Monday, September 12, 2011

What is the right tonal balance?

The famous FM Acoustics logo glows
when the component is switched on.


After spending a couple of weeks testing the FM Acoustics FM 122 MKII phono linearizer, you will probably spend a few more weeks - like I did - pondering on whether you have been listening to songs on vinyl with the right or wrong equalisation all your life.

FM Acoustic’s phono linearizer highlighted the fact that much of the music I had heard in the past on the radio, in audiophile friends’ homes, in record shops, in discos, during parties - in any place where an LP was played - was wrongly equalised.

Not only that, but most of the reviews of phono preamps that I have read were inaccurate simply because they did not reproduce the music with the right equalization curve. In other words, comments were made and opinions formed when listening to music with the wrong tonal balance.

In fact, most comments and opinions about turntables, tonearms and cartridges were based on music with the wrong tonal balance.

Questions were reverberating in my mind: “What then is the right tonal balance? What is the right sound?”

The problem is that the answer is not as easy as just turning two knobs on the FM 122 Mk II.


It's not about just turning the two knobs of the
FM Acoustics 122 Mk II Phono Linearizer.

There are simply too many variables at work. For example, I had set the replay curve for a certain record when using my resident system, but when I changed to another pair of speakers, it did not sound the same and I had to reset the knobs.

And LPs from the same label sounded different and required different settings simply because different LPs were cut by different technicians using different systems. Also some systems were probably not calibrated properly.

So it can be said that a majority of LPs out there were cut with the wrong equalisation although the RIAA curve was supposed to have been made a universal standard way back in 1954.

FM Acoustics says you should trust your ears. In that case, a whole new can of worms is opened because what sounds right to me may not sound right to you.

So, what then is the right sound?

Is the FM Acoustics phono linearizer creating more problems than it is solving? If FM Acoustics is doing the right thing by manufacturing a phono linearizer, why aren’t more companies making similar products? Most phono preamps in the market are plain vanilla stuff based on the standard RIAA equalisation curve. Can the majority be wrong?

Yet, there is no denying that the FM Acoustics phono lnearizer does make records sound better.

Sometimes, a lean-sounding album gains richness and body; sometimes music that sounds amorphous suddenly ‘solidifies’ into coherence with a stable soundstage reproduced and sometimes a cymbal that is too in-your-face and tizzy is pushed behind the singer where the drummer ought to be and suddenly you can visualise a band playing behind the speakers; sometimes a dull and lifeless album suddenly sounds lively and cheerful.

Certainly, the FM Acoustics phono linearizer is doing something....right.

THE PROBLEMS BEGAN...

It all started soon after the invention of the gramophone and records were pressed for the mass market. In the early days, 78 rpm records were made...

From wikipedia: “RIAA equalization is a specification for the correct playback of gramophone records, established by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The purpose of the equalization is to permit greater playback times, improve sound quality, and to limit the vinyl damage that would otherwise arise from recording analog records without such equalization.


Playing a 10-inch His Master's Voice album from 1954. 

"The RIAA equalization curve was intended to operate as a de facto global industry standard for the recording and playback of vinyl records since 1954. However, it is almost impossible to say when the change actually took place.

"Before then, especially from 1940, each record company applied its own equalization; there were over 100 combinations of turnover and rolloff frequencies in use, the main ones being Columbia-78, Decca-U.S., European (various), Victor-78 (various), Associated, BBC, NAB, Orthacoustic, World, Columbia LP, FFRR-78 and microgroove, and AES.

"RIAA equalization is a form of preemphasis on recording, and deemphasis on playback. A record is cut with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The result is a flat frequency response, but with noise such as hiss and clicks arising from the surface of the medium itself much attenuated. The other main benefit of the system is that low frequencies, which would otherwise cause the cutter to make large excursions when cutting a groove, are much reduced, so grooves are smaller and more can fit into a given surface area, yielding longer playback times. This also has the benefit of eliminating physical stresses on the playback stylus which might otherwise be hard to cope with, or cause unpleasant distortion.

“Over the years a variety of record equalization practices emerged and there was no industry standard. For example, in Europe, for many years recordings required playback with a bass turnover setting of 250 to 300 Hz and a treble rolloff at 10,000 Hz ranging from 0 to −5 dB, or more. In the United States there were more varied practices and a tendency to use higher bass turnover frequencies, such as 500 Hz, as well as a greater treble rolloff like −8.5 dB, and more. The purpose was to record higher modulation levels on the record.”

MAKING THINGS WORSE

The cutting lathes used prior to 1968 were unable to perfectly cut the very high velocities present at frequencies above about 10kHz. To circumvent this problem mastering engineers somewhat attenuated the higher part of the frequency spectrum. This often resulted in a slight lack of airiness on upper frequencies.

FM Acoustics adds: "In the late 1970s and 1980s new cutting lathes finally allowed mastering records with high-level high frequencies. As soon as this was possible, it was promptly overused and some records were mastered with excessive high frequency levels. By increasing the 10 kHz attenuation these records sound more acceptable."


Another factor that made things worse was that some companies like Columbia and Capitol had different equalisation settings for their 45 and 33 ⅓ albums. Also the Columbia 78 albums released in the United States and Europe had different equalisation.

VARIABLE EQUALISATION CURVES

There are only a few phono preamps in the market that offer variable equalisation curves. Boulder, Graham Slee, Zanden, VAS Citation, AMR Audio, Monk Audio and a Malaysian company called AIME make them. But all these models offer only a limited number of preset curves.


Only FM Acoustics phono linearizers offer
constantly variable equalisation curves.

Only FM Acoustics’ phono linearizers offer constantly variable equalisation curves by turning two knobs - one  for ‘Turnover Frequency’ and the other for ‘10kHz Attenuation’.

From the FM Acoustics website: “By varying the ‘10kHz attenuation’ control on the front panel the attenuation at 10 kHz can be reduced to less (or more) than the standard 13.7dB of the RIAA curve. In many recordings 1-3 dB will make quite a noticeable difference (of course with decreased 10kHz attenuation the noise may increase very slightly, this is less objectionable than having attenuated, somewhat muted upper frequencies).

"This feature will revive some records that previously sounded dull and lifeless, suddenly providing a wonderful musical experience. And the opposite also holds true: In the late 1970s and 1980s on some records one can find cuts with excessive high frequency levels. By increasing the 10 kHz attenuation these records sound more realistic.

“Even a recording that lacks in ‘warmth’ (not just bass!) can be corrected by moving up the ‘turnover frequency’ knob to a mildly higher setting. This way the entire frequency band above and below the turnover frequency is affected linearly.”

WHAT ABOUT THE SOUND?

Even at the normal RIAA curve settings (bass turnover at 500Hz and 10kHz rolloff at 13.7dB), the FM Acoustics FM122 Mk II phono linearizer somehow could infuse the resident system comprising a much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tonearm and Benz Micro Glider MC cartridge, Benchmark DAC1 Pre (and also the preamp section of the Bladelius Embla), Bryston 4B SST power amp and ATC SCM40 speakers with its sonic signature.

I dug up a variety of records to test the phono linearizer using the suggested settings for more than 40 labels in the FM Acoustics manual.



Evita (MCA, 1976)
I have been listening to this soundtrack for quite a while and I like it for its clean and well-recorded sound and wide range of musical styles.

This sounded better with bass turnover at 400 and 10Khz attenuation at standard RIAA setting of 13.7dB.



The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night (Parlophone, 1964)

The recommended setting for Parlophone is bass turnover at 300 and 10kHz attenuation at 8.5dB, but it sounded better at 300 and 12.5.

At 8.5, the treble was too pronounced and could sound a bit shrill.



The Beatles: Help (Parlophone, 1965) 

This is a good example of an LP from the same label but with different equalisation applied. This sounded better at the recommended 300 and 8.5 settings.

Paul Simon: One Trick Pony (Warner Bros, 1980) 

Warner Bros is not included in FM Acoustics' list. However, it was known as Warner, Elektra and Atlantic (WEA) previously, and the list included settings for Elektra. So I tried the recommended settings - 630 and 16 - and it sounded better.

One track has the cow-bell being hit in the middle of the track and at the RIAA settings, the cow-bell is pushed forward from the mix as are the cymbals. When set to the recommended 630 and 16, the tonal balance improved and the treble was less forward.



The Doors (Elektra, 1967)

Using the normal RIAA curve, this can sound bright and splashy. It sounded better with the recommended 630 and 16 settings.



Alex Blake: Especially For You (Denon PCM Jazz, 1979) 

This is an interesting LP because it is supposed to be an audiophile recording using PCM technology. Using standard RIAA curve, I felt this sounded clear but bland, dull and uninvolving. When I changed the settings to 400 and 12, the treble opened up and there was greater transparency and the sound was more exciting.



Bill, Miles, Joe, J.J., Phil & Art (Columbia, 1981) 

This is a reissue of an album released in the 1960s while the actual recordings were done from 1957-1959. On standard RIAA curve, I felt that the music was flat and there was no sound stage or depth. On some songs, the cymbals were thrust upfront and I thought it was the result of close-miked recording. The tonal balance was also uneven.

Played with the recommended 750 and 16 settings, a sound stage with good depth emerged and the musicians were at their various spots on the stage with the drummer at the rear. The cymbals were also placed backwards and the entire album sounded more natural with good soundstaging.

Ry Cooder: Paradise and Lunch (Reprise Records, 1974) 

Reprise Records is not in FM Acoustics’ list, but since it was sold to Warner Bros, I decided to use the recommended settings for Elektra which are 630 and 16. It worked.



Ry Cooder: Bop Till You Drop (Warner Bros, 1979) 

This is another interesting album because it is touted as the first digitally-recorded LP. Set at RIAA bass turnover setting and 15, the album sounded much better.

Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (Promotone, 1974)

This sounded better set at 400 and 8.5.



Simon & Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence (CBS, 1966)
Sounded better at 400 and 11.


Glenn Miller and His Orchestra: Time For Melody (10-inch LP, His Master’s Voice, 1954)

This 10-inch LP was released in 1954, but the songs were recorded in 1948-49. Played at the recommended 800 and 10 settings for HMV, the album sounded nostalgic and natural.



Louis Armstrong: A Legendary Performer (RCA, 1978) 

This is a 1978 reissue of songs recorded as early as 1932. Some songs were recorded in 1933 while others were from 1946 and 1947. His big hit What A Wonderful World was from 1970.

Played at the recommended settings for RCA Victor - 800 and 10 - it sounded good.



Dvorak: Symphony No. 5 ‘From the New World’ - Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon, 1964)

Many vinyl addicts who owned Deutsche Grammophon records, experienced much difficulty trying to get them to sound right. I heard of one who messed around with the VTA of the tonearm and tracking force to get things right. The fault was actually the peculiar equalisation curve used by the company.

Played at the recommended 300 and 5, the strings emerged from the mix and sounded rich and the soundstage opened up with more depth. And instead of a mosaic of sound, I could visualise the orchestra members spread out in the recording hall.



Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swinging Lovers (Capitol, 1956) 

After I picked up this album earlier this year, I had played it quite often. It sounded clear but a bit thin and ‘hollowish’ and I thought it was the recording.

However, when played with the settings recommended for Capitol - 400 and 12 - there was body to the songs and the entire album sounded rich and full.



Al Kooper and Shuggie Otis: Kooper Session (Columbia, 1970)

On several songs, the female background vocalists are thrust forward and sound screechy on normal RIAA settings.

When played with the recommended settings for Columbia - 750 and 16 - the background vocalists were pushed back to, well, the background and the ‘screechiness’ was gone. Soundstaging improved and there was more depth in the recording.



Miles Davis: The Man With The Horn (Columbia, 1981)

This was recorded 27 years after the RIAA curve was supposed to have been adopted as the standard universally, yet the equalisation was not done right.

On the title track, the cymbals are ‘tizzy’ and can actually be ‘painful’ to hear. I had actually designed my DIY gel isolation platform (see http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-years-tweak-gel-isolation-platform.html) to curb the ‘splashiness’ as I thought acoustic feedback was causing the treble distortion.

When played at the recommended Columbia settings of 750 and 16, the splashiness was gone and the cymbals were pushed to the rear of the recording venue where it should be along with the rest of the drum-set.



John Coltrane: Lush Life 180gm audiophile pressing (Jazz Wax Records)

This is an audiophile reissue of recordings made in 1957-1958. When played at  RIAA settings, Coltrane’s tenor sax takes the spotlight and the other musicians are reduced to bit players. There is little space between the musicians and there is no semblance of a band playing.

Maybe the mastering engineer wanted to showcase Coltrane’s skills, but the music sounds more like a soloist’s work rather than the collective efforts of a band.

I did not know what setting to use as Jazz Wax Records is not included in FM Acoustics’ list. So I thought it would work with the settings for Blue Note - 400 and 12 - since most jazz recordings done in the 1950s were by Blue Note.

Coltrane’s tenor sax was pushed back to where he was when the recording was done - standing just in front of the other musicians. The other musicians were pushed forward to join him and I could hear a band playing with a mild emphasis on Coltrane. It sounded better this way.

Update 16/9/11: I have found out that this John Coltrane album is actually a reissue of an older album released under the Prestige label. I also found out from this site (http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/mixlabls.htm) that Prestige had used the RIAA curve since the 1950s. So it would appear that this album should be played with the RIAA curve. In that case, it was indeed the mastering engineer's intention to showcase Coltrane's skills and downplay the other musicians.
However, I also found out that my album was cut with the Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) process invented in the 1970s by Neumann and Teldec which has a sonic signature because of the process of cutting on metal instead of lacquer.
From http://www.amr-audio.co.uk/html/faq_ph.html#ref : "The sound from DMM records is often perceived as overly bright and forward. While this is not directly a result of the equalisation employed, the tonality of overly bright DMM records can be made more well-balanced or even handed by gently attenuating the upper midrange and lower treble."
AMR Audio's PH-77 Phono Equaliser is the only phono preamp extant that offers a curve specially for DMM records.

 


Prokofiev: Cinderella; Moscow Radio Symphony Orchesta (Melodiya/Angel, 1967)

For the heck of it, I took out a Russian recording done during the Communist era. I did not know what setting to use and decided to use the recommended settings for Deutsche Grammophon since the German company did a lot of classical recordings - and it worked. Again, I could hear the orchestra instead of just sounds without much of a stage.

Update 16/9/11: I have found out that the Russians (and East Europeans) had used the CCIR curve till the late 1980s.

Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Raincoat 20th Anniversary Edition (Cisco Music Inc, 2007)

This is the reissue of the famous album - first released in 1987 - in 45rpm LPs for audiophiles.

It is one of the few from my collection that I tested which sounded best when played at the RIAA equalisation settings.

OTHER FEATURES

While the variable equalisation feature is the top selling point of the FM Acoustics phono preamp, there are other features that make it a unique product.

It has an unusual cartridge loading system which offers unlimited combinations with plug-in modules to match any MM or MC cartridge. It also features  switches for adjusting loading resistance as well as loading capacitance.


The unusual cartridge loading feature.

FM Acoustics says: “Phono preamplifiers that are missing variable resistance capacitance loading are unable to extract the full performance from MM or MC cartridges. This is one of the reasons why many phono preamplifiers work acceptably with one or two cartridges but do not provide satisfactory performance with other cartridges.”

The FM acoustics phono preamp also has an unusual grounding system.

Its brochure states: “In the FM 122, a special ‘Groundlift’ switch is located on the back panel. With the switch in the left position, the internal ground is connected to electrical Earth. In the right position, the ‘Groundlift’ switch is providing a break in a potential ground loop. The correct position depends on the installation.

“To the left of the ‘groundlift’ switch is the ‘Shield’ switch. The reason for this is that domestic earth can sometimes contain quite high levels of interference from electrical apparatus in the house (fridge, washing machine, etc) and when used as an interference shield it can induce transients and noise into the system. In the absence of a ‘clean’ Earth the switch can be in the right position connecting the housing to the system ground which when connected to cable broadcasting can provide a more effective shield.”


The unusual grounding and earthing feature.

I had a hum problem which disappeared when I moved the ‘Groundlift’ switch to the left position and the ‘Shield’ switch to the right position.

Every system would require different settings, so you have to experiment. But once there is no hum, you will not hear any hum at all even if you turn the volume knob almost to the max.

WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

Now when I listen to the LPs using my down-to-earth Creek MM/MC phono preamp, and when I hear harsh treble, splashy cymbals, screechy violins, thin-sounding music or music with no coherent soundstaging, I know it’s not the fault of the phono preamp or the cartridge or the tonearm or the turntable.

It’s just that some mastering engineer somewhere did not equalise according to the ‘standard’ RIAA curve or used equipment that was not calibrated properly.

The situation I am in is rather simple - I need the FM Acoustics 122 Phono Linearizer, but I cannot afford it. So what am I supposed to do?


Related posts: http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/09/controversy-over-riaa-curve.html
http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/09/more-surprises-about-curves.html

6 comments:

  1. Very well researched and written.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So essentially you are using the phono preamp as a tone control. Setting of stylus rake angle to match the cutting angle used for each and every LP side is critical to obtaining the optimum sonic result and can only be determined with careful listening and progressive adjustment. Most of the LPs you referenced would have used the RIAA equalisation curve and you were simply hearing problems with the recording or mastering or using non-optimised SRA for that particular LP. You ask what to do in the event that you cannot afford the FM Acoustics 122? Get a tonearm with adjustable VTA on-the-fly and without gross tonal colourations. Similarly, get yourself a turntable which subscribes the same philosophy of low colouration and then you might be in a position to assess the merits of phono preamplifiers at the pointy end of the market.

    ReplyDelete
  3. aaron,

    the vinyl addict who tried to get his deutsche grammaphon lps to sound right has a much higher-end tt/tonearm/cartridge/phono preamp than my set-up.
    he tried all that u suggested - trying to get the sra right and adjusting vta and even the tracking force.
    finally he tested the fm phono linearizer and bought it. he has no more complaints.
    he says even cut-in-malaysia albums are listenable now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The amount of misinformation in this story is appalling. it confuses phono equalization with TONE CONTROLS. The RIAA curve was adopted by virtually every record label as of around 1955 and certainly by the time stereo was invented every label used it including DECCA in the UK. If you look at the back of London "Bluebacks" which were pressed by Decca and can be proven to use the same lacquers and stampers it says use "the RIAA curve." I've read nonsense from people insisting Columbia used their own curve well into the '70s. More B.S. I spoke with the guys who cut for Columbia and the confirmed such speculation so B.S--only they used stronger language. It would be best to ignore virtually everything said in this review about phono equalization unless you wish to be seriously misinformed. If you want to play with tone controls, get yourself an equalizer and mess up your system to your heart's content. But DON'T confuse phono equalization with tone controls. The only record there that probably did require a non-RIAA eq (and even then I'm not sure) was the mono Capitol Frank Sinatra album.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Well, tone controls are always useful for making bad recordings listenable and I guess that your friend's experience is a good example of this.

    When your friend uses original Deccas, RCA Living Stereos (or even the 180 g Classic Records reissues) or Mercury Living Presence LPs to judge a component or system then one can take these comments more seriously.

    Many vinyl addicts have lots of gear but no clue about why it may or may not be good.

    ReplyDelete
  6. If you think "most jazz records" in the 1950s were made by Blue Note, you know nothing about jazz LPs. In any case Blues were cut to the RIAA standard by Rudi van Gelder who also cut many classical LPs for labels like Vox and Westminster, also to RIAA standard. Just look on the back of Blue Note, Prestige, Atlantic and Impulse jazz Lps and you will find a reference to RIAA.

    ReplyDelete