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Has *Mellow* Gotten A Bad Rap

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  • Has *Mellow* Gotten A Bad Rap

    Years ago, mellow was used to describe a component or system that was pleasant and laid back, non-extremely dynamic, maybe a touch too smooth with maybe a side order of warmth thrown in for good effect. The system/component didn’t excite but neither did it cause you to run for the exits either.

    One example might have been the old Wilson Benesch CF arm or ACT1 CF bodied cartridge. In offensive, yet the music just lacked life. The earliest Rockport speakers sounded the same way to me. Early SET amps are another example. Great pairings for the digital of the day. In trying to avoid the excesses of the components of the day, WB, Rockport and SET amps went too far in the other direction.

    So why bring the topic of mellow up again?


    There are several components that I am currently listening to that I would describe as mellow. Except when the music calls for it. Easy to listen to yet wouldn’t describe as being undynamic/overdamped sounding nor is there any loss of resolution. No. What these components achieve that others don’t is a much lower distortion floor. So those protective hearing mechanisms that keep us at arms length from the music aren’t engaged and consequently the listener melts into the music.

    Another way way of describing it might be akin to tension and release in music. Where a musician plays notes within the scale that might be outside the chord to build tension-or a chromatic neighboring note to a target note. But in the end, the musician comes back to the root note to release the tension The same goes for the equipment. It lacks this unnatural tension that prevents the listener from relaxing. That is unless the tension is called for. And because this tension/release is happening naturally the system sounds more musical.

    Anyone else have any thoughts as to what they have heard or their own systems in particular?

    Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
    Senior Editor,

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  • #2
    It depends...

    If the component sounds mellow on its own and imparts that sound character to the reproduced music, then it is a bad thing. I am sure it will be pleasant at times but it isn't honest. Its probably not what the music supposed to sound like. A music system and/or component should strive to have no character of its own. The only character should come from the music itself and the component should impart no sonic signature of its own.

    This is the only way to listen to music and really understand what the artist intended. Of course a system and its components cannot recreate a live performance in your listening room. That is a lofty and unrealistic goal. That doesn't mean fidelity should be tossed into the trash and let all things pleasant be reproduced. We are trying to do the software a service and reproduce it the best we can.

    If we accept a mellow sounding component then who's to say a cheap component with questionable fidelity is wrong? Stick to your guns and require fidelity.

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    • #3
      Every listener connects differently to the music - some with extreme transparency and clarity, others with seductive warmth and the soul of the music. I think the ideal is the balance of the two, but rarely in one component does that exist. What we are all trying to balance is how everything blends together in the entire system.

      Traditionally, I would put Sonus Faber speakers in that "mellow" category. -able to exhibit great detail when needed, but definitely fits into the "get your cup of coffee or wine" category and just relax. However, the newest version of Sonus Faber has moved away from that sound, in favor of a more modern dynamic, neutral, extended sound. It is not surprising that I've heard owners of older Sonus Faber models describe the newest version as a bit harsh on top and even bright. To someone who has owned Magico or other more revealing/dynamic speakers may not perceive it that way. Our ears get accustomed to a certain sound and any deviation from that tends to be viewed in the negative, at least for long-term listening. I guess it is all relative to what you are used to.

      Mellow sounding components tend to have a heavy midrange focus and rolled off top end, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I heard the Marten Django XLs, and they seem to exhibit a very fast, detailed and dynamic sound, yet still has a slight rolled off treble to make for a very smooth and unfatiguing sound


      • #4
        Interesting topic, as someone just described my system as "mellow" in an email to me. First time I've ever heard anyone describe a solid state electronics and Magico Q3 based system. In relative terms, I find his system a bit strident sounding, and I think he finds it incisive sounding. Often, we are just making comparisons based on our references. I actually don't consider my system to sound mellow, especially when playing very dynamic music. So, I also think we differ in how we define particular sonic attributes. Though we try our best, often words just get in the way.
        Last edited by PeterA; 04-02-2019, 07:55 AM.
        SME 30/12A, SME V-12, MySonicLab Signature Gold, Air Tight Supreme, Pass Labs XA160.5, XP-22, XP-27, Magico Q3


        • mep
          mep commented
          Editing a comment
          So do you find Ack's system strident and he found your system mellow?

        • PeterA
          PeterA commented
          Editing a comment
          No. And I've never heard Ack use the term "mellow". He has not heard my system in at least two years, so he has not heard my Q3s or other recent changes to the system.

      • #5
        Well I personally don’t think that it’s a pejorative, no. I would describe my system as on the mellow side, compared to most other high end systems I hear. Doesn’t make mine better, for anyone except for me 🤪
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        • #6
          I have a very simplistic view on this topic. I wouldn't want my system to sound or be described as either "mellow" or "strident." If your system makes all recordings sound "mellow," something is seriously wrong with your system. Ditto if your system makes all recordings sound "strident." Ideally your system should take on the characteristics of each recording good or bad. At this stage of my life, I prefer listening to high dynamic range recordings that were really recorded well with great artists. If your system doesn't shine with great recordings, it's time to go back to the drawing board.
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          • #7
            I've got a tape of Donovan's Greatest Hits. His mellow is yellow.

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            • #8

              If a component or system brought a 'mellow' character to music I'd take a pass on it, preferring one that did not homogenize sound and allowed the records to sound like themselves. E-lec-tric-al banana is past its sudden craze.


              • #9
                Originally posted by astrotoy View Post
                I've got a tape of Donovan's Greatest Hits. His mellow is yellow.

                That's actually a great sounding LP.
                SP-10 MKII table with custom power supply designed and built by Peter Noerbaek with an SME 3012R with Dyna XV-1S cartridge, VPI Avenger table with rim drive and JMW -12-3D arrm with Lyra Etna SL cartridge, Zesto Andros 1.2 phono stage, Otari MX-55 tape deck, Ampex 350 repros, Roon Nucleus Plus server, PS Audio DSJ DAC, ARC Ref 6 pre, ARC Ref 75 amp, JBL 4345 speakers with a pair of Def Tech Ref subs.


                • #10
                  A system should only sound mellow if its playing a mellow record. Think early Dan Fogelberg.
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