Life without tone controls ... it sucks!

Discussion in 'Audio Hardware' started by albertoderoma, Mar 19, 2011.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. albertoderoma

    albertoderoma Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Silicon Valley, CA
    Try as I may, I can't bring myself to fully enjoy a system - any system - without having tone controls in it. Every time I've tried to go with a preamp or integrated amp without tone controls, within a couple of weeks I find myself listening to music less and less.

    Whenever I mention this to other audiophiles, they keep saying that I did not have the right preamp, amp, speakers, room treatment, etc. You name it. But I know that's not the case. I've been fortunate enough to have owned and listened to some amazing brands over the years, and I have spent months and thousands of dollars experimenting with room treatment. I've brought the CDs and LPs that I have a hard time enjoying without tone controls to audio stores and listened to them on their top of the line systems in their fully treated rooms - and they still sound bad.

    If every recording was mastered by our host Steve Hoffman, perhaps I could do it; but a lot of good/great music is poorly recorded (e.g., thin bass, harsh highs) and I simply don't enjoy listening to it without some judicious application of tone controls.

    There are also circumstances (e.g. my kids are sleeping) when I have to listen at a relatively low volume, and without tone controls (or even better a loudness control) I simply don't enjoy the music as much.


    My current system (see signature) sounds fantastic with good recordings and when played at a loud enough volume to compensate for the Fletcher-Munson curve. But my otherwise delicious sounding Shindo Auriges preamp does not have tone controls and I find myself having to be much more selective about the music I listen to and the volume I use.

    It's too bad that most high-end brands view tone controls as a relic and an unnecessary option on their gear. It keeps me out of most brands.

    I have a vintage McIntosh C34V preamp with tone controls - and even a variable loudness knob - that I try to keep out of my system, but I keep putting it back because it makes some recordings (and all low-volume listening) so much more enjoyable.


    Since most people don't seem to have this problem - and may think I am a little crazy when I complain about high-end gear not having tone controls - I must conclude that I am in a small minority that hears things differently or has very different tolerance levels when it comes to the enjoying music.

    I am seeing some encouraging signs of high-end companies like McIntosh and Luxman (to name a couple) who are keeping tone control in most of their models - with a switch to completely take them out of the circuit if needed.

    What I am hoping is that, along with a return to tubes and vinyl, we are going to see a return to tone controls and, in my wildest dream, loudness switches. But I am not going to hold my breath :shake:.

  2. TigerMMG

    TigerMMG New Member

    Perhap you do need a subwoofer to satisfy your craving... don't see that on the list.

    No idea what room treaments you have... you may have too little or too much that your room is 'dead'...

    Otherwise, you have all the ingredients. How does your headphone sounds? Do you enjoy it more than speakers?
  3. kevintomb

    kevintomb Forum Resident

    I view tone controls as essential. I also on the other hand try to limit their use. You mentioned if steve mastered every recording, and while true it may be much better sounding and neutral, that would still leave all the abnormalities of room and hearing responce on your part, plus many recordings are simply mixed or recorded differently and even with a consistent mastering engineer, most recordings would still vary in sound quality and also in relative tone. Some stuff simply sounds better with a tad more or less treble or bass, and no equipment or room treatment will change the fact that most recordings dont have the same relative tonality.
  4. Robin L

    Robin L Musical Omnivore

    Fresno, California
    I'm with you. Have a vintage Scott 299b, always have the bass slightly elevated to fine-tune the speakers sound at low volume levels. Very useful tool, foolish to not include on "High End" gear.
  5. thegage

    thegage Forum Currency Nerd

    I haven't had tone controls for about 30 years. I don't miss them and never wish I had them to tweak the sound. But to each his own.

    John K.
  6. dirtymac

    dirtymac Forum Resident

    Exile, MN
    I concur with the OP and my experience and tone-adjustment habits (TAH?) are similar.

    Most of the time I don't do anything, but plenty of my records and CDs need to have adjustments before I can enjoy them to their fullest.

    A defeatable tone control is real nice. Use the controls only when you need to, otherwise they have no effect.

    I understand where people are coming from when they say stay away from them, but to me the main thrust of the hobby is to maximize our enjoyment of music and if tone controls does that for some of us, all the better. And, besides, I believe many could be using power cords and ICs in lieu of tone controls, which is perfectly fine but doesn't allow for making adjustments to individual recordings.

    I hope the current fad/fetish/trend of high-end audio largely ignoring tone controls goes away. The giants from the past utilized them to great ends.

    Again, if every recording was mastered towards our own individual liking, and sounded best with our own gear, in our own rooms and according to our own tastes, then there would be no need for tone controls!

    Whatever it takes to enjoy the music....:righton:
    Joy-of-radio and Heckto35 like this.
  7. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Mastering Engineer Your Host

    I haven't had tone controls in my main playback system since 1992. Don't miss them at all. In fact, haven't even thought about it for years.

    I do have a parametric EQ in my second system though. I never use it to play back anything, just work stuff. Whatever the music sounds like, it sounds like.

    Tone controls on gear are way too broad to be of any true use in making something sound good. If you're serious about it, get a parametric.
  8. LeeS

    LeeS Blue Note Fan

    I hate tone controls so I don't understand the OP. If the gear is designed properly it does not need tone controls.
  9. jgarnet

    jgarnet Active Member

    I also love to be able to eq any recording to my taste and I've never noticed any so called sound degradation that many audiophiles rave on about - just more pleasing sound! Since shifting my main source to computer based - iMac and asynchronous USB Wyred 4 Sound dac and iTunes/Pure Music with Apple Lossless, using the OSX in built 31 band Graphic Equaliser has been a real blast. So much control now rests with me and it sounds great. Computer Audio offers a seemingly endless array of options in this area - very worthwhile exploring!
  10. jeffrey walsh

    jeffrey walsh Forum Resident

    Scranton, Pa. USA
    Flat just doesn't cut it for me! My Bryston Pre sits all alone in the corner because of this. Maybe someday...
    POE_UK and Heckto35 like this.
  11. mloops

    mloops New Member

    San Francisco, CA
    I hate spices (here's lookin' at you, salt and pepper!) No matter what cuisine I eat, no matter the restaurant or home, the cook or the mood I am in I refuse to use anything to change the flavor. If the food is made properly, it doesn't need any.

    BUT WAIT. Maybe not all food is prepared properly? Maybe I would spend a fortune trying to only eat at the best restaurants and hire the best personal chefs. But, even then, will they always make it to suit my needs exactly?

    I never enjoyed music less than when I had a Primaluna Prologue 3 tube preamp going into a McCormack DNA-1 amp with no ability to change the sound for the many lousy recordings I had that demanded it.
    vitalii427, jtw, ronbow and 7 others like this.
  12. Dave

    Dave Esoteric Audio Research Specialistâ„¢

    Greater Vancouver
    :cheers: I'm with you John! I think perhaps some like to believe they can put back whatever is missing from the original pressing. Sure, you can adjust for a thin sounding or bass lacking recording/pressing, but put on something with proper frequency balance response and the settings you've chosen are useless.
  13. mloops

    mloops New Member

    San Francisco, CA
    True, but it takes maybe 5-10 seconds to put the the controls back!
  14. Doug Sclar

    Doug Sclar Forum Legend

    The OC
    The last time I had tone controls in my main system was in 1975, when I retired my Crown IC-150. Those tone controls were fairly worthless, operating at 50Hz and 15kHz.

    After that I used a home built phono preamp, hard wired directly into my amplifiers. Not only did it not have tone controls, it didn't have a master volume control. I had two small trim pots, one for the level of each channel. In 1977 I got my Mark Levinson preamp, which of course has no tone controls.

    What I found was that the better my system got, the less I needed tone controls. I found the same thing to be the case in the studio. The cleaner the electronics, the less the need for tone controls. With lesser electronics you may feel the need to use tone controls to cut through the haze.

    To this day, people who hear my system are often confused. I'll play a record for them and they'll tell me how dull my system is. I'll play another and they'll tell me my system is too bright. Of course, this is the way it should be. If all recordings sound the same, you're not listening to the recordings as much as your gear.

    Now that I'm pretty much out of the business, I guess this is not so critical, but when I was judging the sonics of recordings that were in play I had to know what things really sounded like.
    Robert M., Adam9 and JLGB like this.
  15. Chris Schoen

    Chris Schoen Rock 'n Roll !!!

    Maryland, U.S.A.
    Got them if I need them. Occasionally need the turn one or both a little. I don't feel guilty about it, because it is the fault of the source, not my system. A well mastered c.d. sounds great, but of course not all c.d.s are well mastered, and I'm sure not going to limit myself to only ones that are "well mastered". That would leave out a whole lot of otherwise great music. A little "adjustment" can help, you just don't want to obsess with it.
  16. Raunchnroll

    Raunchnroll Senior Member

    The more I dialed in and set up my system - and the more I selected the 'right' vinyl pressings - the less & less I used my 1963 Eico tone controls (bass / treble).

    The nice thing about good vinyl is they don't have the sort of sizzling top end that too many CDs have, or the artifically bloated bass someone 'mastered' in. Yuk. As Steve said:

    For several years now I haven't used tone controls. Don't need them. My next step is an amp without those interferences.

    My current Eico will be used for CDs only - I do need to roll off the top end on a number of my CDs.
  17. I don't "get" tone controls the same way I don't "get" the loudness button on certain equipment. All it does is allow you to apply a smiley-face EQ to recordings, or to cut the treble or boost the bass in wide swaths. Not very useful IMHO. I'd rather just listen to the recordings on their own merit.
    TEA FOR ONE and Adam9 like this.
  18. albertoderoma

    albertoderoma Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Silicon Valley, CA
    Hi Lee,

    Thanks for your terse reply - I am not being sarcastic mean that. It really helps to show that there is a deep divide between the two camps. I say that because your choice of words "I don't understand the OP" is exactly the same thing I feel about people who don't like or feel the need for tone controls: I.e., I don't understand them.

    It's more than a matter of disagreeing, it's a matter of not being able to even conceive the other camp's position: "How could you possibly want/not-want tone controls."

    I believe that these difference in "hearing" or in what we want to hear is not a matter of what system we have or music we listen to, it has to be a preference we are born with.

    Frankly, I would LOVE to be in the other camp, it would open up so many possibilities in terms of gear. I've tried, REALLY tried, but it just does not work for me. I simply enjoy some recordings less without tone controls and I end up spending less time listening to music because of it.

    After 2 weeks listening without tone controls, I just put the McIntosh C34V in my system - replacing the Shindo Auriges (at least for a few days.) I know this sounds crazy. To continue the Mloops analogy, it's like putting salt and A1 sauce on a $50 filet mignon at a fancy steakhouse - or choosing a cheeseburger over a filet mignon. But many times I just feel like a cheeseburger.


    PS Thank you for the replies from both sides of the debate. While I am not sure I can change my preference, I find it very interesting to learn about other people's stand on this subject.
    spindly likes this.
  19. WVK

    WVK Forum Resident

    I have a friend who would never use the tone controls, flat only! One day he played for me a early Dylan song on SACD with a screechy harmonica. I went over to his preamp and turned the HF control down to 10:30 or so. That changed his opinion on tone controls.
    dalem5467, 2trackmind and Heckto35 like this.
  20. Alberto, I respect your position. In my experience, tone controls have never helped me enjoy music better. That's why I simply don't "get" them.
  21. albertoderoma

    albertoderoma Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Silicon Valley, CA
    Hi Steve,

    First of all, I'll say that I don't ever recall having to use tone controls on the records you've mastered.

    About parametric EQs: I agree with what you say, but in my case the simple 100Hz and 10Khz tone controls are adequate to address 90% of the recordings that give my ears trouble. In a most cases, a few dbs of bass boost and/or a few dbs of treble cut do the job. More rarely, much more rarely, I feel the need for removing some bass or adding some treble.

  22. dirtymac

    dirtymac Forum Resident

    Exile, MN
    This has been my experience as well but I still have a long ways to go before the amount of vinyl I have comes close to the number of CDs I have (but I am working hard to correct this imbalance!), so I still need the controls. Or just Raunchroll's vinyl collection!
    zebop and Heckto35 like this.
  23. albertoderoma

    albertoderoma Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Silicon Valley, CA
    Good points.

    About room treatment. I added a lot of treatment at some point and the room sounded too dead - ironically the lousy recordings still sounded lousy. So I took off treatment until I achieved a very good balance. First and second reflections are nicely damped and diffused. The system and the room sounds fantastic ... on good records.

    About subs: I forgot to mention that I actually do have two subs (painstakingly positioned and tuned to come in below 50Hz) - but they still don't help on thin sounding records because there's very little information at those frequencies in the first place - I know I put my hand on the sub driver and I can barely feel it move. If I raise the cross-over point it sounds unnatural.

    Heckto35 likes this.
  24. acdc7369

    acdc7369 Forum Resident

    Tone controls are crap because they're usually only 2 or 3 bands. however, i couldn't stand not having an equalizer. i want a parametric EQ because graphic EQs are just too limiting in the same way. the only way I could stand not having an EQ is if my system had a neutral frequency response within about 1 dB. That's very $EXPENSIVE$, and I suspect that 90% of audiophiles who don't use tone controls do not have neutral sounding systems.
  25. LeeS

    LeeS Blue Note Fan

    Thanks Alberto. I think it may be a matter of listening philosophy. While I see the no tone controls view better, there is some merit to needing to "spice up" the poor recordings as mloops suggests. On the no side, there is also merit to fewer circuits equals better sound.

    Perhaps the best outcome for the debate is to say buy what you like and enjoy. If you like tone controls, no problem. If you hate tone controls, no problem.
    Heckto35 likes this.
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.

Share This Page