Things your Mom warned you about: Don't Touch that (Tone Control) Dial!

[tone controls and bypass]

Debunking audiophile myths - real audiophiles don't have tone controls

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: June, 2022

With a tone control, at a single touch,
Bel canto sounds like Donald Dutch....

--Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, A Song of Reproduction

Prologue: A Day in the Life of a Budding Audiophile

[The scene: A solidly respectable home in a solidly respectable middle-class suburb, equipped with a solidly respectable stereo set in its solidly respectable family room, where the (not necessarily respectable, but musically omnivorous) son of the family likes to lounge while listening to LPs ranging from Frankie Avalon to Zoink Gang.]

Budding Audiophile: “Hey, Mom, dig this! This old vinyl record sounds a lot better if you turn down the treble knob!”

Mom (aghast): “What?? Did you just say you adjusted a tone control?!?!?”

Budding Audiophile (perplexed): “Uh, like, yeah...?”

Mom (hysterically): “Oh, my God! How could you?!? Where did we go wrong? I thought we raised you better than that!”

Budding Audiophile (defensively): “But, Mom, it sounds better that way.”

Scandalized Mom (gasps, then sternly): “Young man, just you wait till your father gets home! Now, go to your room--your stereo privileges are revoked, you're grounded for the next two weeks, and if I catch you streaming anything on your phone it had better be porn, not music!”

[Budding Audiophile sullenly skulks off to his room as inconsolable Mom breaks down in mortified sobs.]

Some Background Discussion

For decades, audio gear routinely included means for adjusting bass and treble. The very bottom of the heap would have a single control labeled "tone" that simultaneously boosted treble and cut bass when moved in one direction, cut treble and boosted bass when moved in the other. More generally, two controls were provided, one for bass and one for treble, each boosting when moved one way and cutting when moved in the other. Rarely, there might be a third for midrange or a little set of equalizer sliders. Regardless, the control was in neutral, (at least ostensibly) with no effect, when set to the middle of its range, centered if a slider or at 12 o'clock if a knob. From the beginning, music listeners showed a singular tendency to leave them parked there. Just a half dozen years after the LP's market debut, distinguished US music critic Harold Schonberg had this to say in The Guide to Long Playing Records: Chamber and Solo Instrumental Music (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955):

Surprisingly few owners of high-fidelity equipment know how to use it. They will insist, for instance, on keeping the treble control in the 'flat' position; what comes out is a shrill sound that would make a walrus quiver. The 'flat' position is a myth. It may work for some records, but it is useless for most. Controls are made to be used. Use them, and do not hesitate to tinker with the bass and treble in order to achieve an honest sound. Many new records are cut too high, and the only way to control them is to take them down. Then they can be managed, frequently with sensational results.

In more recent years, however, these homely adjustments have fallen into a certain disrepute. For some, they remain useful adjuncts to sound reproduction. Others, however, have come to the point of believing that merely having the words “tone control” written on a piece of paper in the same room will hopelessly color the sound of an amplifier. The objections typically advanced are two: first, that any tone control device in the audio signal chain inevitably degrades its quality, and, second, “I want to hear the music the way intended by the mastering engineer who produced it.” And so, many systems today entirely omit any facility for adjusting tonal balance. Whether this line of thought originated with equipment manufacturers I can't say, but it certainly plays to their interests; omitting tone controls in the name of audio purity conveniently also reduces manufacturing costs.

Sorry, Mom

The anti-control crowd does have one point in its favor: in the world of tone control devices, if an equalizer is like a collection of scalpels, the typical bass and treble controls are blunt instruments. I've seen them described as “shelf filters”: the treble does nothing below a certain point but lifts or cuts everything above it and vice-versa for the bass control. Tools for precise adjustments they aren't. That coin has another side, however. Approximate though they may be, tone controls are convenient, quick to set, easy to vary from recording to recording, and easily returned to neutral when not wanted. In short, they are ideally suited to casual adjustments to address gross problems. As to whether their presence alone is sufficient to color sound from an amplifier, if concerned about that possibility, one can always seek out a unit that includes a bypass setting. Bear in mind, though, that through the years myriad highly regarded amps have included tone controls without further adornment.

Problems are by no means rare. Modern phono preamps generally assume every record conforms to the RIAA standard for bass boost and treble rolloff, but that assumption is not valid for older records. As I've noted more than once elsewhere, 78s had no standard equalization curve, and RIAA doesn't come close for most. Listeners with a casual interest in the format can address the issue, imprecisely but well enough, with regular bass and treble controls. Turning to LPs, in the decade or so after they hit the market, rather than RIAA's -13.7 dB rolloff, some labels applied less, some more--Remington, to cite one example, called for -16 dB, presumably to deal with its generally coarse surface quality, and playing such a record at the gentler RIAA setting yields--well, “a shrill sound that would make a walrus quiver.&rdquo Some older preamps, like the MacIntosh C-20, and a few modern preamp models aimed at the specialist collector, like the Graham Slee Jazz Club in my own system, make provision for selecting different compensation curves, but the more generalized bass and treble controls are a reasonable substitute for those who don't actively collect older records and merely need to address the odd outlier now and again.

Moreover, bass and treble controls can be applied to signals from sources other than turntables. How often have you heard the plaint that early CDs were harsh and overbright? And what about CDs with pre-emphasis? If you have some of those brightish collectable CD issues from the early '80s or are unfortunate enough to have a latter-day CD player that doesn't compensate for pre-emphasis, without adjustment they may sound glary. Well, guess what--you can at least roughly compensate for such failings by turning down a treble control, if you have one, by a little bit. Or say you have old cassettes with faded top end. A little treble boost can help restore some life to them, albeit at the cost of more tape hiss. A perfect solution? No. Better than no solution? Probably. And certainly, if you have the controls, you should feel free to experiment with them rather than leaving them stubbornly untouched in neutral.

What of the mastering engineer's intentions? Leaving aside that not all engineers are, well, masters, we need to bear in mind that what they intend, or at least what they achieve, may or may not always be as “pure” as some would like to believe. Mastering records long was a balancing act between sounding good on exalted equipment and sounding listenable on low-end gear. I have heard that least once upon a time, record mastering facilities included a set of car speakers mounted on a board as part of their testing routine; a record was expected to be balanced such that it would sound good over a car radio, not just on a connoisseur's hi-fi. Moreover, even the most conscientious engineer's handiwork may end up compromised if some tin-eared suit from upper management or the marketing department gets hold of the recording before it goes to the pressing plant. I've heard rumors to that effect regarding how some labels treated the work of historical reissue experts, for example. Finally, bear in mind that, even if it is a product of deep expertise and even if it is not compromised by outside influences, a mastering reflects the engineer's best results with a system in the mastering studio. Your personal system in your personal listening space is unlikely to sound the same. Judiciously applied, tone controls can compensate, if inexactly, for the differences.

Moral

Harold Schonberg was right in pointing out that not all records are perfect and tone controls are not merely decorations to be left at the noon position. Rather, some records have problems, and tone controls are useful tools for improving the sound of such less-than-perfect recordings. No one should feel the least hesitation about adjusting them when circumstances warrant. Just a few words of caution, however: tone controls get their bad reputation in part from failure to observe that where tonal adjustment is concerned, less is more. There's a world of difference between making small adjustments to compensate for deficiencies of one sort or another and slamming controls to their fullest position in an attempt to get the infamous “smiley EQ” (see image below). Just as in the mastering studio, setting these controls is at least as much art as science. Bear that thought in mind, and you won't go far wrong.

[Smiley EQ]

Epilogue: A Few Hours Later

Dad (brightly, having just returned home): “Hi, honey! How was your day?”

Mom (grimly): “We have a problem.”

Dad (flustered): “Oh, God, did I forget our anniversary again? Uh, I mean, hey, dear, of course I remembered our special day! What say we go out for dinner tonight?”

Mom: “No, no, no! It's our disgrace of a son--he--he--oh, I can't say it....”

Dad (puzzled): “He what? Is he dealing drugs? Did he get some girl pregnant?”

Mom (angrily): “Do you think I'd be this upset over something trivial?!? No! He--adjusted a tone control today. And he was proud of it.”

Dad: “He what??? You did stop him, didn't you?”

Mom: “Oh, yes, as soon as he told me, I grounded him.”

Dad: “OK, so at least he won't have 60 cycle hum. That is, let's hope he's just sowing some youthful wild oats. Keep it under your hat, though; if word of this gets out, we'll never be able to show our faces in public again!”

[A knock is heard on the door. Dad answers it.]

Man at door: “Good evening, I'm from the Evening Scandal. We've received a report that a kid in this household adjusted a tone control today, and we're planning to run it in a story on youth vice. Do you have any comment?”

[Dad groans. Mom collapses in a dead faint.]

Do not miss our article on 12 o'clock volume control position, in the same series Things Mom warned you about!

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

© Copyright 2022 TNT-Audio David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com