Toe tapping

September 18, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

If you’ve been around a while you’ll inevitably run into one of the metrics people use to evaluate hifi gear. Toe Tapping. Does the reproduced music get your toe to tap?

Hard to measure with equipment, easy for listeners to quantify. And heck, it’s listeners that really matter. Right?

We understand music connects to our emotional centers in a way few other languages do. Good hifi enhances that connection, poorly designed and voiced kit does the opposite.

Might toe tapping point to a whole different set of metrics for evaluating gear? Metrics that involve connections and relationships little understood by our science, but well known instinctively.

As an engineer I can’t wrap my arms around what it takes to improve toe tapping, yet I recognize when my toe engages and I get deep into the music. If a particular component choice moved my toe more, that’s a good one to remember.

At the end of the day, it all comes back to our best measurement system in the world.

Our ears and minds.

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60 comments on “Toe tapping”

  1. A measurement system compares the thing to be measure with a calibrated tool, calibrated with reproducible “effects” or standards commonly accepted. Concerning our perception everybody is his own standard. And there are a lot of people that even declare their individual standard to be mandatory for all other individuals. 🙂 As formerly an elbow’s or a foot’s length of an individual was the unit for “measuring” length. An approach with low precision!

  2. The first time I read about the correlation between toe tapping and high-end sound was in the context of Ted Smith’s development of the Direct Stream DAC. Paul, perhaps our brains, or our toes, are wired differently, but my toe tapping seems to correlate more to my brain’s recognition of a favorite song rather than the quality of the sound itself. A simple car radio or a set of cheap headphones will do the job. I’ll have to verify the following observation later, but I don’t think classical music affects my toes as much as genres with an active drumbeat even though most of my classical albums are either DSD or high-resolution PCM. Perhaps high-end sound affects a different part of my brain.

    1. I’ve got a friend who primarily listens to classical music–much of it live, and he virtually NEVER taps
      his toes no matter what genre we’re listening to. Maybe he put his finger into a plug one too many times?

  3. “music connects to our emotional centers in a way few other languages do. Good hifi enhances that connection, poorly designed and voiced kit does the opposite”

    I don’t agree. For me and 98% (non audiophiles) of the population, the emotional connection has got nothing to do with the sound quality.
    As an audiphile I enjoy good sound quality very much. But at the same time I can enjoy music via a mediocre set.
    Depends on the mood and what I’m doing.
    One of my daughters and her boyfriend bought a simple Denon streamer the other day, subscribed to Spotify (320 kbps) and
    couldn’t be happier, listening to their favorite music. And they heard my hifi/highend system.
    Sound quality ? Totally not important to them, as to most people.

    1. Though much of critical listening skills are learned over time, as you would learn another language or develop an appreciation for wine. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an inexpensive bottle, but you know a lot more about the differences between varietals, age, terroir, quality, etc.

    2. Hearing is highly adaptive, and unfortunately 99% of the population is adapted to BAD audio, acoustics and recordings. All of the culture, electronics, and even audio reviewers claiming that MP3/AAC/streaming sounds the same a CD and high def is a scam have PERMANENT BRAIN DAMAGE. In their sonically deprived childhood they never heard the depth and nuance of real music and consequently never grew the neurons to decode it.

      The research to establish the parameters of lossy encoding used test subjects with developmentally stunted hearing (post-industrial noise pollution also causes this syndrome) and they need to be repeated with people who listen to acoustic music daily, preferably NEVER listen to digitally compressed files, and using source content that has zero digital processing (no delay/multiply/sum operations like EQ, compression and especially no digital reverb). Under these conditions the artifacts are clearly apparent.

  4. So far I thought, toetapping is a matter of correct phase throughout the chain, difficult to achieve with too different driver concepts within a speaker (i.e. electrostats/dynamic drivers) or from a a DAC. Also phase coherent cabling plays a major role in achieving best pace.
    ~Vinyl-like toe tapping is one of the major strengths of the DS DAC for me that I didn’t hear before from digital gear.
    This I think is a result of (as Ted often mentioned) “trying to do things right and eliminate faults”. I guess to achieve toe tapping there’s no other intentional way than that!?

    1. I think that’s true, and that goes back to the recordist and mixer doing things properly and checking the output on many different systems. It is SOP for experienced mixers – if it doesn’t sound good on all sorts of systems, something’s screwed up. Or if it ONLY sounds good on “high end” systems.

  5. Totally agree with poster Leo on this one, to induce toe-tapping for me has nothing to do with the quality of the reproduction device. In fact, I found that the more I upgraded my various systems over the years the less they produced this response. I would tend to concentrate on the details in the music instead of the overall song itself. Some of my most engaging listening (humming, toe-tapping, shoulder dipping and the like) is done in the car, via the cheap soundbar on the office computer or in the aisle of the grocery with the music coming from some cheap overhead PA speaker. I rarely get that involved in my most critical listening environments, rather too distracted with the intricate sounds that get lost on a cheap system.

  6. For me it’s those times that your critical/intellectual process of listening — that in this pastime/hobby/obsession, is engaged so much of the time with assessing and analyzing SQ, how the system is sounding today/now, mentally isolating a particular component for comparison, etc. — STOPS, and you find yourself in the moment, just in the music with the critical analysis functions turned off.

    Often it is because there is nothing in the playback bothering you – everything seems to sound as it should. It’s what you’re striving for with all the futzing around, so yeah – ” ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished”. (I realize Hamlet was talking about death, but the phrase usually applied to the marriage bed, which was an example of why Willy was a good writer…)

    You’re starting a bunch of intentionally provocative threads here lately, Paul 🙂

    “Toe tapping” is NOT MEASURABLE!! “TOE TAPPING” (sneer) is NOT QUANTIFIABLE!! IT is USELESS as a measure!! All of our yardsticks MUST BE CALIBRATED!!

  7. C’mon Paul, my grandmother used to tap her toes to Lawrence Welk on her Philco TV set 40 years ago. There were people in the 1930s tapping their feet to Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, and Benny Goodman playing through their Atwater Kent radios.

    That’s what I love about these sites. Even though I lost interest in audio equipment and music, dropping in is like a visit to cloud cuckoo land.

      1. malboeuf, I’ve visited other cloud cuckoo lands and not just in the cyber world. Each one is fun and a new experience. For example, I lived in France for two years. OFF THE WALL! OFF THE WALL! I can’t even imagine what visiting some place like Russia would be like. But cyberspace is opening up new cloud cuckoo lands every day. Like this one.

        There seems to be a cult out there that believes 528 vibrations per second is the pathway to heaven and the source of all life while 741 vibrations per second is the source of all evil. If it was only one site I’d say they’d be putting us on but this is like some new kind of bizarre religion.

          1. That’s not toe tapping, those are spasms caused by seizures. You might have Parkinson’s disease…or maybe not. BTW, did you know that strobes flashing in unison can bring on an epileptic seizure in those who are vulnerable? That’s why a desynchronization
            circuit is installed in fire alarm strobe systems for commercial buildings.

            1. Merde in French is used to say; I wish you good luck. They use that one a lot. I wish all of France Merde. Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran too. Oops, I left out the UcK.

    1. Thanks Mark, and others. I think I may not have made my point well.

      Toe tapping happens in the car, on MP3 players, on old Philco radios. Mark’s correct on this one, as are others.

      That misses my point – and I apologize for not writing better.

      Let me try in tomorrow’s post to either bring more clarity or stir more muck!

      1. Paul, DO NOT tap your toe in the car when your foot is on the accelerator….or the brake….or the clutch if you have one. BTW, when are you going to buy that old Corvette you always wanted?

        1. Hah! I actually had a chance to ride in one and while I love its look, I had forgotten it rides like an old Chevy truck. Ugh. Plus, they want upwards of a quarter million dollars for one.

          If I ever win the lottery (which is tough since I don’t play), there’s a company in Kansas that will take a brand new Corvette and slap on the identical body style I so love. That’d be the ticket for me.

          Heck, it’s only about $150,000 to do that! Maybe I should start playing the lottery. Wait! I am. I own an audio company.

      2. I wonder if toe tapping works for judging how well the system is set up for reproducing classical music. A system that plays popular music or jazz well , may not fare well with playing classical music.

  8. Bb “Yes, Mark, we appreciate that you are emotionally unmoved by music. ”

    I have trained myself not to be manipulated by other peoples’ junk. I think the last straw came one evening on a cruise ship when I went into the theater and started to watch “Gorilla’s in the Mist.” I walked out after about 30 to 45 minutes realizing that I was being toyed with. IT DOESN’T WORK ON ME ANYMORE! I’M ON TO IT! I’M IMMUNE TO IT. I save my emotions for things that actually matter to me in the real world. Keeps my mind focused on being rational. A beautiful blond babe can’t sell me a Yugo even if she was stark naked. Two weeks ago I saw and could have driven a $150,000 hybrid electric/gas BMW. What a piece of crap. Why did I go then? Because I have to design and install charging stations for them. Turns out to be a real challenge given where they have to be located. Now that will be a nice little challenging project for me.

  9. Way back when, I attended a couple of Linn demos and learned how to use toe-tapping to evaluate equipment. It seemed to work. I also read Hi-Fi News and Record Review every month, so I got further indoctrinated — although it seemed odd that English equipment always seemed to compare favorably (with a few exceptions) to American equipment because of the priority given to toe tapping. Anyway, I started to use toe-tapping and general musical involvement as my preferred way of evaluating equipment.

    But soon I became skeptical. In blind and double-blind evaluations I couldn’t pick out which component was which. I might as well have been flipping a coin. In sighted evaluations I seemed to be merely confirming my preconceptions. I decided the toe-tapping method of evaluation was the audio equivalent of a Ouija board.

      1. Index of refraction of a copper wire, SM? Sounds a little cuckoo to me… or can you explain that one? Perhaps you misspoke. Outside of interference coatings, I can’t wrap my head around that one from yesterday. I know only a little about optics but can’t figure how that plays into EM wave transmission at optically impenetrable thicknesses. I’m not sure of the equation, but if the implication is that EM waves travel differently in copper than in a vacuum based on the use of the index of refraction of copper, then I assume that it would travel faster than in a vacuum, given the n of copper. Again, I can’t conjure a formula for this so I am just guessing. Could you elaborate or point me toward the proper reference?

        1. Don’t bother. He’s an agitator, and has a tendency to obfuscate with sciencey-sounding stuff.

          Although, I do have to acknowledge my part in encouraging it. 🙂

          As I said, he’s a card-carrying member. But it’s my personal theory.

  10. It would seem to come down to trusting or not trusting/believing or not believing the “evidence of your senses”.

    Is the world viewed and experienced exclusively through a filter of rationality/scientific framework or not.

    1. I went by what I heard at live concerts NOT ELECTRONICALLY AMPLIFIED. That sound was so different and so much more pleasing to me I had to use my rational scientific mind to figure out why and if there was anything I could do to close the gap. Once I figured it out, I realized that all of the people who buy and sell this equipment are clueless. The real right answer is very different from what they are doing…..and it is much harder. They will never get there taking the route they’ve been traveling for many decades.

  11. Another thought on communicating the emotion of the music: my wife and I have owned recordings of Billie Holiday since before we were married and listened to ” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” countless times. When I finally could afford a great system (with PS Audio in the middle of it), we heard the song again. As we heard the line:
    “I swear I won’t call no copper
    If I’m beat up by my papa
    Ain’t nobody’s business if I do”
    …we both blushed, looked at each other and said, “that was rough”. We finally were listening to a human being confessing a scandalous stance, not simply an historical recording. At that moment, we understood what a highly resolving system contributed to the experience of the emotional content of music.

      1. Agreed. It just so happened that it was with “Ain’t…” that we experienced this sensation first. “The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia” 10 CD set is a treasure trove; she has an enormous canon of work well worth listening to.

        1. I love my local library. Well worth the taxes I pay to support them. I did a search for the 10 CD Billie Holiday set and sure enough they have it. I have reserved it and will have it in hand to add to my collection in the next two days. Thanks for the tip.

          1. Me too. But are we different from kids who torrent-download or stream stolen music for free? Other than making higher-res copies?

            I guess we have to start earmarking taxes to be diverted to the artists we copy.

            1. I have thought about that, however I have felt that the library system, by purchasing the disc, was able to return a payment to the artist.

              The librarians also tell me they buy many copies of items and then replace them periodically as they get damaged by patrons so that provides additional compensation to the artist. I feel it is far more payment to the artist via this method than streaming, but honestly I could be totally wrong and incorrect in my thought process.

              With over 5,000 LPs and CDs in my purchased collection I certainly hope the artists get something from that! I have often thought we need a site where we could contribute directly to an artist without having to buy any product.

              1. That’s a good idea. It is getting easier as artists take the production and delivery chain into their own hands. Before, you always felt you were simply enriching the Major Labels, with little if anything trickling down to the artist.

                It could be like a modern version of the benefactors that artists and minstrels used to rely on – spread out over hundreds or thousands of donations vs. one Medici.

                1. I always thought Amazon would be a perfect vehicle for such a donation site. If you were on an artist page they could have a button that said “like this music donate to the artist”. I could see the labels having serious issues with this however because they don’t want the artist to make any money they want it all LOL

                  Whenever there is an artist that I like who comes nearby I tend to go to their concerts as well because I know they get to keep more of the money from the shows than from music sales. I have also been known to wait and buy a CD from the merch table at a venue as well because I believe they get most of that money also. I also tend to stream music when I am in my car even if I have the songs on physical disk only thinking that maybe the streaming sites would pay a little bit of coin to the artist.

                  Not sure what else to do, it’s a struggle in this day and age and greater minds than mine have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get everyone fairly compensated and it seems they are all at a dead end.

    1. I agree with you and Jazznut – in the vast digital wasteland between the invention of the CD and now, there was always that “something” missing from digital reproduction, that oddly seemed to still reside in reproduction via dragging a needle through a plastic groove.

      Though there was always something “more right” sounding to me about DSD from its inception. Still a bit mystified by the negativity towards it. My theory is that the majority of the SACD/DSDnaysayers were not hearing it properly reproduced. The DSD and DSJ are bridges back to the groove.

  12. Music releases feel good chemicals in the brain. Every one has heard of Dopamine. The human ear-brain mechanism is extremely sensitive. The sensitivity varies from person to person of course. Any discordant sound makes pleasure less because it detracts from it ( bad system ). A good system produces sound which is much more reminiscent of the real thing and the brain recognizes it as such and toe tapping is the physical response to that. The more extreme form is when one breaks into a dance e.g. take the waltz Blue Danube. The moment it plays the urge is to get up and waltz even if just a few steps. As long as the body moves in time to the music it is OK. From the most primitive tribes to the most sophisticated ball rooms there is one thing in common. Rhythmic body movement in time with the music. Toe tapping is just a restrained form of it. So tap away and if the mood strikes dance away to bliss and then see how nice you feel. Only one requirement. Stop being too stiff and inhibited. Regards.

  13. Didn’t Ted Smith say he had a toe tapping meter come to think of it? He said it when he was working on the design of the D/A converter. I always wondered how to build one or where you could buy one. Ted…’s up to you to let us in on the secret. Don’t let us down. 🙂

  14. You may be right acuvox, but sometimes it’s good to get in touch with the real world of
    the 98% (99% ?) of the non audiophiles, who don’t give a damn about SQ.
    Brain damage or not.
    And it’s not the question whether they hear the difference or not. They probably do.
    They’re just not interested at all. Girls (and boys) just wanna have fun, listening to “their” music.
    Just as most people are not interested at all in taking real photo’s with a real camera.
    They only wanna make snapshots (i.e. selfies) with the cellphone.
    Young people don’t wanna have a room full of big boxes (amps, speakers..), but a simple digital all-in-one device with a price tag you don’t have to rob the bank for.
    Not the sound you like I guess, but listening habits change over the years. The times they are a changing, like good old Bob sang.
    But that’s nothing new. Or did you think the world, including audio, would be the same until the end of time…

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