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Tone, balance, mono/stereo and filter controls - sadly missed

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  • Tone, balance, mono/stereo and filter controls - sadly missed

    And, why not have a balance control; not everyone has a symmetrical listening room or one which is equally absorbant on both sides of the stereo pair.

  • #2
    Balance contol - anathema?

    Originally posted by Pharos View Post
    And, why not have a balance control; not everyone has a symmetrical listening room or one which is equally absorbant on both sides of the stereo pair.
    Well, I can't think of any reason not to have a balance control, but I'm sure there are those out there who could, based on some vague notion of "purity."

    Comment


    • #3
      Dual volume/balance?

      Originally posted by anonymous View Post
      Well, I can't think of any reason not to have a balance control, but I'm sure there are those out there who could, based on some vague notion of "purity."
      Even amplifiers without tone controls have balance controls, as far as I know. Or they have two volume controls, which amounts to the same thing. Any exceptions to that?

      Comment


      • #4
        No balance

        No, annoyingly my last two preamps have been without balance controls.

        Comment


        • #5
          The missing balance controls

          Originally posted by Pharos View Post
          No, annoyingly my last two preamps have been without balance controls.
          I don't think it's entirely uncommon. I've only owned one preamp and it had no tone or balance controls. And a number of the integrated amplifiers I've seen commonly recommended for Harbeths on various forums don't seem to have either feature: NAIM, LFD, Rega.

          Comment


          • #6
            "We know best". "You will do as we say". "We are the amplifier police".

            Originally posted by anonymous View Post
            I don't think it's entirely uncommon. I've only owned one preamp and it had no tone or balance controls. And a number of the integrated amplifiers I've seen commonly recommended for Harbeths on various forums don't seem to have either feature: NAIM, LFD, Rega.
            Really? Is that true? It can't be. What possible justification is there for depriving the user of the ability to swing the L/R balance a little to the left or right?

            So, we all have perfectly symmetrical rooms, amplifiers with perfectly matched gains (they won't be; an inter-channel difference of a dB or so is to be expected due to component tolerances which will pull the balance towards the loudest channel, perfectly matched sources (cartridges could be a few dB different between channels), perfectly matched speakers and we all have perfectly matched ears. Even if the sources/electronics/room/speakers are perfect, ears can be significantly different: mine are a little.

            What sort of perfect, sterile, laboratory world do electronics designers live in? It must be a glorious place of white light, fluffy clouds and angels with harps. Bonkers. Completely baffling.

            P.S. No it's not really. They, as sensible sorts, know that tone and volume/balance controls allow the user to get closer to the music, but the media wouldn't stand for it; they would point blank refuse to deem an amplifier of 'audiophile grade' unless it offered the user minimalism. In fact, when you think about it, the media decided that the definition of a 'superior' audiophile grade amp compared with a standard but highly practical amp (such as QUAD) is that the audiophile amps have less features and cost more. So from three metres away, it's obvious which is which: perfectly good or audiophile. I would not, personally, use an amp for recreational listening in my ordinary room unless it had tone/balance/mono controls and hence, if cornered and bullied into making an amplifier recommendation, you can probably guess that my short list would be very, very short. If only the amp makers had the guts to stand up to know all 'critics' and remind them that we, the real-world music lovers, do not listen in laboratories but in ordinary and far from perfect rooms and that about two generations ago the introduction of tone/balance controls made quality listening at home possible for ordinary folk in ordinary rooms with less than perfect recordings - which if anything, is even more of an issue today. Oh how we miss pragmatism.
            Alan A. Shaw
            Designer, owner
            Harbeth Audio UK

            Comment


            • #7
              How to use a balance control?

              I do have a balance control available to me via my system, but I must admit to never using it.

              I do sort of understand in theory the reason for having one. But cannot quite get my head around how to go about using it correctly. I'm probably just stupid but say when I play a cd ( in my case predominantly Western classical music) I cannot for the life of me know how to go about finding what the correct balance should be?

              Should the piano, orchestra or voice I hear be central or to the left... or right? Should one adjust it to ones room via some mono test tone/ recording ( recommendations?) to place the sound ( voice?) in a central location so that whenever I listen to any other stereo recording I will never need to adjust the balance control again?

              Or does just one randomly change the balance on every recording just to suite ones tastes?

              Is my ignorance on this common or not?

              Comment


              • #8
                Explaining the balance control - compensating for a pull to the left or right (updated)

                Originally posted by P.C. View Post
                I do have a balance control available to me via my system, but I must admit to never using it. Should the piano, orchestra or voice I hear be central or to the left... or right? Should one adjust it to ones room via some mono test tone/ recording ( recommendations?) to place the sound ( voice?) in a central location so that whenever I listen to any other stereo recording I will never need to adjust the balance control again?

                Or does just one randomly change the balance on every recording just to suite ones tastes?
                I am extremely grateful that you've stepped up and asked that question. Thank you very much. It would never have occurred to me that something as basic as the operation of a balance control - and I therefore assume, a tone control - wouldn't be intuitive. It is to me and anyone who works with sound professionally (Pluto for example) but why should it for you the home listener. No reason at all.

                Ok, where to start. I'm a bit shocked really that I have assumed that listeners would be familiar with balance/tone controls. You've made me realise that there is a generation of audio consumers who have never seen, touched or used a balance or tone control. They may have read about them, and read horrifying stories about how they are the curse of the audiophile's system. I should never have assumed that everyone had hands on experience. You don't know what you have missed! There is not a professional mainstream studio sound engineer on the planet who does not use tone/balance/filter/EQ controls every day. Every mainstream commercial recording you buy will have been tone comprehensively corrected/EQd and re-balanced. My point is why deprive yourself at home of the flexibility of the recording engineer by removing tone/balance/filter controls from your system? Repeat: sound recordists/mixing engineers/mastering engineers cannot do their job without copious use of tone/balance/filter/EQ controls. That is mainly what their job involves, not shuffling microphones this way and that on the studio floor for the best sound! That's for the trainee. Commercial recording is primarily about "polishing" what the microphones pick-up. Read user feedback here.

                The use of balance/tone/filter and mono/stereo controls have the potential to improve every home listening experience, bar none. If your present amp is working fine, don't feel compelled to throw it out: that's a waste of natural resources. If that amp is on its last legs, then seriously consider tone/balance/mono-stereo switch/filters features and prioritise them, adequate power output, styling, after care, input/output flexibility and price your only considerations for purchase of your new amp. Forget everything else. Ignore every word written about amplifier sonics until right at the very end of the selection process when you might - or might not - turn to reviews to see what golden eared armchair generals have to say. But remember: if audio equipment is not compared side by side using some sort of instantaneous A-B process the subjective experience will be inevitably compromised by the human observer's mood, health, experience, psychological factors and hearing acuity.

                Turning to "Balance". Let's assume that studio sound engineer/mastering engineers are paid enough to have well matched speakers in decent acoustics and are not so hard of hearing that they press recordings that are significantly tilted to one channel or the other. If a sound engineer had a hearing problem and/or his monitor speakers were unbalanced that his recording sounded OK to him, that CD you buy could sound like this to you at home:

                Loading the player ...
                Clip 1: Balance normal, tilted left, normal, tilted right. I suggest that you listen to these clips on headphones.

                Note! The dimmed channel is not extinguished completely, it is merely reduced in loudness. Your ear interprets this loudness change as an image shift and a very dramatic one at that. Changing the level by (just) 9dB and your whole perception of the layout of the orchestra in front of you is radically skewed. The loudness reduction applies equally to all and every instrument in the orchestra without exception, but your ear may interpret that level change as effecting the tonal quality of some instruments more that others. Proof once again, that the ear is highly level sensitive. Level control is crucial in audio. Level defines our hifi experience.

                Now Clip 1 is quite an extreme level shift, and any balance engineer who let a disk (or transmission) out into consumer land would put his employment at risk. Let's hear what a 3dB shift sound like, the sort of shift that a typical amplifier balance control would be designed to cope with, and user correct:

                Loading the player ...
                Clip 2: Balance normal, tilted left, normal, tilted right only 3dB loudness bias either way

                That's the sort of L-R balance offset that is typical of home listening. It's quite subtle and I find it disturbing and detracting from serious listening. If I couldn't correct that L-R balance shift I simply wouldn't be able to get into the performance. As a concert goer rather than an audiophile, I expect the piano to be central or nearly central in the L-R sound stage. That is what I would see in the hall. An audiophile, not concerned with live music, may well not be troubled, but if you attend live music you know roughly where the instruments are normally placed on the stage, and the recording should faithfully reproduce that, at the very least.

                Layout of orchestra here. Note how there are no fixed instrumentalist positions, but the piano is usually about central to the L-R sound stage here. Note the radically different loudnesses of the instruments; the orchestra seating plan tries to balance the orchestra forces across the stage, left to right, front to back here.

                Let's remove the orchestra from the balance offset. Here is an example of stereo pink noise, normally spread across the L-R sound stage, then also 3dB shifted leeft, then right:

                Loading the player ...
                Clip 3: Stereo pink noise. Balance normal, tilted left, normal, tilted right only 3dB loudness bias either way, same loudness shift as Clip 2

                There is nothing magical about balance controls. They are just a means of controlling and amending the loudness of the left channel relative to the right, or right relative to the left to be sure that, in our often asymmetrical living rooms, the orchestra will be correctly disposed in front of us. It really doesn't matter a jot why the sound is skewed left or right: it could be a recording problem, a mismatch within the speakers, asymmetry in speaker placement*, channel imbalance in the pre or power amp or source, age related or other hearing issues, asymmetry in the room furnishings so one speaker's output is more absorbed than the other, room asymmetry (one wall glass, one wall book lined) and many other variables. Whether the equipment has one balance control or independent L, R volume controls the functionality is the same: the ability to make either the left of right channel a little louder, or quieter, so that performers are correctly and evenly spaced from extreme left to extreme right, justa s w would experience at the concert hall. Whichever speaker is loudest at our ears will pull the perceived balance towards that speaker.

                Ok so far?

                * Most British listening rooms are significantly asymmetrical because the presence of a fireplace and chimney breast makes it problematic to position a TV, stereo speakers and comfortable chairs in the room giving a typical L-R balance offset. Where would you place the L/R speakers here? Or here? Or here? How about here then. Although the décor has changed much, this style of building represents a significant proportion of the UK housing stock, most of which which dates back far over 100 years to the coal-heated era. I don't see a 'sweet spot' here, do you, but a nudge of a balance control left or right might just make correctly balanced L-R stereo sound stage achievable in a less than optimal listening seat.
                Alan A. Shaw
                Designer, owner
                Harbeth Audio UK

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by A.S. View Post
                  Let's hear what a 3dB shift sound like, the sort of shift that a typical balance control would be designed to cope with, and correct:

                  Now that's the sort of L-R balance offset that is very typical of home listening and I find disturbing and completely detracts from serious listening. If I couldn't correct that L-R balance shift I simply wouldn't be able to get into the performance. As a concert goer rather than an audiophile, I expect the piano to be central or nearly central in the L-R sound stage. That is what I would see in the hall. An audiophile, not concerned with live music, may well not be troubled, but if you attend live music you know roughly where the instruments are normally placed on the stage, and the recording should faithfully reproduce that, at the very least.

                  Layout of orchestra here. Note how there are no fixed instrumentalist positions, but the piano is usually about central to the L-R sound stage here. Note the radically different loudnesses of the instruments; the orchestra seating plan tries to balance the orchestra forces across the stage, left to right, front to back here.

                  So, there is nothing magical about balance controls. They are just a means of controlling and amending the loudness of the left channel relative to the right, or right relative to the left to be sure that, in our often asymmetrical living rooms, the orchestra will be correctly disposed in front of us. It really doesn't matter a jot why the sound is skewed left or right: it could be a recording problem, a mismatch within the speakers, asymmetry in speaker placement*, channel imbalance in the pre or power amp or source, age related or other hearing issues, asymmetry in the room furnishings so one speaker's output is more absorbed than the other, room asymmetry (one wall glass, one wall book lined) and many other variables.

                  Ok so far?

                  * Most British listening rooms are very asymmetrical because the presence of a fireplace and chimney breast makes it problematic to position a TV, stereo speakers and comfortable chairs in the room giving a typical L-R balance offset. Where would you place the L/R speakers here? Or here?
                  More than OK. This is great and seems far more useful to most people than cable recommendations. I am very much looking forward to a tutorial on tone controls, should you get around to it. Despite having used them for years, a professionals perspective would be very helpful and very much appreciated.

                  Out of curiosity I looked on some recommended components lists from major publications. The top recommended preamplifiers all seem to lack tone controls and some even lack the balance controls. "Less features, but costs more" appears to be the mantra of high end.

                  This phrase should manage to make me smile for a good long while: "golden eared armchair generals."

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Great. I'll re-author the clip just to be sure.
                    Alan A. Shaw
                    Designer, owner
                    Harbeth Audio UK

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Clear

                      Yes everything clear so far. I will wait until I've read/heard more of Alan's posts before I ask the questions I still have regarding the correct balance.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        2 - the mono button

                        So how do we know if the balance is pulled to the left or right? Is it always that obvious? Maybe the composer intended the image to be pulled towards the left speaker or right speaker?

                        Well, even for pop music, it would be rare for the balance to be pulled towards one speaker. It just wouldn't sound right. The listener would think there was something wrong with his hearing (and maybe there is). He's start to shuffle his seated position away from his sweet spot and bias himself towards the quieter loudspeaker and away from the louder one. He would be a human balance control. To compensate for a 3dB balance offset (Clips 2 &3) he'd probably have to move (say) 30-50cms to the left or right. Of course, if his amp had a balance control, he could sit wherever he wanted, and just tilt the sound stage (i.e. speaker loudness) towards the weaker channel.

                        If the record companies provided us with multi-track recordings (the next big idea?) where every instrument and vocalist was on a separate track, we could, if we had a multi-channel mixing console steer every track to its own position across the left-right sound stage. If we didn't want the piano in the centre but wanted to place it on the far left, we could do that. Or if we preferred the soprano mid-right not mid-left, we could swing her over there. But as we are provided with a ready-to-play, packaged stereo mix, we can't dig-into the mix and tease out the individual performers and move them about on our home sound stage. We could, if the record companies gave use access, because they (usually) have the performers all neatly isolated from each other (with individual microphones) and recorded to discrete tracks on the master recording. But mixing down to stereo has frozen all the performers across our sound stage, left to right and (perceptually) front to back.

                        Given that we don't (yet) have that ability to repaint a recording just for our own tastes, and given that the position of the orchestra is (almost) standardised on the stage, all we can do is to correct for balance shifts due to our ears, room or equipment. Is there a simple way to test for imbalance? Yes: the mono button. Your amp does have a mono button doesn't it? No? Oh dear. The designer has deprived you of a very useful (and cheap to implement) tool which would be really hand to allow you to check for and rectify imbalance.

                        Let's take Clip 3, stereo pink noise, equivalent to an orchestra playing across the sound stage from left to right, and in the middle of the clip I'll press an imaginary mono button for you.

                        Loading the player ...
                        Clip 4: Stereo pink noise, then collapse to mono, revert to stereo

                        Now, depending upon a lot of factors, including how well matched your ears are, in the middle mono'd portion of Clip 4, you may have found that the roaring sound was dead centre between the speakers/headphones or you may have found that it was biased towards the left or right. What that mono portion reveals is that on my 'phones here the whole sound presentation is permanently biased towards one channel. I won't say which because on your system it may the the opposite. It's not so obvious that the stereo spread is biased towards one channel but heard in mono, it's clear that there is a bias: the mono roar should be dead centre. Subjectively, on these 'phones, the mono roar is about 3 cms offset from dead central on an imaginary line drawn at about arm's length in front of me when my eyes are closed.

                        When and amp's mono is engaged, all stereophonic information is discarded. If everything in the recording chain from your CD player through your amp, through the cabling, speakers and room symmetry and the limitations of your organic ears conspires to deliver exactly the same loudness at your ears, the L-R spread of the recording hall will be the same L-R balance as you hear at home. That's exceedingly unlikely because there are so many confounding variables: a balance control, and a mono button, would allow you to remove the stereo information and adjust the position of the central mono image to offset any channel biases that have been picked up along the chain. Then you release the mono button and revert to a L-R spread just as the recording engineer wants you to have at home.

                        But without a mono button and without a balance control, your amplifier maker has provided you with three alternatives: correct the offset by moving your seat, correct by moving the loudspeakers or both. Or, poke up with the offset. Is that good design practice? How can it be?

                        With our without a mono button, if you amplifier has a balance control (lucky you!) then swinging the balance from left to right would sound like this (middle portion). When you apply just enough bias correction to suit your ears then you leave the balance control where it is and just enjoy the music. "Simples!"

                        Loading the player ...
                        Clip 5: Stereo pink noise, then swing the balance from left to right (extreme example perhaps)
                        Alan A. Shaw
                        Designer, owner
                        Harbeth Audio UK

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Example of real-world channel mismatch

                          "My audio electronics are perfect. My room is perfect. My hearing is perfect .... and I am seriously into vinyl. I'm the last person that would need a balance control in my amplifier ....."

                          Well, that one view. But that's an emotional response, not one based on the real world. Let's take a look at a selection of world class pickup cartridges. The figure we are interested in is the manufacturer's specification for 'channel balance'. This number, in the same dBs that we've been illustrating in the clips above tells us about the difficulty the cartridge maker has in perfectly matching the loudness of the L and R channels. Here are some randomly selected examples:
                          • Ortofon X5-MC: high output moving coil - channel balance "<2dB"
                          • Ortofon SPU Classic GM Mk2: classic cartridge: channel "<1dB"
                          • Ortofon SPU Synergy GM: updated classic: channel balance "<1.5dB"
                          • Shure M97xE: moving magnet :channel balance "2dB"
                          • Lyra Delos: channel balance not specified
                          • Soundsmith Zephyr: channel balance "<0.5dB"
                          • Clearaudio Maestro: channel balance "<= 0.2dB" (astonishing)
                          • Goldring Eroica LX@ channel balance "1dB max at 1kHz"
                            etc. etc.

                          Don't forget to add to those figures the unavoidable (hopefully small) imbalance in your CD player's outputs, amplifier channel mismatch (typically around 0.5dB), the asymmetry of your room, speakers and ears. It's not difficult to add up to a 3dB offset which I've illustrated in the above clips can be heard.
                          Alan A. Shaw
                          Designer, owner
                          Harbeth Audio UK

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Amplifier makers know best - or maybe not ....

                            So why do you think audio manufacturers leave the balance controls, tone controls and mono switches off their products, what is your view on this Alan? I'm beginning to suspect myself, that the reasons are obviously self serving on the part of the manufacturers, clearly they are doing us no favours.

                            So for instance if they included all these extras would that eradicate the need for a "house sound" that they strive to deliver? Would that tend to give the purchaser more scope to make more of these manufacturers amplifiers sound the same under test conditions or listening conditions? Would that mean reduced sales? Would that mean less amplifier manufacturers? Surely the savings by leaving out these controls cant be so great in monetary value, can they?

                            Telling us that these features are not required or "contaminate" the signal sounds like codswallop to me and is something I have been struggling to understand for some time now. I certainly don't have a perfect listening environment and have to resort to adjusting individual speakers to achieve correct balance, a balance control would be great for me.

                            I would be interested in anyone's views on why manufacturers have omitted these controls/denied us these controls.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Costs and tone controls?

                              Originally posted by stevieshep View Post
                              I would be interested in anyone's views on why manufacturers have omitted these controls/denied us these controls.
                              My 2 cents:

                              Implementing these via cheap componentry must be degrading the sound quality, conversely it must take some time and money to implement these to a decent standard.

                              Someone must have started the trend to cut costs, and conned some people into thinking that direct sound is purer/audiophile quality by comparing it with some examples of poor implementation. And like urban legends do, it must have acquired life and become a virtue that all makers must have gleefully adopted.

                              Quad has remained a notable hold out, their preamps have always offered all of these, and maybe there are some others too. But some big names in audio have gone down this so called "purist" path. To an extent Quad are also guilty of subscribing to this state of affairs, they have an EQ disable setting where these controls are bypassed and don't work. I don't know why they offer this setting, to be honest.

                              Comment

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