Help! My hifi sounds bright!
I often hear other people say “my hifi sounds bright”. Brightness in hi-fi refers to a type of sound where there appears to be too much treble – i.e. high frequency sounds like cymbals or the leading edges of percussion being too prominent. This top heavy approach is often referred to as being too bright. Distortion, harshness, sibilance or a metallic grating sound are synonymous with brightness. A wide variety of things causes brightness which I list below starting with things that are cheap and easy to implement through to the more expensive.
Some people prefer a brighter sounding hi-fi others prefer the “warmer” sound. In the past when I was upgrading my hi-fi I was always chasing more detail because it seemed that the more I could hear, the better the hi-fi was. I quickly reached a point where my system was too bright and gave me earache! Now I prefer to be able to listen to music for extended periods without agitating my mild case of tinnitus.
So how do you cure a bright hi-fi? Read on for the lowdown from Dynamic Headroom.
Not enough bass
Brightness of a hi-fi may actually be getting mixed up with simply not having enough bass. When you listen to the music is it a lack of bass you are hearing or too much treble? If it is a lack of bass then that is another issue entirely. Your speakers may be too small, your amplifier might not be powerful enough or you are sitting in a “null” (a location in your room where bass frequencies cancel each other out causing a complete lack of bass at certain frequencies).
As obvious as this may be, it would be remiss of me not to include it. If your amplifier has a treble control, feel free to use it, thats what it is there for. Most “audiophile” amplifiers tend not to have tone controls these days for sound quality and reasons of purism. If you have a digital amplifier the tone controls may be hidden away in the settings.
The source music
Before you take any action on your hi-fi consider whether the music itself is actually recorded that way. Certain productions can sound bright on any system so have a listen to a few different albums by different artists and you may find that the problem isn’t as bad as you thought.
One artist that springs to mind is Prince; all of his early stuff (e.g. Purple Rain, 1999, Dirty Mind) is produced with almost no sub bass and quite a bright top end. I am not sure if this was the intention or whether it is due to the equipment used to record the albums at the time.
The majority of speakers will come with a fabric grille which can be attached to the front to cover up the drivers. This is usually made of a thin black material and is there to keep prying little fingers away. However this fabric is sometimes thick enough to affect the sound.
The thickness of the material means it can only have an affect on the highest of frequencies, lower frequencies will pass through unscathed. So if you find that you can hear too much treble in your hi-fi then attaching the speaker grilles might just take off the edge.
The location of your speakers in the room is a very important factor in how the system will sound to you. This is a huge topic in its own right which I intend to revisit in the not too distant future. For now lets focus on just one aspect of speaker positioning – the direction in which they face.
The higher you go up the frequency spectrum, the more directional sound will become. In other words, human ears can pinpoint the location of a sound coming from higher frequencies better than they can from lower, particularly sub bass, frequencies. Some speakers are designed to scatter sound better than others; a speaker that paints a bigger picture is often thought of as having better sound-staging, whereas others seem to fire the sound in a narrow straight line towards the listener.
When speakers are set up, the usual starting position is to have them firing straight ahead. Speakers can then be “toed-in” so that they point towards you more so. When you toe-in speakers you are angling the drivers to point more towards you. You might find that if your speakers are sounding too bright, that it helps if you point them away from when you sit; i.e. try “toeing-out” instead.
The room in which you listen to your hi-fi has a big impact on the character of the sound. A couple of years ago I had my lounge completely re-done: we chucked out carpets and put in laminates, threw away curtains, removed bookshelves full of tat and went very “minimal” on the decor. The result? It looked great, very modern but it killed my hi-fi! Suddenly I was getting earache when I listened to music even at moderate levels.
I realised that room was causing a lot of echo and reverb due to an abundance of hard, flat & reflective surfaces. If I stood in the centre of my lounge and clapped my hands together, I could hear a trail of echoes and reverberations afterwards. Imagine what that does to music every time there is snare drum hit or a cymbal crash!
To that end I bought a thick shaggy rug to put in the centre of the room in front of my speakers; this absorbs high frequency sound and prevents reflections off the floor. Then I made my own canvas-style acoustic panels to absorb reflections off the wall. Next I put up some curtains! It was always my other-half’s intention to put up blinds instead of curtains but I managed to persuade otherwise. Finally I added a few cushions here and there (every little helps).
These changes to the room really did help, especially the rug and the curtains. Now if I stand in the middle of the room and clap I hear a lot less echo and reverb. The room looks cosier; we lost that minimal modern effect we were after but I just couldn’t live with the headache.
Speaker cable & Interconnect cables
I’m going to try and not open a can of worms here! Cables in hi-fi is a contentious subject which causes much debate and more than a few arguments. My experience tells me that cables can make a small difference to the sound of your hi-fi; just don’t expect it to be night and day.
If you have an expensive hi-fi costing a few thousand pounds then a change of cables will have a more noticeable effect than if your system is built up of budget components. The more expensive hi-fi tends to be very revealing and, as a whole system, is more sensitive to changes.
Accentuation of high frequencies occurs with silver (or silver plated) cables. The effect is minimal so changing your interconnects or speaker cables is an option – just don’t expect it to solve an overly bright system.
Changing hi-fi components
If all else fails then you may have to resort to switching out components in your hi-fi. Some hi-fi manufacturers voice their products to sound good in a demo situation so that you are more likely to buy them in a showroom. TV manufacturers do the same thing; have you ever noticed how bright and colourful the TVs on show in retail stores seem to be? They are usually too bright and too colourful – far more so than real life. They do it to make the TV stand out but the effect sometimes makes the picture look like a cartoon. The same thing happens with hi-fi.
I’m not going to name names here or produce a list of what I think are “bright” components. If you have tried everything else above but your hi-fi is still too bright then you need to look around for how the system could be modified. Certain combinations of hi-fi components can interact with each other in an undesired way: a slightly bright amplifier, source and speakers all combined can send the treble way over the top.
Unfortunately hi-fi is sometimes a guessing game. Even if you listen to a system at your local dealer’s showroom when you get it home it can end up sounding completely different. Always try to get a home demo if you can. If you’re buying blind then it is more of a lottery: do your research, but be careful. Hi-fi review magazines and websites will never say something is too bright or has too much treble; instead look for less obvious terms like analytical, enthusiastic, snappy, detailed, lean or clarity. Also bare in mind that many hi-fi magazines use professionally built and acoustically treated studios – so not always a realistic environment.
Never make a snap judgement on your hi-fi based on just a single listening session or a single album. Before changing anything take time out to consider if it really is the best thing to do; try all the tweaks listed above before you swap out components. You may not solve your issues overnight: I’ve been fiddling with hi-fi for years now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be 100% happy! I look on it as more of a journey so as long as I am enjoying myself along the way then what is the harm?