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In Praise of Tone Controls by  Don Lodge

Who needs them?

Well some of us certainly did, and for a long time. Generations of valve radios had Bakelite knobs to turn to make the tone even more mellow; indeed elderly folk can still sometimes be heard describing their “wireless” as having had a “nice tone.” And then came the hifi hair-shirt brigade of the 80s, preaching their gospel: simple was best, less was more. Discerning listeners and the hifi industry benefitted - brands emerged preaching the new gospel and producing products to match. In the UK Linn, Naim and Rega were probably the best known, producing well engineered unassuming looking goods. Gone were the flashing lights, automated mechanisms and the perceived-value gimmicks of the far east. Anything unnecessary that might pollute or corrupt the signal was stripped out; the philosophy is unambiguous - perhaps borrowed from the designer of the racing bicycle – unbolt anything superfluous, and use as few well-made components as possible.

This development arguably improved domestic sound reproduction to levels not previously thought possible. The fraternity found itself listening to stereo images of nearly tangible widths and depths, hear bass lines that had tightness and timing that would have made bow-strings and Swiss watches envious. Informationion and pleasure was extracted from hitherto discarded LPs. It was indeed a great time obeying the commandments of the new gospel. With it came the merchandisers who produced products designed to extract the last few percent of realism from the system. Some were saints, other false prophets. Speaker cables became fat, thin and fat again, speakers stands became a necessary requirement; it was found that the cables that came with an amplifier, both mains and interconnects should be improved upon.

But the new generation of hifi systems found itself in the real world consisting of less than perfect listening rooms, inhabited by real families with real furniture and fittings. Things did not always sound as they did in the listening room at the hifi shop or exhibition using dependably impressive listening discs. (Remember when the Dark side of the Moon gave way to Jazz at the Pawnshop?) The enthusiast who just wanted to be able to show his friends how realistic a saxophone or a snare drum could sound there in the living room simply held onto  his small selection of chosen records. A winner every time. But the branch of the fraternity whose primary ambition was to listen to the musicianship rather than the craftsmanship soon found that a sizeable number of their musicians on record not only failed to stand there in three dimensions in front of them in the room, but produced on some occasions distastefully strident trebles and muddy thumpy bass. Or very little bass; or muted treble. Those individuals who produced, mixed, recorded, cut discs, archived and restored recorded music all had different ears, different ideals and different equipment in different times. Hobbyists a generation earlier could adjust their tone controls to at least partially compensate for shortcomings of the sitting room or intrinsic to the vinyl being played. What was there to do now? Read the magazines! Firstly one could modify the acoustics of one’s room: there are professionals willing to offer their services in this area. Secondly – change the speaker, amplifier, deck, cartridge. Everything in the chain has its own characteristic sound: some are warmer. Or brighter. Speaker cables, mains leads, and interconnects are warmer. Or brighter; as well as often having other characteristics. Everything that is out their waiting to be sold to the utopia-seeking audiophile will have its own acclaimed sound. All he has to do is to buy a top rate specified system that sounds about right in his home environment on some of his favourite records and do any fine tuning with the peripherals. And on the evening when he wants to listen to his treasured fifties jazz band which has a bass line which thumps tunelessly like the neighbour banging on the wall, what does he do? Substitute his speaker cable – the recommended one made of rare metals and looking like garden hose - for a once recommended panacea: single strand bell-wire.

So can’t I have a tone control instead? No. Not even a very simple tone control. Not even one that I can switch out of the circuits completely on the nights when my purist friends come round to reassess me as a red blooded (or should that be fully anaemic?) member of the hifi community, planet Flat-Earth division?? No. We know what is good for you. You see we understand these things. You see when a signal goes through an amplifier it must confront as few resistances and – worse still – nasty capacitors and inductances as possible. They can cause non-linearities and distortions. It is not possible to make a tone control without using these components. But, don’t loudspeaker crossover units have brutally large capacitors and inductances which savagely carve up the signal when it is running at several amps on its last leg of the journey to the speakers?  Yes, but that is different..... And, don’t phono preamplifiers contain draconian filter networks by way of cutting the treble as the signal comes from the disc in accordance with the RIAA curve? So surely a little one to just help me roll off the bass or treble on special occasions in the company of consenting adults would not be a precedent??

I have personally had similar, if less histrionic conversations with representatives from Linn and Naim, who do so many things right. So why not this? I got more of a shrug than an answer, and a look suggested that I was asking for more than what was good for me. So my request for tone controls goes on my little list of other things I have campaigned for and composed swingeing correspondence which has never got further than being tucked behind the mantelpiece clock. Like, Why do we have to lose British Summer Time in the winter; it makes life doubly miserable. Why do we have to have speed bumps – they are still uncomfortable when you are within the limit, and you have to drive in the middle of the road to miss them. Why can’t they design a shrink wrap for CDs that does not break your nails or require scissors? Why are sauce bottles made so tall and thin that I have to use a knife to get the last third of the contents out? Why do we still need balance controls on our hifi preamplifiers? Now there is something useless that is doing something to further distort the signal and invites inter-channel modulation. I suppose there are sensible answers to all these questions to be given by those who know best.  

© Don Lodge November 2013

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