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Whatever happened to the graphic equaliser?

Whatever happened to the graphic equaliser?

June 07
12:15 2018

It is possible that you are reading this on your commute while listening to music on a smartphone.

If you are, may I ask if you are entirely happy with the sound? Or could it do with tweaking — that trebly singer toned down, or the bass riff brought to the fore?

If you need personal sound engineering on the 8.14am, listening preferences will be buried in your phone’s menu. But opting for, say, “rock” or “treble reducer” may do little more than dull the sound. I am writing this on a morning Eurostar train from London to Paris and am trying to listen to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. At 9am the Stones are a bit hard on the ear, but applying my phone’s treble reducer is too much like putting cotton wool in my ears.

In the cassette era of the 1980s, some Walkman-type players featured sliding tone controls known as graphic equalisers. But since the launch of the iPod in 2001 and then the smartphone, we have been encouraged not to fiddle with downloaded music.

Did tone controls deserve to disappear? Or did they fall victim to fashion — leaving you, on your 2018 commuter train, wincing at the harshness or the blandness of your favourite music?

For commuters, many phone apps claim to work as tone controls, but to my ear, they are not nearly as subtle as the rotary controls amplifiers used to have. There are also expensive DACs — digital analogue converters — such as the UK company Chord’s Mojo, which apply more sophisticated sound processing to a phone’s output, but they are too cumbersome for straphanging on a train.

Even costly high-end portable music players for high-definition digital music do not let you adapt music to your own ears.

Tone controls are rare, too, on home equipment and the type of speakers you might use at your desk — but still available. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year I came across an unusual vertical soundbar from a company from Watford, England, which offered — yes — a set of sliding tone controls.

“It’s partly just a retro touch, and partly for users to make a real difference to the sound,” says Hoj Parmar, CEO of Studio 19.

Mr Parmar’s company makes much of the feature on its website, but to date no amplifier manufacturer outside Japan — where consumers still like tone controls — has kept knobs. I asked people working in the audio world about the strange death of tone control, and it turns out to be a subject of geeky passion.

Cambridge Audio’s Edge A amp, with its single huge volume knob, costs £4,500

Makers of portable and desktop music players have taken a minimalist cue from high-end HiFi.

“The purist in us does not want you playing around with bass, middle and treble controls,” says Dominic Baker, technical director of the UK’s Cambridge Audio, whose Edge A amp costs £4,500 and features the requisite single huge volume knob.

“Tone controls came into existence in the days of cassettes, and the very poor sound quality they gave. There’s good reason today to let the music sound how it left the recording studio, which CD and digital allows.”

But, he concedes: “It’s true that Japanese consumers like knobs. We’re more concerned to do the right thing.”

Ricardo Franassovici, managing director of London’s Absolute Sounds, an audiophile and distributor of expensive HiFi systems, agrees.

“There’s no need at the super high end for tone controls,” he says. “The big brands who make high street systems and music centres still sometimes include them, but those controls won’t make the sound good, just less bad. It’s like adding cream to a terrible coffee.”

But one person I spoke to was surprisingly enthusiastic: a sound design specialist at Denmark’s Bang & Olufsen, whom I met at the company’s Struer factory last week.

Geoff Martin says B&O products have tone controls, although they tend to be complex software settings rather than physical knobs.

“Not having them is an arrogance,” he says. “It’s: ‘We know better than you and we don’t trust you to change it.’

“There is a nervousness from manufacturers that if we give you some knobs and you crank them to something terrible, everybody else listens and thinks: ‘What is this?’ But we come down on the side of letting people adapt a little.”

Twitter: @TheFutureCritic

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