voices. Without the nessesary natural harmonic’s produced by acoustic instruments and voices your system sounds dead and lifeless. It’s like running the complete sound through autotune, which is a terrible invention.
        I replaced the buffercaps with Nichicon KG’s which are awesome caps in a power supply. Neutral, great imaging, and they don’t affect the harmonic’s i want.

        Also filtering in the main power supply is something to do with the greatest care. I only use some aircore ferrite, because it can do more harm then good when overdoing things…

        1. Many thanks, Nico, for your detailed description of the successful upgrade. Indeed, there are many unwanted side-effects with AC supply and AC to DC conversion. Did you also increase the overall capacity of the power supply caps? What about the optimization of the power cable (contact quality, antenna-effect, wave-reflections)? Regards Paul

          1. Hi Paul,

            Of course i did also upgrade the standard cord to a moderate but very well shielded and sounding lapp oilflex. No i didn’t increase the capacity of the buffercaps yet. I possibly will experiment with that in the future, out of curiosity. I have several value’s in stock. But just adding capacitance can easy make your system sounding slow and dark…
            And i like the speed of my system as it is right now. So i’m in no hurry.

            1. Hello Nico.
              I added as many small not big caps for my DAC with good results. Today I would go for super-caps or ultra-cap with lowest internal resistance. However even increasing the overall capacity would always lower the voltage-drop for any demand of current.

              1. Hi Paul,
                Experiments with buffercaps are sometimes very usefull!
                I also did replace the buffercaps in my dac, which is very well designed with all seperate voltage shunts, and a high quality low jitterklok.

                The caps they used where of a very decent industrial 105c panasonic fc, good quality. Low impedance also.
                However, i found the imaging not good enough. Not deep and wide enough.
                Also there was a small edge on some high notes. Not terrible.
                Not bad, but left room for improvements. I ended up with a cocktail of nichicon ukz in the liniar power supply, and fg in circuit. Sweet. Adding capicity in the buffer in my case, made it sound chesty. Brr. So i went back to the original value. And i replaced the 30va toroidal, with a 120va one. That gave it great soundstage and really got a tight grip on basslines…

  6. If I am listening to an analog recording played back on an analog system and I hear a bark, my first suspect is the cartridge: cartridge alignment or cartridge selection/compatibility.

    If I am listening to a digital recording played back on a digital system and I hear a bark, my first suspect is the digital: the A to D of the recording and the D to A of the DAC.

  7. Just bought a “British integrated amp;
    So happy !
    Now I can sit down with my favorite
    Sir Conan Doyle script , some Earl Grey tea and enjoy the music via my Brit
    Speakers playing my most cherished
    Russian music.

  8. A lot of Danish speakers sound very well, no “wince” there.
    And since I was looking for small speakers to replace my big floorstanders, I recently bought compact Dynaudio’s.
    Sound fantastic. Not made for bass addicts though.
    They “only” go to 40Hz. Good enough for me in my LIVING room.

  9. Before equal temperament was adopted as a music standard, pianos and organs were tuned to meantone or just (pure) temperaments. In meantone and just temperaments some “wolf” intervals result in a dissonant barking sound so composers avoided those keys, unless they intentionally wanted the sound to be disturbing. The reward was that certain intervals had fewer beats and were sweeter sounding. Some instruments today are still tuned to variations of meantone or just, and must be retuned to match other instruments in an orchestra playing in equal temperament. Human voices are very flexible and good singers can adjust their temperament on the fly. The worst thing are singers who ignore the accompanying instruments and the rest of the choir. When they sing to their own temperament they stick out like a sore thumb.

  10. Another English speaker brand that I don’t recall ever being mentioned here is ProAc. I’ve never owned a pair but always enjoyed their sound at shows and hankered after them. Any love out there? Manufactured not far from Silverstone motor racing circuit.

    1. Over the years I’ve owned 4 pairs of ProAc speakers; Response 2, 3.5, 3.8, and D80. They are wonderful with voice and have a gorgeous midrange. My present speakers are Italian like my wife.

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