The sound of sound

First, the unabashed callout @MokhaMark @PaisleyUnderground @PastorOfMuppets @Resolve @robmcmyers @Torq @ThtGamerDad @Lothar_Wolf @generic @Nuance

If I’ve missed you, I apologize

So this came from reading MokaMark in the RAAL area. Talk of Timbre, which seems very difficult to measure. But it’s what makes a particular instrument sound like that instrument.

Let’s talk Piano. And specifically, let’s look at Keith Jarrett’s VIENNA CONCERT. At MochaMark’s suggestion, I just listened to it for the first time in a long time. Jarrett’s mastery of the piano is astonishing.

So, how piano-like can it be, depending on your headphones and chain? I’ve just listened to it on ROON, with a redbook CD quality source. Chain was FiiO K9 Pro ESS to Grado RS1e with Beautiful Audio pads. I had a 3 DB bass shelf starting at 64 hz, which I don’t think mattered in this case, and a 2050hz -2db EQ, Q of 1.8. which possibly does. The piano sounded like a piano. High notes struck hard had the bit of an edge that the upright in the corner also has. I hear a sort of percussive sound, that I thin is probably the mechanism to control sustain. It sounds like Jarret actually uses that as a sound he can control.

I plan to listen to the same thing next on the Nectar Hive e-stat, with the Bifrost 2/64. No problem with the chain I used. That FiiO is dead silent, and I can’t say that the amp section, THX, is anything but techinical, not dry. I do get a soundstage, as the piano seems to be multiply miked, but only in the way that I would hear if I were at a physical piano. Not overdone.

Comments? Especially @MokhaMark


@Audiophool @bpcarb @hottyson @InvisibleInk @Lou_Ford @mgosdin @pk500 @Roark @ufospls2

Please see previous post. Only allowed 10 callouts per post.

I’m trying to get a discussion of TIMBRE going, with attention paid to a particular piece that we can discuss. That being Jarrett’s VIENNA CONCERT, a piece discussed in a different area by @MokhaMark. Acoustic piano is a very good gauge of a headphone, and I assume most of us have had the occasion to actually listen to live piano, although not played by such a virtuoso as Jarrett.

Please feel free to call in others with experience.

I read over the Wikipedia definition of TIMBRE, and it seems very much like the Supreme Court’s definition of Pornography. They know it when they hear (see) it. But it seems rather difficult to describe.

I chose a chain terminating in the GRADO RS1e first because I have had that headphone for some time now, and I think, like Lothar_Wolf that the Grados do a pretty good job of creating a realistic timbre or sound from piano and other small group acoustic instruments.


Timbre is what I yell when I cut down trees in my backyard.
While much of my experience is related to timbre, I find that it is actually too vague of a term for me to use in terms of headphones and audio. Instead I would prefer to specify in detail how an instrument is recreated such as a violin or cello that I can almost feel the wood resonating through playback of Beyerdynamic DT880 when paired with a Monoprice Liquid Spark. Details of texture from reproduction of some of my favorite instruments are rattling muffled resonance of french horns and trombones to the reeds from oboes, and bassoon. No room in my vocabulary for that word to be used as one of my audio descriptors.


As a newbie audiophile, but long time amateur pianist, my understanding of timbre is the frequency response of the instrument plus the overtone structure imparted by the physicality of the instrument.



You’re not saying yelling it properly …


When I talk timbre, I’m usually speaking to the pitch and tone of the instrument or voice. When I speak to timbre of a headphone, it’s simpler in that I simply ask myself one question: does it sound natural, like it does in real life, or at least close enough?

I personally think capturing natural sounding timbre starts with capturing the recording. Once the audio reproduction chain comes into play though…man, there are potentially so many variables involved. Maybe only FR plays a role, or maybe diaphragm and driver material contribute. There are still many unknowns in my opinion. However, if you’ve been around live, unamplified music enough, then yes, you probably will just know it when you hear it.

I honestly try not to gripe much about timbre unless it’s really unnatural sounding. I do hear a difference between Dynamic Drivers and Planars, and also DD and BA IEM drivers, but the brain is amazing at normalization, so it’s easy to get used to the changes.

Amazon Music HD appears to have Keith Jarret’s Vienna Concert; I’ll give it a listen tomorrow.


Thank you. Yes, I agree, and so does Wikipedia. Before starting this thread, and after reading @MokhaMark 's comments in the RAAL area, I read the Wiki article.

But it does seem to define by walking all around the concept. Timbre seems to be one of those things that we just don’t have good descriptors for.

Clearly you are right with capturing the recording. @MokhaMark, could you please expound a bit as you did before about differences in miking the piano? I really don’t know what the experience of others is with live instruments, but I’ve heard many pianos live, and at different distances. With traditional classical recordings, the microphone seems to be a distance from the piano. More current techniques place microphones - plural near different parts of the piano. Personally, I’m amazed at what the microphone and recording process - analog or digital - is able to capture.

And while I’m pushing piano and timbre, I will never forget hearing John Cage’s sonatas for the “prepared” piano live.


I actually listened to Vienna this morning after @MokhaMark mentioned it. I was working while listening though so I wasn’t really actively listening to it, was just in the background. I’ll have to hear it when I get a chance to focus to take into account your question/discussion of timbre.

I did find this article interesting and helpful in clarifying some of these concepts. Unfortunately it does try to sell you something …so if it’s not ok to post here let me know and I’ll remove it. Couldn’t find the article without the music course attached to it.

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Oh I know timbre. My late wife was a trained classical pianist and a long time teacher. I’ve been immersed in the timbre of various pianos from Japanese Spinets to Bosendorfer Grands. Never mind that my two best friends in the world are musicians ( Clarinet & Trombone ).

The overtones, the resonances, the Voice of the instruments are what give music it’s life. ( Note : Those were some of the very things that MP3 compression discarded. )

I look for these things in my Systems - Turntables, Tape Decks, CD Players, Streamers, DACs, Amps, Speakers, Headphones & IEM’s. Once you know what is supposed to be there you miss it if it isn’t.

Mark Gosdin


Hi @pennstac Thanks for spinning this off. Speaking for myself it is an interesting topic, especially as it relates to the best headphones in the world.

The measurable frequency response of an instrument, the materials it is made, in what space it was recorded, and with what microphones and their placement all influence our perception of an instruments timbre. It is neither mystical or simple! It is by and large measurable I suppose, but the human mind is really adept at taking in the sum of all parts.

If we remove the overtones of a handful of instruments, leaving the fundamental frequency only, we are left with a sinewave and absent the complicated information in its overtone structure, the pitches have no identity. They are “anonymous” tones. When the unique set of overtones, harmonic and inharmonic, are introduced we get a complicated set of fundamentals, overtones, and partials (from inharmonic overtones) that give an instrument its identity and character.

If you look, for example, at the rich wall of sound produced by a sitar with its dozens of sympathetic strings, you see a complex set of sound rich in overtones and partials that are of greater amplitude in decay than the fundamental itself. The same pitch struck on a nylon string guitar produces a comparatively simple structure with relatively even overtones it its decay. This is perfectly measurable even if out of love of music’s rich history I feel romantically about it! It is one of the most beautiful aspects of music listening for me, so I tend to focus on it.

The human minds auditory organs (healthy) are sensitive to these nuance, and the characters of an instruments sound structure have been played upon and manipulated throughout all of musical history. It is part and parcel of the experience in the same way as rhythm, harmony, melodic development.

My comments earlier were to suggest, if I keep all other things equal, source, gain, etc, I prefer the detail with which the Raal reproduce this nuance.

I also agree with @Nuance that the recording space and microphones pre-determine a lot of what a specific recording will capture. I spend a lot of time listening to recordings of my brother in law on violin. He makes his own recordings of Bach performances and is constantly experimenting with microphone placement. It has fallen on me to comment on the dozens of different variations! He has played a very old Bergonzi for a long time, so this is relatively constant. He has settled on gut A and E strings and a specific brand of microphones. All of that makes an important difference. But ultimately, moving a microphone up above the violin by 1 foot, or back further into the room, changes the set of overtones and partials the microphones can pick up. And I have know this violin for decades. It was his fathers, I have heard it live hundreds of times, I have performed with it live myself, crawling inside of its sound structure to insert my own and line up my fundamentals (in tune) and avoid asymmetrical beat waves (out of tune).

All that is to say, the way it is recorded matters. I remember @Torq made recordings of his own pianos and noticed differences in if the window coverings were drawn or not! I would not speak for him, but wonder if he’d agree not all equipment displayed the differences in those recording in equal measure.

Perhaps to express my thoughts more clearly and objectively, I find the SR1as frequency response communicates to me more information, nuance, and detail of the complicated sound structures of acoustic instruments. Combined with its attack and speed, I find this especially rewarding with piano which makes up a majority of my listening. The greatest western musicians wrote some of their greatest works for piano! However, the same detail is invaluable when listening to West African kora, Northern Indian sitar, or the violently asymmetrical overtones of a Balinese gamelan.

I am also open minded to the idea maybe it is an exaggeration compared to other headphones frequency responses. But I have a lot of roll off above 15 kHz, so maybe I need “help” up there!


Great discussion. Thanks for starting this, @pennstac. Been cleaning up the mess that Ian left for a few days, finally back to work (which means back to school) for me. Agree that working definitions are tough; for me it’s the quality that allows me to distinguish between similar instruments (trumpet vs cornet vs flugelhorn) or, better, between different manufacturers of the same instrument (Bosendorfer vs Steinway, Stradivarius vs Amati) or perhaps even “configurations” of a single instrument (hard rubber vs metal mouthpiece on a saxophone). And, again “for me,” a system can’t be good without getting this basically correct. No matter of bass or treble extension or macrodynamic impact will make a system good if the instruments don’t sound basically correct and differentiable.

Listening to Jarrett’s Vienna Concert as I write (Qobuz @ 16/44.1).

Agree with many of the points already offered: harmonic structure (overtones) are important in getting this right, and everything in the recording / mastering chain can impact this.

The piano is an interesting instrument for this discussion. It demonstrates the importance of the harmonic structure easily. Play a note holding the sustain pedal, then play the same note just holding the key down. They won’t sound the same. Holding the sustain pedal removes the dampers from all the strings, so they vibrate along with the note played, to varying degrees, and the result is a fuller, more complex sound than the note held by hand. Same idea as @MokhaMark mentioned with the Sitar, above, but to a lesser degree.

One thing I can add that I don’t think has been mentioned yet. It was impressed upon me all the way back in high school that the attack can have more to do with timbre than we might guess. It’s more difficult than you might think to tell the difference between a saxophone and a trumpet playing the same note IF you don’t hear the initiation/attack. This dynamic consideration is yet another reason I find measurements of gear based on steady-state signals of limited value. Might also have something to do with why lightning-fast e-stats and ribbon transducers are often associated with exposing timbral nuances, and valued for it even by those of us who no longer have bat ears (my pair are pretty limited above 14 kHz).

Looking forward to hearing more thoughts on this.


I’d like to thank all of you for coming in on this discussion. When I read @MokhaMark 's story and discussion of timbre, I knew it could be a fascinating subject to discuss.

It’s been a harrowing past week or so for me, and I haven’t been able to do all of the listening I wanted to do. My wife had a mishap on the 2nd floor to attic landing, and injured her knee by using it to break a storm window stored against the wall. She had a piece of glass removed, and has a partly torn tendon. She was just gifted an enormous knee immobilization brace by the local orthopedic group, probably avoiding surgery. So I’ve been distracted.

I was not familiar with Jarrett’s Vienna concert, but have had the earlier Koln concert since it came out, and have listened to the Paris concert and the more recent Bordeaux concert. Today I had a chance to listen to some of the Vienna at work, on my speakers. Mostly to familiarize myself with it more. Speakers do show some of the timbre differences in a way that headphones don’t. I think I need to listen more before I comment further.

I’m hoping to hear from @Lothar_Wolf, who has a fine selection of headphones and whom I think has lived with a lot of piano playing. He’s also one of the few other Grado users, and has commented on how they accurately reproduce the timbre of instruments, in specific acoustic settings.

@Lou_Ford, appreciate your comment about no longer having bat ears. I can still hear high frequency, but have to be listening for it. I recall the days when noise from a flyback transformer would drive me crazy. But that’s not all that high a freqency…

Anyone I forgot to call out to call in, my apologies for missing you there’s a limit on how many I can call out, and a more stringent one on the stack in my brain. @pwjazz @mgosdin @Polygonhell and others, please join in and point here.

While I wanted to find a piece to center this on so that we all could reference the same thing, I’ve only been able to find the Jarrett Vienna released in 44.1/16bit which is redbook, and what I’ve always thought to be good enough if done well. I’d be more than happy if someone with more experience in this area than me (hey, I wanted to learn that’s why I broke out the thread) might suggest one or two other “reference” recordings of other familiar instruments.

And, MokhaMark, I really really do enjoy the Vienna concert. I think I’ll be listening to it quite a bit in the next few weeks on different equipment and as background while I work.


Ditto this morning. Morning office chores. Rain from remnants of Ian for another day. And Jarrett Vienna.

Absolutely beautiful piece. It’s very quiet here today, and the speakers are not quite as far apart as a piano width. My seat is about 7 or 8 feet away. It does sound as if there is a piano in the room - or very close. I’m listening to the strings vibrate and the movement of the dampers. It seems as if Jarrett is using the pedals as a subtle drumbeat. This is occasional at about 11 or so minutes in and insistent at 15+ or so into Part 1. I’m not looking at exact times.

The timbre of the bass notes is quite different than the higher notes. Yamaha speaks to string design in an article with tuning examples here

This is apropos of nothing in particular. I’m trying to listen to timbre and learn how to grok this wonderful piece of music.

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You may also like to listen to Nils Frahm’s Solo. This was recorded on a Klavins piano, apparently the largest in the world.

An important difference is that Frahm always records in such a way as to amplify the mechanical nature of the piano, so the hammers, felts, pedals become a part of the composition itself vs. more pure tonality. Some may find that distracting, and for recording any music besides his own, I certainly would. But for his music it arguably is essential. It’s a bit of a fetish now with lots of musicians doing so, so take with a grain of salt.

What I find interesting in Solo is the incredible decay of this massive piano, especially in the lower strings.


Oh, and if you listen to Solo, note some of the tracks are “prepared” with alien materials in the strings. Frahm is also big on different felts and with Klavins developed a mono string piano, the Una Corda, (normal pianos have 3 strings per note tuned together) specifically designed to be able to change felts on demand. There are now a number of pianists in this genre (ambient? classical crossover?) using the Una Corda.

The value in this recording, whatever you may think of the musical content, is the rich and complex decay that serves as an example of the overtones and partials discussed earlier in the thread. Who needs a synthesizer!!

hope your wife heals up quickly!


Curiously, I find when I move out of my inner office into an adjacent room, the “distant” piano sounds even more piano-like than when right in the room. Is this a normal function of my brain adding in lost information?

Note that my office speaker setup is pretty dang good, and that the timbre is very realistic, but I do know that it a reproduced piano - mostly by the volume being lower than if Keith were playing here in person.

All I can say is Wow!. Never heard of this and I’m totally blown away. I’m surprised such simple melodies can have such a strong impact on me. Felt like I was sitting right there experiencing all of the detail.


Wishing a speedy recovery to Mrs. Pennstac…


Ditto! Quick recovery wishes for Mrs P!

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