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'BALANCE': Another of the Big Lies in Audio

by W.A.J.

Mainstream audio magazines seem very fond of telling people that they should seek correct 'balance' in the frequency-response and sound of their systems and speakers. This is a good thing. But it's also bad.

Looking first at the good; all audiophiles know that any good system must have a balanced frequency-response. No segment of the frequency-spectrum should be more or less prominent than the other. In saying this, I'm not referring to the sound, or the balance, one perceives with one's ears, I'm talking about that beautiful flat line one hopefully sees when one measures the response of one's amplifier, for instance. We all know it won't be 'flat', really, but you catch my drift. And we also know that measurements don't tell all. (For instance, buffered-passive and active pre-amps may both measure flat, but then listen to the stark difference between the two, in the lower-mids - with capable speakers of course). But at least measurements can expose any glaring anomalies. 

Opening-Balance:  Looking now at what's bad about these mags' stressing of 'balance', in relation to speakers; it's that they're stressing aural balance - what one perceives with one's ears. They have people listening to music to ensure relatively equal levels in bass, mids, and trebles - purporting that this is the 'correct balance'.

In furtherance of this fallacy, these mags have also been telling people that  all regions; bass, mid, an treble, are equally important, and that no region should dominate or take precedence over any other. This is another blatant LIE.

Do not be misled: The midrange is THE most important region of the frequency-spectrum, without hint, whiff, or shadow of doubt. In music, and even life, it also dominates. No other frequency-region is as important, or as dominant, as the midrange. Compared to the importance and the dominance of the midrange, in music and life, bass and treble are really relatively minor accessories - the supporting-cast, so to speak. 

Certainly, the views being dismissed, here, are views I'd sometimes encountered before I switched, mainly, to other sources for my hifi news and views. But apparently, this practice by the mainstream mags, at least, still persists. People tend to repeat the things that they read in these mainstream mags (oft-times taking these words as 'gospel'). And in several chats with other audiophiles I've recently been re-acquainted with the fact that this is another fallacy that people are still being taught. This is absolutely wrong.

Firstly, electronic music could scarcely be used to test for the accuracy (or correct balance) of much of anything of  any real significance, for several reasons. For one, I'm sure we needn't elaborate on the fact that electronic instruments are subject to any of virtually infinite levels of adjustment, by musicians and/or engineers, as to what their 'balance' may be. (That's the first sign of how ridiculous the prospect of a recording of such instruments/music being used as the basis of any test for 'balance' really is. Acoustic music can also be manipulated by engineers, but then this is less likely, and/or less likely to be detrimental, since only a stupid recording-engineer would seriously alter the well-known natural balance of these instruments, in relation to each other, even in those instances where some of the instruments may have been recorded or mic'd separately. So then, let's be generous in substituting the common-sense approach in taking this to its inevitable conclusion). Therefore, if electronic music is ruled out, it leaves the other alternative. 

In listening to properly recorded acoustic music thru a speaker-system, if one generally perceives bass, mids, and trebles in relatively equal levels then it means that the mids are deficient - or that the treble and bass are excessive, amounting to the same thing - the overall balance is WRONG. Yet, this is what these mags purport to be the 'correct balance'. Why? Are they really not aware of this, or...?

Interestingly, and just by coincidence (i.e; if one is really gullible) this is also the balance that many top-echelon modern speakers are prone to display, basically, especially in relation to the mids and trebles (not so much with the bass of an acoustic stand-up bass-guitar, in fairness). The lesser-lites differ only in terms of their limited bass-response, but typically their trebles are right up there with the mids and, more often than not, a couple decibels above. (Or, at the very least, this is the perceived aural-effect of their overall balance).

So perhaps there's the likely answer as to why these mags are so interested in pushing, peddling, this type of sound.

And More Balance:  In other articles, we've already alluded to the short-comings of most modern conventional cone-driven speakers. Their small cones cannot reproduce lower-midrange tones in a lifelike and realistic manner. Therefore, in attempting to reproduce music without the important and oft powerful lower-mids, they actually present an incomplete midrange which lacks the fundamental power and/or substance of those lower-mids - in short; the tonal balance is wrong. Consequently, a lean and seemingly recessed midrange is presented (because of the missing lower-mids element) which causes the bass and treble to become more prominent. This results in the three ranges being, effectively and falsely, equalized in balance because of the afore-mentioned midrange deficiency - therefore, the overall-balance is also wrong. (Other factors apply, but this is the simple/quick explanation).

And this deficiency is what the manufacturers, in unison with the mainstream press, seek to legitimize by purporting that this is the 'correct balance'. (This is one of the instances where the dishonest sell their handicaps as assets, as alluded to in a previous piece. They're also wont to claim that this lean and recessed midrange is 'accurate' - another lie).

In other words, their flawed speakers have the wrong balance (compared to the real thing - live music). Yet they, and their partners in the mainstream audio-press, tell you it's the correct balance. And to prove it they suggest a flawed test (with recorded electronic instruments) which you can do yourself - though they set the parameters. And they  generously tell you what the answer should be; relatively equal levels in bass, mid, and treble (which just happens to coincide with their speakers' flawed balance). Any other answer is wrong. (I repeat; they set the parameters - and they provide the 'correct' answer you should look for). Awesome. Here's a simple example of this form of (fuzzy) logic: Let's say they're telling you; 1 and 1 = 11. They also tell you; to test for this, place 1 beside another 1. And if the result is '11', then there you have it. Congratulations, you have arrived at the 'correct' answer all by your lonesome - smart fellow. Or, in this case; the system which passes our 'test' has the 'correct balance'.

In reality, the actual fact is that the sounds in nature are DOMINATED by the midrange frequencies, there's no such thing as an even balance of bass, mids, and treble, in nature - to reiterate a point previously mentioned. The fact is, too, that the sounds in music are also DOMINATED by the midrange frequencies. Neither is there any such thing as an even 'balance' of bass, mids, and treble, in most acoustic music - also to reiterate points previously mentioned, if only for desperately-needed emphasis.

If one were to make a mental analysis of the frequency-ranges of the sounds one hears at the next acoustic-jazz, folk, classical concert, or virtually any other type of musical performance with un-amplified instruments, then one would realize that this is absolutely true. (i.e; Not counting the obvious rare-exceptions; a performance limited to large drums, for instance). Rare exceptions notwithstanding, the dominant sound of virtually all un-amplified musical performances ranges from the upper-mids down to the lower-midrange. In fact, even the oft robust sound of the orchestra/acoustic band is not mainly in the bass, it's actually mostly in the lower-mids. 

Little single or doubled 6" to 8" mid-woofers, as supplied with most modern speaker systems, from the cheapest to the most expensive, simply have no hope of replicating the robustness of even most single instruments, let alone the multiple acoustic instruments of a small ensemble, large band, or orchestra. And this is one reason why 'state of the art' versions of modern speakers are routinely, disgracefully,  and totally dusted, in terms of truly realistic reproduction, by ancient relics which employ large mid-woofers (with the requisite cone-surface area) fully capable of reproducing ALL of the midrange that is so DOMINANT in live music - including ALL the critical and substantial lower-mids modern small-coned speakers cannot supply. (We needn't even mention the role of the vastly superior dynamics of the relics and their latter-day descendants, in this discussion of  'balance'. Please see a previous article,  here, for expansion on the superiority of the 'ancient relics', and their present-day descendants).

Measurements vs Accurate-Balance:  Perhaps we're being a bit too harsh on the designers and advocates of these small-coned modern systems. I'm sure some designers are trying their very best to supply the very best designs they think they possibly can. But perhaps (and I do believe) they're being led astray by too much reliance on measurements. Many of these systems may well measure 'flat', but I say again; we all know that measurements do not tell the whole story as to how realistic a component may actually sound.

We've already mentioned the disparity between the measurements and the actual difference between passive and active pre-amps at lower-midrange. Such differences between measurements and actual sonics are evident in amps, CD-players, phono-cartridges, and virtually every component in the audio chain. But in speakers, for reasons nobody is really sure of, the disparity between measurements and sonics is more pronounced.

Perhaps one reason why designers persist with small-coned mid-woofers is that they do achieve (economically) respectable measurements through this region, just as is apparent with larger drivers. But the truth is, also, that the small drivers cannot deliver the tonal weight of instruments when called-upon to do so, in the real world. Refer to '...The Headphone-Effect...', for expansion on this point - the bulk of this segment has be transferred to that article, and expanded.

I absolutely believe that much too much emphasis is placed on measurements. And not enough emphasis is placed on how closely these speakers replicate the sound of actual instruments including, importantly, the accurate tonal-balance, and overall-balance, in relation to that of the actual musical instruments - not in relation to the measurements. If enough of this were being done then articles like this would be un-necessary. If, because of 'The Headphone-Effect', for example, these speakers present reduced levels of the lower mids (as they do) in the 'real-world', then their overall balance is bound to be thinner than the real thing - in the 'real world' - despite the measurements.

I believe measurements should be used as a basis. But the final design of any speaker worth its components should be based on a comparison with actual musical-instruments, with strategies employed to achieve the highest level of fidelity to the dynamics, tone, and balance, of the actual musical-instruments, regardless of what the measurements may say.

The lower-midrange is one of the main reasons why live instruments sound BIG - and also why the midrange is so prevalent in live acoustic music. Bring back the lower-mids and the reproduction will be more realistic - the true overall balance will be restored.

Closing-Balance: The midrange - ALL of the midrange - is the dominant element in nature and music, by far. Therefore, contrary to what many have been taught, the aural 'balance' of a truly competent speaker reproducing acoustic music WILL be midrange-prominent, since that is how music is in reality. There's no even aural-balance of bass, mid, and treble in such speakers with such recorded music, neither in nature, nor in live music itself.

Yet many are content with the sonic-balance of modern speakers. I wish them well - all the best, really. But this piece is mainly addressed to those who're not content with this type of sound, and balance, which differs so significantly from that of actual musical instruments. To perhaps a minority of audiophiles, the overall balance of modern speakers is seriously wrong, compared to live music.

So the next time one of these mainstream mags recommends this even aural balance from bass, thru mids, to treble, give the writer a call, and politely suggest that he may kindly go and 'balance' himself off the edge of the nearest convenient deep-water pier, as a favor to similarly concerned audiophiles world-wide.

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[Note: For another view on the subject of the midrange (and implicitly addressed; overall-balance) there's an article I've been linking to a lot, lately (3 times in as many articles) perhaps because of my relatively late discovery of it. Just as I've done with this topic, others have also pointed-out the obvious - though not enough . But I think that piece is a classic. Here's a link to that article by Stereophile magazine's late founder, J. Gordon Holt, on the issue. A google-search reveals that several have lately been referring to it, though many seem not to be able to decipher the great man's writing-style, or his use of the language in that particular piece and, therefore, miss some of the most relevant points. The level of understanding displayed by a few is to be lamented, really, and so too is the level of complicity in the errs of the status-quo. Here's hoping most others fare better, in both regards.]

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