|Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
A Question of Balance
What is the biggest downfall when it comes to evaluating the sound and performance of audio equipment? What is so easy to overlook, yet so important? What can drive you to distraction to the point that you have to sell an otherwise fine-performing component to get rid of the problem? What doesnt have units of measure or meters or scopes you can refer to for assurance that you are getting a "good one"? What trips up more manufacturers, reviewers, consumers, dealers and audiophiles more than anything else? Balance.
Balance is the relative relationship among all the performance factors of a component. It is not the purpose of this article to define what those characteristics ought to be. Instead, Im going to talk about the issue of balance and why it is so important and often overlooked.
When we listen to live unamplified music, we are hearing "the reference" for our home audio systems. We have to accept that we cannot duplicate or replicate the live listening experience at home. It just isnt going to happen. Microphones dont work the way ears work, and the mastering and playback processes dont work like our ear-brain mechanism. But we can get a pretty good result at home, especially if we pay attention to balance.
Live sound is not more or less dynamic, more or less transparent, more or less detailed, more or less harmonically rich. Live sound just is. You may not like the live sound you hear for many reasons -- bad seat, bad acoustics in the hall, whatever -- but the sound is what it is. Live sound is consistent. You can easily tell live sound from reproduced sound. When you hear live sound without serious problems, you are hearing perfection.
Balance, then, means that all elements of the sound are in proportion to each other. Live sound is by nature balanced; it is in proportion, it is the ideal. We cant have perfection in our audio system, but we can have balance. And when you hear a balanced system versus an out-of-balance system, the reasons you want a well-balanced system become clearer and clearer. If a loudspeaker is theoretically perfect except that it has a thin midrange, that thin midrange will drive you completely nuts. The reason is that live sound is balanced. When the balance is wrong, the illusion of reality suffers. Our ear-brain finds it easier to accept balanced sound as "real" compared to unbalanced sound because the lack of balance means that the sense of reality is immediately compromised.
Yet many (most?) people are not consciously thinking about balance when they are evaluating the performance of hardware. Bear in mind here that Im not talking about frequency response or dynamics or detail or transparency or soundstage size. Im talking about how those (and other) characteristics relate to each other. A huge soundstage will never sound realistic unless all the other performance factors are in balance with it. You will be distracted by the disparity in performance because live sound does not have these differences in the relationships between the various elements that make up live sound.
Weve all heard at least one story about how someone was greatly smitten by some absolutely wonderful audio product in a dealer showroom to the point that the purchase was made and the component taken home to be enjoyed. Then days, weeks or months later the audiophile is climbing the walls trying to sell this perfect product to get it the heck out of his system because there was something about the sound that just kept bugging him, something that was not obvious during the one-, two- or three-hour listening session at the dealer. But once the honeymoon was over, and the audiophile could relax, he realized that the component was wonderful except that it did something wrong. Maybe it was in the bass or mids or highs, or maybe it wasnt transparent from 90Hz to 300Hz, or maybe the dynamics were compressed a little. It could be any one of hundreds of things. Whats really happening when these things occur is that the true balance of the product is finally discovered and that balance is not good compared to our only appropriate reference, live sound.
I dont know how to evaluate balance in precision engineering/science terms, but here is one sure-fire way: when you are listening to a system, if your attention is drawn to the hardware more than to the music, something is very possibly wrong in the balance department. If your attention is drawn to the spectacular highs or the wickedly fast and powerful bass or the liquid midrange, something is wrong with the balance. These things do not occur in live unamplified music and they should not be occurring in your audio system -- assuming, that is, that your goal is a natural-sounding system, one you can enjoy for years without worrying about any components not being up to snuff.
Lets assume that there are five important sound-quality categories that comprise the sound quality of live music and that we give these five parameters a perfect 100 rating to represent live sound, like this: 100-100-100-100-100. I dont really know if there are five parameters or 500 of them, but Im using five for this article. You can use any number of parameters that seems right to you. These ratings are "accuracy" ratings for each of these performance parameters. Live sound is the reference, hence the 100 ratings for the live standard. Now lets say we have five pairs of loudspeakers that rate like this:
How do we sort out the most Real-sounding loudspeakers and why? There are some hard questions posed here with this group of speakers. Do we just add up all the numbers and divide by five to get the best-balanced speaker? No. In fact that is the worst way to find a balanced speaker because balance is not rewarded at all by that calculation. In fact, adding up the five ratings and dividing by five gives the "Accuracy" rating for the speaker -- assuming we weight all the factors equally. But Accuracy is not all there is to good reproduced sound; you need to emulate reality, and reality is balanced. For Balance we need a better rule, a better formula -- a formula that does reward balance. How about this: take the lowest-rated parameter and subtract that number from each of the other numbers then add those four remainders together. On this scale, 0 would be a perfect Balance score, and we have two speakers in our group that would score a zero: #1 and #3. The #4 speaker would calculate like this:
92-62=30; 82-62=20; 77-62=15; 87-62=25. Add 30+20+15+25=90. 90 is our Balance Factor. In this case, higher numbers are worse and 0 is as good as you can get.
Now what do we do with the Accuracy Factor and the Balance Factor to give each one equal weight that results in what we really want to know: which speaker is the more Real-sounding to our ear-brain? How about Accuracy Factor - Balance Factor = Reality Factor. You deduct points from the Accuracy Factor in proportion to how out of balance the product is. You cannot judge sound only by absolute accuracy. Balance is also required to trick your brain into relaxing, just like it does when it hears live music.
How will our five hypothetical loudspeakers fall into order when we consider both Accuracy and Balance? Our formula is: Reality Factor = Accuracy Factor - Balance Factor. This formula rewards both Accuracy and Balance, as it should when trying to identify the most Real-sounding speaker from this group.
How good would an unbalanced speaker have to be to beat our best loudspeaker (#3 from the table above) in Reality Factor? Lets see.
Examples like these are where people really have a challenge with the Reality Factor. It seems obvious on the surface that loudspeakers like #6 through #9 where all the Ratings and Accuracy Factors are higher than our loudspeaker #2, that selecting one of those "superior" speakers would be the right thing to do. But look what happens when you throw the Balance Factor into the mix: only the very closely matched #9 loudspeaker can exceed the Reality Factor rating of good old #3. Does this hold up in the real world? I think it does. You may argue otherwise, at least until you understand the benefit Balance brings to the listening experience. The most Accurate-sounding speaker in terms of absolute accuracy may be compromised as to how Real it sounds if the Balance does not closely duplicate the inherent balance of live music. When you are listening to one thing at a time -- attack, decay, transparency, dynamics, detail, lows, mids, highs, space, width, depth, etc. -- you are evaluating accuracy. When you (usually unconsciously) take in the whole and fail to notice anything standing out, or you notice that some things do stand out as particularly good or not particularly good, you are evaluating Balance. I would suggest that perhaps the "musicality" factor that people have a hard time finding in many systems is really the Balance Factor at work. The system may be spectacular, but is it musical? Balance can make the difference.
Disclaimer: OK, there may be groups of people or individuals who are fanatics for some specific kind of sound or performance and they are willing to forgo the ultimate in realism for something that rings their bell. So lets leave some room for exceptions in this discussion. But for most of us, balance is more of a big deal than we realize.
No spec, no meter, no graph: how does balanced sound?
Balanced-sounding hardware is usually the stuff that makes the least impression in the demo room. It does not call attention to itself. This doesnt mean the Balanced-sounding equipment sounds bad, it just fails to sound spectacular. By not sounding spectacular in any particular way, it doesnt make much of an impression. Balanced-sounding equipment puts all the focus on the music and none of the focus on the equipment. When listening to well-balanced systems, it should be very difficult to identify anything obviously wrong with the sound, nor should you notice anything spectacularly right either. Remember, when you hear live music, you arent stunned by the top end or amazed at the liquid midrange -- live music amazes and amuses you without calling attention to discrete parameters. Balanced sound is what your ear-brain needs to help build the illusion of reality.
On balance, I think it is time to be off
It is no accident that Marc Mickelson and Doug Schneider both mention balance in March 1999 reviews here on SoundStage! -- Marc in his LAMM ML-2 amplifier review and Doug in the Cliffhanger loudspeaker review. They mention it because it sets those products apart from others. Balance is one of the least-understood audio concepts. People arent educated about it, so they dont realize how it affects their choices. The trick is to incorporate more thinking about balance into your listening experiences and see if it leads you to a better answer for that ideal sound youve been searching for for so long. It may seem strange to start seeking out components that do not call attention to themselves, but the listening experience can be heavenly.
I leave you with a table of thoughts that help illustrate balanced sound as compared to hi-fi sound:
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