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  • Is Sound Diffuse or Focused?

    I have had some rather spirited discussions with three recent visitors to my listening room. Opinions varied as to the quality of the sound from changes I have made to speaker positioning and room treatments. The comments were mostly focused on the imaging of my system, relative to what my guests remember from the last time they heard it, and relative to what they hear at home, and at live venues. With my recent changes, the sound is now quite different. At least one visitor seemed to greatly prefer the sound I had previous to the recent changes.

    This led me to think more intently about one specific attribute of live sound: How focused or diffuse is it really? What are the characteristics of its scale, the size of the images, their location in the soundstage, the size of the soundstage, and the relative definition of the virtual images from which the sound originates. And how does all of this relate to what we hear from our systems?

    My visitors' comments also have me wondering if they were using live music, their own systems, or some combination of the two as the primary reference from which they formed their opinions.

    I decided to do something interesting as one visitor got up to say his goodbyes. I listened to him speak for a minute and then I closed my eyes and continued to listen to him speak.

    Last night I attended a live concert with Madfloyd and Al M in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music. We heard Beethoven’s 2nd symphony, a Mozart concerto for flute and harp, and then one movement from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I listened with both my eyes open and, at times, closed.

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    Based on listening to my visitor and to the concert with my eyes both open and shut, here are my conclusions:

    1. Sound heard with eyes wide open is clear, dynamic and full of complex and nuanced tone and detail. It appears to originate from a very specific location. It is focused.

    2. Sound heard with eyes shut closed seems very much the same with one major distinction. It is diffuse. My friend’s voice in my listening room was also very diffuse and interestingly, it was also quite sibilant (which is important in the context of my cartridge comparisons).

    Sound coming from voices and instruments is diffuse in real life. I do not hear pin-point, well defined or outlined images. I have certainly heard this from systems, and my system was more in that direction when I had lots of room treatments and the speakers were toed-in to point at my shoulders. Of course, the sound is exactly the same. It is the perception how diffuse or focused it is that seems to change when I opened or closed my eyes while listening.

    Whether listening to a live concert, to a visitor in my listening room, or to my audio system, I can clearly localize the sound from the instruments or singers up on stage and from my speakers, but there is no outline of the image. The sound's precise size and location are not as clear as I had imagined them to be or as they are often described. It is fuzzy and seems bigger than in real life when actually seen. With eyes closed, sounds overlap with the sounds of neighboring instruments and voices. Things sound bigger, a bit more jumbled. There is still a cohesive whole, for sure, but it is not precisely drawn out as we may imagine it to be.

    My system was criticized as lacking focus and being overly diffuse. It is certainly more so than it was before I made the recent changes. However, these two experiences, and actually my long-held suspicions, have confirmed that the sound of real live music and voices is also diffuse. My recent changes have resulted in a more convincing and believable sound, at least relative to what I hear live. Some visitors do not seem to agree.

    I should add that none of this seems absolute. There is a wide range of diffusion from both recordings and from live music, just as there is a wide range of what we refer to as the timbre of an instrument or ambient sound of a performance space. But what live music never seems to be is a super focused sound with pinpoint imaging and positioning on a clearly defined imagined soundstage, at least in my experience. I have heard this in systems, and some people seem to love it, but I have begun to move away from that type of sound.

    I suspected this for a while, and perhaps it is obvious to others, but it seems that there is still some disagreement about this aspect of the sound of live music.
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  • #2
    Interesting. One thing I've noticed is that when I close my eyes while listening to music at home, sound from beyond the outer edges of the speakers is pronounced (on certain recordings), and my brain easily locates its position in space. Not so much with open eyes. Weird.

    Comment


    • PeterA
      PeterA commented
      Editing a comment
      This may have something to do with using fewer senses. With eyes shut, I find I can concentrate more on just the sound, or the music, because there are fewer stimuli. Try listening to a dinner conversation around a table with your eyes shut. The sound is more diffuse. I think seeing where the source of the sound comes from seems to make us hear it as coming from a more precise location. It seems more focused. I no longer want my system to mimic that, because it is not natural. I now think of it as an artifact.

    • MylesBAstor
      MylesBAstor commented
      Editing a comment
      Removing senses especially vision is not as simple and clean cut as it seems.

      Try standing on one leg for a minute and then try doing the same thing for 30 s with your eyes closed. Hint. It won’t be pretty. We don’t realize how much we depend on vision (another example is dining in the dark where you might find it difficult to differentiate between salmon and beef. 😉)

      Removing vision causes a lot of confusion among the remaining senses. Eventually the brain adapts and begins finding other neural pathways-in this case proprioception eg. using the input from efferent nerves. So it would be interesting to see what happens if you only listened with your eyes closed for a week two or more.

    • seamonster
      seamonster commented
      Editing a comment
      I've been listening to my stereo systems for many years with closed eyes. At night, only very low, indirect lighting, or none at all. As kcin states below, "Adds to the spatial illusion.". My initial post refers to my not as definitively detecting sound beyond the speaker edges with open eyes.

  • #3
    Thought provoking. I will do some open & closed eye listening this evening. While listening at home, I can't remember the last time I closed my eyes.

    It seems like alot of manufactures and audiophiles aspire for detail, clarity and transparency. I wonder how many live performances they take in?
    On average, I see at least 3 live shows a month(Probably have the ear damage to prove it-Ha-ha)
    The overall musicality of the live performance involves much more then detail and transparency.

    I have not been to Orchestra Hall in quite a while. I will have to put your observations to a test. Thanks!
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    • #4
      I've noticed over the years, when in a concert hall (we used to have series tickets for the Pacific Symphony at Segerstrom Hall) if I paid any attention to the localization or imaging of the sound, I completely lost out on musical content. When I let myself get totally involved in the music, I had almost no recognition of the localization. it seemed to be one or the other.

      That is not true when I listen at home.
      Steve Lefkowicz
      Senior Associate Editor at Positive Feedback
      --------------------------------------------------------
      http://www.audionirvana.org/forum/ti...ounding-system

      Comment


      • #5
        Similarly,

        If I do any serious listening at home its in the dark. Adds to the spatial illusion.

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        • #6
          Just my opinion.

          If you attend a live performance you can see the performers and need to pay hardly any attention exactly where the sound is coming from.However listening to an audio system reproducing those visual clues are missing, so the artist, recording and playback need to over compensate in order to try and satisfy your brain in the absence of the vital visual clues.

          It is after all a primitive reaction to any sound: Firstly, what is it, secondly where is it coming from and thirdly, what am I going to do about it? We need all three of those facts before we can sink into that blissful state that music reproduction can create.

          I therefore think it is absolutely futile to compare audio system imaging with that of a live performance on purely aural grounds.

          Comment


          • #7
            I feel dim lights yield a more attached to the music feeling. If lights are bright it’s less defined to me. This is at my coach 8 feet or so. at 15 feet it no longer matters eyes open or not. Also and please correct me if I wrong. Close at 8 feet is I’m there feel at 15 feet they are here.
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            • #8
              I guess I really don’t agree for many reasons. Mainly way too many variables in the chain. It also seems to me you are imparting a coloration to the sound however pleasing.

              1. I think you are confusing direct vs. reflected sound of the hall/recording space. Where you sit in the hall eg. close up, mid or back of the hall, club, etc. also makes a sizeable difference. An orchestra should sound different than say a string quartet, both recorded and live. Getting that right balance of direct vs. reflected sound on say a classical recording takes a lot of engineering work and experience.

              2. How can this apply to all musical genres? Or recording spaces? Or recordings. Jazz, for instance, is usually recorded close-up in a drier studio and then ambience, echo is added after. Classical OTOH varies with each hall. And microphone arrangement. Some mike setups are more pinpoint, others have more ambience. Some recordings are multi-miked, others have accent/touch up mikes. Some closer, some more distant. The distant miking sound gives you a diffuse feeling. Some recordings are drier, some more liquid. Take away ambience and instruments stand out more.

              3. Mikes don’t “hear” the same way as our ears. Plus the radiation pattern of each instrument is unique to that instrument. In other words, different frequencies are radiated in different polar patterns. Everest’s book has a nice chapter on this. So the question becomes do you want to hear the recording or adjust it to your way of thinking it should sound?

              4. Another thought is you are trying to make up or compensate for something (spaciousness) being lost in your system. My first thought is to play with your cartridge loading. God only know your Colibri had a tonload of ambient retrieval. I think you can have your cake and eat it without having to resort to toeing your speakers out.
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              • #9
                Myles summed up my thoughts to T. My regular venues are Disney Hall, Segerstrom and Royce at UCLA and they all possess sound reinforcement to one degree or another. Depending on where you sit you might get more direct sound vs amplified vs a mix of the two. I don't know about you guys but my mind will wander during a performance and I look for the mics hanging over the orchestra pit or try to spot the PA system which in some halls is well hidden or camouflaged
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                • #10
                  The original performance ends at the microphone. All other comparisons are audiophile masturbation. It may feel good but it is short lived pleasure leaving you wanting for more.😎I say this as one of you. I’m not making fun. I obsess all the time about my system performance. But the first sentence is true.
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                  • #11
                    My mind is not as drawn to location as it is to dynamics at a live show. I went to 2 symphony and 1 jazz trio over the holidays. I was in row N. Pretty good seats. I was amazed at the balance of the bass to other instrument and how "Alive" the bass was. The speed and immediacy, as well as blending with other instruments. I try to replicate that in my setup now. In truth, I have no idea how to do as such. I just keep trying to improve to quality of my power and get better source material.
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                    • #12
                      Originally posted by MylesBAstor View Post
                      I guess I really don’t agree for many reasons. Mainly way too many variables in the chain. It also seems to me you are imparting a coloration to the sound however pleasing.

                      1. I think you are confusing direct vs. reflected sound of the hall/recording space. Where you sit in the hall eg. close up, mid or back of the hall, club, etc. also makes a sizeable difference. An orchestra should sound different than say a string quartet, both recorded and live. Getting that right balance of direct vs. reflected sound on say a classical recording takes a lot of engineering work and experience.

                      2. How can this apply to all musical genres? Or recording spaces? Or recordings. Jazz, for instance, is usually recorded close-up in a drier studio and then ambience, echo is added after. Classical OTOH varies with each hall. And microphone arrangement. Some mike setups are more pinpoint, others have more ambience. Some recordings are multi-miked, others have accent/touch up mikes. Some closer, some more distant. The distant miking sound gives you a diffuse feeling. Some recordings are drier, some more liquid. Take away ambience and instruments stand out more.

                      3. Mikes don’t “hear” the same way as our ears. Plus the radiation pattern of each instrument is unique to that instrument. In other words, different frequencies are radiated in different polar patterns. Everest’s book has a nice chapter on this. So the question becomes do you want to hear the recording or adjust it to your way of thinking it should sound?

                      4. Another thought is you are trying to make up or compensate for something (spaciousness) being lost in your system. My first thought is to play with your cartridge loading. God only know your Colibri had a tonload of ambient retrieval. I think you can have your cake and eat it without having to resort to toeing your speakers out.
                      Is this a dogmatic response that implies toeing your speakers in is good and not toeing in your speakers is bad? I don't think it's as simple as that. I think what it all comes down to is what type of sound are you chasing in your room? More importantly in the case of PeterA and others, have you decided if you are setting up your system to please yourself, or are you setting up your system so your friends will approve of your sound?

                      Some of this has already been stated, but I'm going to recap and possibly expand on some things. There is no doubt in my mind that toeing your speakers in towards your listening chair will create a focus of the sound, especially vocals. If you deaden the front and side walls through sound absorption in addition to toe in, you will achieve a "focused purity" of the sound. With my NOLA KOs in my basement room in Indiana, I had focused purity in spades. It can be a very addictive sound so I get why it's popular. This sound will also highlight every vocal. Now you need to ask yourself if "focused purity" with an emphasis on vocals is what you would hear live with musicians playing in a real venue. I think the answer is no. One interesting tidbit here is that the designer of the NOLA KO speakers wants zero toe in when you place them in your room even though they are highly capable of creating the "focused purity" when toed in as I previously described.

                      Fast forward to the present, and now I live in TN and I have a much bigger dedicated stereo room than my IN dedicated room. When I first set up my system in my new room in TN, I decided to experiment with installing my sound absorption panels by only installing a few panels on each side because I knew the new room had different acoustics than my old room. I came to the conclusion after listening for some time that I didn't really like the sound of the room and the music with the sound panels installed so I removed them and stored them in the attic. I listened like this for a good period of time and yet I still had nagging thoughts that I should reinstall the sound panels and give them another whirl. I retrieved the panels and hung them back in my room, but I quickly realized why I had removed them. They really dampened if not killed the life of the sound in my room.

                      My speakers now are the JBL 4345s and I have experimented with both toe in and no toe in. I started with no toe in and I was initially disappointed because I was used to living with the "focused purity" sound. Also and just as important, I didn't think the 4345s did the disappearing act very well either when facing straight ahead. Part of this is due to the sheer size of the JBL 4345s as their size makes them hard to ignore. I then spent some considerable time with the 4345s toed in and I initially liked what I was hearing because it was taking me back to my comfort zone. With time, I decided that I missed aspects of the sound and soundstage I had with no toe in, but I feared returning to the "no disappearing" act. Knowing that David Karmeli is a proponent of no toe in, I gave David a call to explain my dilemma. David explained the reason why the speakers weren't disappearing wasn't related to no toe in, but rather it was due to me not finding the correct spot to place the speakers into my room. David gave me some guidance for finding the correct spot and I went back to the drawing board. I ended up pulling my speakers further into the room and now I am happy with the balance I have achieved.

                      It's my personal belief that with my speakers in my room and using no toe in more closely resembles live sound vice the "focused purity" approach. The soundstage is bigger and has realistic air assuming it was captured on the recording. Yes, the sound is more diffuse just like it is in a live venue.

                      In closing, I'm not advocating there is only one correct choice here. I've said it many times before that audiophiles seldom agree on anything and how you place your speakers in your room is no different. This takes me back to one of my original statements and that is you have to decide for yourself who you are trying to please with the sound of your system. Seeking validation from fellow audiophiles for your choices is a dead end dirt road.
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                      Comment


                      • mep
                        mep commented
                        Editing a comment
                        Center to center is 9’ 10””. The distance from the front of my speakers to the listening chair is 12’ 6”.

                      • seamonster
                        seamonster commented
                        Editing a comment
                        Thanks, mep. I'd read somewhere a while back (Cardas?) about spacing speakers 83% of the distance to the listening position. I'm at a shade less than 90%, and it sounds pretty good with the rear of the cabinets two feet from the wall. I'm going to try reducing the toe-in, which is roughly 5°.

                      • seamonster
                        seamonster commented
                        Editing a comment
                        Just found it; Jim Smith "Get Better Sound".

                    • #13
                      Interesting mep. Well put.
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                      • #14
                        Originally posted by mep View Post

                        Is this a dogmatic response that implies toeing your speakers in is good and not toeing in your speakers is bad? I don't think it's as simple as that. I think what it all comes down to is what type of sound are you chasing in your room? More importantly in the case of PeterA and others, have you decided if you are setting up your system to please yourself, or are you setting up your system so your friends will approve of your sound?

                        Some of this has already been stated, but I'm going to recap and possibly expand on some things. There is no doubt in my mind that toeing your speakers in towards your listening chair will create a focus of the sound, especially vocals. If you deaden the front and side walls through sound absorption in addition to toe in, you will achieve a "focused purity" of the sound. With my NOLA KOs in my basement room in Indiana, I had focused purity in spades. It can be a very addictive sound so I get why it's popular. This sound will also highlight every vocal. Now you need to ask yourself if "focused purity" with an emphasis on vocals is what you would hear live with musicians playing in a real venue. I think the answer is no. One interesting tidbit here is that the designer of the NOLA KO speakers wants zero toe in when you place them in your room even though they are highly capable of creating the "focused purity" when toed in as I previously described.

                        Fast forward to the present, and now I live in TN and I have a much bigger dedicated stereo room than my IN dedicated room. When I first set up my system in my new room in TN, I decided to experiment with installing my sound absorption panels by only installing a few panels on each side because I knew the new room had different acoustics than my old room. I came to the conclusion after listening for some time that I didn't really like the sound of the room and the music with the sound panels installed so I removed them and stored them in the attic. I listened like this for a good period of time and yet I still had nagging thoughts that I should reinstall the sound panels and give them another whirl. I retrieved the panels and hung them back in my room, but I quickly realized why I had removed them. They really dampened if not killed the life of the sound in my room.

                        My speakers now are the JBL 4345s and I have experimented with both toe in and no toe in. I started with no toe in and I was initially disappointed because I was used to living with the "focused purity" sound. Also and just as important, I didn't think the 4345s did the disappearing act very well either when facing straight ahead. Part of this is due to the sheer size of the JBL 4345s as their size makes them hard to ignore. I then spent some considerable time with the 4345s toed in and I initially liked what I was hearing because it was taking me back to my comfort zone. With time, I decided that I missed aspects of the sound and soundstage I had with no toe in, but I feared returning to the "no disappearing" act. Knowing that David Karmeli is a proponent of no toe in, I gave David a call to explain my dilemma. David explained the reason why the speakers weren't disappearing wasn't related to no toe in, but rather it was due to me not finding the correct spot to place the speakers into my room. David gave me some guidance for finding the correct spot and I went back to the drawing board. I ended up pulling my speakers further into the room and now I am happy with the balance I have achieved.

                        It's my personal belief that with my speakers in my room and using no toe in more closely resembles live sound vice the "focused purity" approach. The soundstage is bigger and has realistic air assuming it was captured on the recording. Yes, the sound is more diffuse just like it is in a live venue.

                        In closing, I'm not advocating there is only one correct choice here. I've said it many times before that audiophiles seldom agree on anything and how you place your speakers in your room is no different. This takes me back to one of my original statements and that is you have to decide for yourself who you are trying to please with the sound of your system. Seeking validation from fellow audiophiles for your choices is a dead end dirt road.
                        MEP, this is a great post, so I just had to copy it. You capture and describe very well what I am experiencing and what I tried to convey in my post. Thank you.
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                        Comment


                        • #15
                          Originally posted by MylesBAstor View Post
                          I guess I really don’t agree for many reasons. Mainly way too many variables in the chain. It also seems to me you are imparting a coloration to the sound however pleasing.

                          1. I think you are confusing direct vs. reflected sound of the hall/recording space. Where you sit in the hall eg. close up, mid or back of the hall, club, etc. also makes a sizeable difference. An orchestra should sound different than say a string quartet, both recorded and live. Getting that right balance of direct vs. reflected sound on say a classical recording takes a lot of engineering work and experience.

                          2. How can this apply to all musical genres? Or recording spaces? Or recordings. Jazz, for instance, is usually recorded close-up in a drier studio and then ambience, echo is added after. Classical OTOH varies with each hall. And microphone arrangement. Some mike setups are more pinpoint, others have more ambience. Some recordings are multi-miked, others have accent/touch up mikes. Some closer, some more distant. The distant miking sound gives you a diffuse feeling. Some recordings are drier, some more liquid. Take away ambience and instruments stand out more.

                          3. Mikes don’t “hear” the same way as our ears. Plus the radiation pattern of each instrument is unique to that instrument. In other words, different frequencies are radiated in different polar patterns. Everest’s book has a nice chapter on this. So the question becomes do you want to hear the recording or adjust it to your way of thinking it should sound?

                          4. Another thought is you are trying to make up or compensate for something (spaciousness) being lost in your system. My first thought is to play with your cartridge loading. God only know your Colibri had a tonload of ambient retrieval. I think you can have your cake and eat it without having to resort to toeing your speakers out.
                          Myles, thank you for your response. Your comments sound just like one of my friends who visited and recently heard my system. His criticisms about how much he liked it before and not now, and his descriptions about how different it sounds from his, encouraged me to explore this whole question about how focused or diffuse sound really is. I will try to respond to each of your points below:

                          1. I understand full well the difference between direct and reflected sound, both in my listening room, and in the hall/recording space. I understand where one sits affects what one hears. Of course a full orchestra should sound different than say a string quartet, both recorded and live. I regularly attend both the BSO and a small chamber venue in Boston where I here chamber music with two or three instruments total. Yes, getting the balance right is difficult and takes work and experience.

                          2. I never meant my comments to apply to all musical genres. Or to all recording or to all spaces, or to all recordings. Different recording techniques result in different sounds from recordings. These differences should be captured on the recording, and we should attempt to reproduce those differences in our listening rooms through our stereos. I never meant to imply otherwise.

                          3. I want to hear the recording, and my recent changes have made differences between recordings even more pronounced. I also want the recording to come "alive", to "breathe" in the room. I want to be engaged by a sound which is convincing and reflects what is on the recording. Of course, I listen to some live music, and I use it as a reference, so I do have an idea of what it "should" sound like. If it does not sound convincing in my system, then I think something is amiss. I am the judge of that based on my memory of the way live acoustic music sounds to me. You introduced two vocal recordings to me while I visited you in NYC. I heard them both in your system and I have them both here at home. The King Singers, and Holst's Male and Female choral recordings. They sound very different in my system, mostly in scale and in the way the recorded space is captured and reproduced. My goal is NOT to have all recordings sound the same.

                          4. Every system is compromised, mine included. My room is also compromised, though not as much as others I've been in. I am doing my best to evolve my system and its set up to create listening enjoyment and involvement for me. Again, I am the judge in this. I very much like my vdH Master Signature. It is a superb cartridge and is much more resolving than my other cartridges. It digs deep into my recordings and retrieves incredible amounts of recording space ambience. The two recordings to which you introduced me are perfect examples, as well as so many others. I have played with loading and the other set up parameters. I agree that loading does make a big difference, and I think I have found the optimal setting for my system and this cartridge. My current speaker position and orientation seems to help me realize my goals of having a convincing, and dare I say more natural, presentation.

                          I appreciate your comments and opinions. I'm sorry that you cancelled your last visit to Boston, but please contact me, Taos, or Ian if you plan to come back up. You would be welcome in our homes any time.

                          Peter
                          SME 30/12A, SME V-12, SME 3012R, vdH Master Signature, MySonicLab Signature Gold, Air Tight Supreme, Pass Labs XA160.5, XP-22, XP-27, Magico Q3

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