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Difference Between Brightness and Distortion

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  • Difference Between Brightness and Distortion

    There's always been this audio paradox that few have talked about. Brightness. Yes, brightness can be the most fatiguing quality about audio equipment, cables or systems. Audiophiles have for years, eschewed brightness (primary examples being early solid-state and digital equipment), often going to great lengths to eliminate it from their audio systems. Many times, these audiophiles overshot the mark and as a result their systems sounded dark and muddy. So far in fact, that their systems lacked resolution, rhythm and life and every recording sounded the same.

    Except for one little itsy, bitsy thing. Some types of music and instruments are bright and very energetic. Take high violin strings. Take some modern classical music.Take some string quartets. Take trumpets. There are most certainly other examples too.

    So it seems that high-end audio as a result evolved into two camps: those that cherished resolution and realness and those who valued long term listenability above all other qualities. But does that necessarily be true? Do these two things have to be mutually exclusive. One thing that has struck me over the years, in particular in the last year, that we can have both "brightness" and musicality at the same time. The principal reason for this---and there are now plenty of examples of equipment capable of doing this today--is that the brightness wasn't/isn't necessarily frequency response related but distortion (linear or non-linear related). You can get that edginess of Indian music with violin without necessarily wanting to run from room. To enjoy both the music and sound at the same time. Perhaps this will become more widely appreciated with time?
    Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
    Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
    ________________________________________

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    -Assorted cables including Transparent XL Gen. 6, Skogrand, Viero, Kubala-Sosna, Audience Au24SX, Genesis Advanced Technologies and Ensemble Power Cords
    -Accessories including Stillpoint Aperture panels, Cathedral Sound panels, Furutech NCF Nano AC receptacles; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 PLC, Symposium ISIS and SRA Craz 3 racks, Audiodharma Cable Cooker, Symposium Ultra and assorted SRA OHIO Class 2.1+ platforms.

  • #2
    One additional distinction to add to your good observations: the "brightness" characteristic of, say, an unmuted trumpet, doesn't carry over to other instruments and sounds that aren't "bright" by nature. That's distortion. Just as is a honey-glazed homogeneity on all instruments (something more characteristic of old-school tube designs). I suppose one may be more offensive than the other depending on the ears involved- it sure seemed mutually exclusive for many older electronics designs- to get the detail and clarity, you suffered an over-analytic brightness or "edge enhancement"; to get the fullness and weight of some instruments, you suffered tube-like euphonics. I think decent modern gear transcends that. How well it does so may be a measure of its quality as a neutral reproducer, which means that listening to a wide range of music and recordings is revealing. I used to find those old Mercury Living Presence classical records to be unnaturally bright; much less so today, on "better" gear.

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    • #3
      to me, brightness is a combination of tipped up and distorted highs
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      • #4
        Originally posted by JCOConnell View Post
        to me, brightness is a combination of tipped up and distorted highs
        Some food for those. When we refer to brightness, many talk about issues in the upper octaves. I suggest re-evaluating the situation because the issue is often in the upper midrange, not upper octave area. Case in point. When I had my Maggie's-and people know how revealing that ribbon transducer is--I almost killed the top end with the resistor attenuation, yet the problem was still there. It wasn't until Indid other things in the setup was I able to address the underlying issue.
        Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
        Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
        ________________________________________

        -Zellaton Plural Evo speakers
        -Goldmund Telos 300 stereo amp
        -Goldmund Mimesis 37S Nextgen preamplifier
        -Doshi EVO and Goldmund PH3.8 phonostage
        -VPI Vanquish direct-drive turntable
        -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
        -Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, Fuuga Mk. 2, vdh Colibri Master Signature, MutechHayabusa, MOFI Master Tracker, Sumiko Songbird cartridges
        -Technics RS1506 with Flux Magnetic heads, Doshi V3.0 tape stage (balanced)
        -Assorted cables including Transparent XL Gen. 6, Skogrand, Viero, Kubala-Sosna, Audience Au24SX, Genesis Advanced Technologies and Ensemble Power Cords
        -Accessories including Stillpoint Aperture panels, Cathedral Sound panels, Furutech NCF Nano AC receptacles; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 PLC, Symposium ISIS and SRA Craz 3 racks, Audiodharma Cable Cooker, Symposium Ultra and assorted SRA OHIO Class 2.1+ platforms.

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        • #5
          I think we have to make a distinction between a system and source material that is unnaturally bright vs. a system that is realistic vs. a system that is incapable of sounding realistic because it is dull and rolled off at the top. There are instruments that sound bright such as many brass instruments and that is the way they sound if you are standing next to them live. Systems that are balanced and have plenty of power should be able to pull off a very realistic facsimile of how horns really sound assuming the recording captured the information. If your system takes the edge off of the bite that horns naturally have and they sound muted like someone threw a blanket over the musician and his instrument, your system has issues.

          Another distinction is source material that sounds unnaturally bright on any good system regardless of the instrument and early PCM is a good example of this type of source material. The converse of this is that you can assemble a system with components that lean towards the lean and bright and even with a fine analog front end it will still sound bright.

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          • #6
            I dislike brightness when it's evident throughout, such as those from digital recordings or poorly done conversions from initial analog sources. My ears are really sensitive to that type of brightness. However, when it comes from good recordings I can easily live with it. Take for example ELO-Eldorado. The opening track on Side 1 (Eldorado Overture) with it's large symphonic sound could be considered bright (I know that's system dependent as well), but to me it doesn't and certainly doesn't have that fatiguing signature to it.
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            • #7
              I agree with Myles, the problem we refer to as brightness is usually seated in the lower treble/upper mid range. We also tend to easily blame the speakers when it is in-fact the speakers just doing what they were designed to do, which is to offer as transparent a window on the music (and the equipment producing it) as possible. Most panels fall into this category being often ruthlessly revealing in the presence band where the human ear is most sensitive. Get one component in-front wrong and the result is the "brightness" that's so incredibly irritating. Digital sources (even expensive ones) are notorious criminals as well as amplifiers of both principles, especially the ones making use of inexpensive components.
              Last edited by L3AND3R; 09-11-2016, 10:44 AM.
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              • #8
                Brightness to me is an upper midrange emphasis, whether from a recording or the system. It's not a problem if it is just the realistic sound of a few instruments, perhaps too closely miked. Some music is supposed to sound edgy.

                Brightness in the system is something that can be dealt with by adding room treatments, different cables, etc.

                Distortion is different. I usually hear distortion as grain in the upper midrange which can sound a little bright but is usually caused by solid state amps.
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                • MylesBAstor
                  MylesBAstor commented
                  Editing a comment
                  I think what I'm saying is that some distortion artifacts can manifest themselves as brightness.

              • #9
                allow me to confuse this even more . digital has this with poor sources its why I got into usb spidif converters and then caps . while you analog people have your issues I have yours and an added layer of digital ones . pcm has plenty of brightness if jittered much more than dsd . if your chain is done well glare is gone and blackness replaces it .
                analog stuff.
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                • #10
                  I'm thinking the brightness v. distortion topic hinges on word usage and knowing exactly what sonic description one wishes to make, as it is about anything else.

                  As others suggest, brightness can result from (too?) closely mic'd instruments, improper recording acoustics or engineering, improper pitch (performance) from a musician. I'm not inclined to label such as examples of distortion.

                  Some folks contrast various gears as bright or dark. One possible way to parse through this is to ask yourself "what is the opposite of what I'm trying to describe" - the antonym question. This leads me to speculate if what we sometimes call brightness results from inadequate harmonic representation. In such case the sound might be better described as "lean" rather than bright.

                  I often find myself experiencing what some call brightness as a coming forward or emphasis or peakiness - a frequency imbalance that thrusts a higher pitched sound toward me, usually in an annoying way. That, imo, is a more apt characterization than "bright."

                  If we frequently ascribe "brightness" to higher pitched sounds or instruments - trumpets, piccolos and even sopranos come to mind - is there a brightness analog word for lower pitched sound? With tongue in cheek I wonder if some audiophiles regard bright bass as a desirable.

                  Distortion is something different. I'm more inclined to think of it as a product of the reproduction chain. While bright sounds may be distorted and the brightness may be a by-product of the distortion, I don't think brightness per se is inherently distortion. If the sound is bright because it's distorted, then that's distortion; if it's bright because of something else, that's brightness. A speaker that is not coherent - for example one with a crossover discontinuity between its tweeter and mid-range - may manifest that lack of continuity as sounding bright. I might be inclined to describe such as distortion - the signal is not discontinuous, but its transduction from the speaker as a system fails to represent the frequency balance as it was manifest at recording.

                  I love these jargon threads, but that may not be a good thing.

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                  • #11
                    One of the reason these jargon threads are so important is that we all should be on the same page with our same terminology and in our cases, our readers know what the terms we are using mean. For instance, I've seen on another forum (or two) where the term transparency misused/abused to death. In fact, not even remotely close to what term means.

                    One thing that drives me batty is reviewers inventing new terms and just confusing people more.

                    One thing that colleagues in the industry and I have discussed over the years is how do we simplify our terminology? For example, I've given reviews to non-audiophiles--as I am sure many of us here have--to read. The comment most often heard from the uninitiated is the piece reads nicely but they have no idea of what we are talking about. Now I realize all techs have their particular and peculiar jargon but we do need to be clearer so our reviewers can be understood by a wider population.

                    And I appreciate--as I am sure others do--reading your insights into audio terminology. We all bring our own unique perspective to the issue.
                    Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
                    Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
                    ________________________________________

                    -Zellaton Plural Evo speakers
                    -Goldmund Telos 300 stereo amp
                    -Goldmund Mimesis 37S Nextgen preamplifier
                    -Doshi EVO and Goldmund PH3.8 phonostage
                    -VPI Vanquish direct-drive turntable
                    -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
                    -Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, Fuuga Mk. 2, vdh Colibri Master Signature, MutechHayabusa, MOFI Master Tracker, Sumiko Songbird cartridges
                    -Technics RS1506 with Flux Magnetic heads, Doshi V3.0 tape stage (balanced)
                    -Assorted cables including Transparent XL Gen. 6, Skogrand, Viero, Kubala-Sosna, Audience Au24SX, Genesis Advanced Technologies and Ensemble Power Cords
                    -Accessories including Stillpoint Aperture panels, Cathedral Sound panels, Furutech NCF Nano AC receptacles; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 PLC, Symposium ISIS and SRA Craz 3 racks, Audiodharma Cable Cooker, Symposium Ultra and assorted SRA OHIO Class 2.1+ platforms.

                    Comment


                    • #12
                      Yes. Describing music with words is difficult. Describing feelings with words is also difficult.

                      I believe, for the most part, that we hear the same as others, that is we share the same hearing mechanism. Your noumenon is my noumenon. ;-) I think we are more apt to have different feelings about what we hear, sometimes struggle to describe those, and thus are more apt to disagree. Keeping the two separate may be an abstract enterprise that most of us don't want to engage in because it's not in our interest - except of course when we try to communicate and learn the opinions of others. I don't know if it's being lazy or honest to describe in a review what I hear in terms of what I feel.

                      I tend to worry less about using the standard audiophile jargon and more about using descriptions that go outside of it. But when you least expect it, the latter can be more informative. That's not say in new terms - I agree with you there.

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                      • #13
                        I always felt brightness related to the effect of pitch like those high-frequency-dominant recordings, and harshly overloaded or clipped distortion of the music being recorded and published.. Way to much treble (thin sounding, metallic ) like a cymbal that just doesn't sound real.

                        Warmth to me refers to the process of adding mid-range harmonics to low-frequency signals.

                        I found this on distortion " The term 'distortion' describes any change made to a waveform: even a simple change to the amplitude is technically a form of distortion, as is EQ, which is, in essence, an amplitude change to specific frequencies. More commonly, though, we intend it to mean something that happens when audio passes through a non‑linear device, like a saturating tube amp or a clipping preamp. In both cases, the main function is to change the amplitude, but the distortion process introduces new harmonics that are musically related to the original signal in some way."
                        Chris
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