KIH #35 – Tensegrity


ConFi. Fi for cons? Not. It’s short for confrontational hifi. It’s the sunny road which reader Ralph Hunter recently chased me down on. “Just read a review by your buddy Dawid, over on their Polish website. He talks of a new super computer versus his old Samsung laptop. Interestingly, the dedicated music machine got a lot of props but in the end, failed to light his candle. He thought it was too soft – too chilled if I can use my own word. I thought about that and how his far cheaper older machine could surpass the more expensive dedicated machine on that aspect of… well, that’s why I’m writing in today. In some of your last reviews (Zu and S.A.Lab) you hit on the same theme. It struck me that two listeners who write for a living described the same quality which I haven’t seen discussed a lot but which made me think. Do you have anything useful to add that might clarify this even more for me?”

Ralph thinking about it got me to think about it some more. What really prompted the subject in the first place was the arrival of Vinnie Rossi’s DHT module for his LIO preamp. Its effect on my system was very potent; heavy juju. Until I made some counter adjustments, it actually went too far. It was super spacey, fluffy as whipped egg whites, elegiac and nocturnal, languid and relaxed. But like a needle in a balloon, it also deflated what in my Zu Druid V review (the one that Ralph had pointed at) became the ligamentary force of sinews which holds our bodies together.

This gave rise to the notion of good versus bad tension. Bad tension ends up in the psychological uptight state; of the broom stick up the arse. But in the body, it simply ends up in a stiff neck, in a knot between the shoulder blades, in cramping calves, stiff knees and the lot. Meanwhile good tension defines erect fine posture. Good tension injects bounce into one’s step. Good tension equals vitality. Without it, we’d turn into jellyfish. When we horizontalize in sleep, a lot of that tension is supposed to drain. But we’d be in trouble if it didn’t resurface once we got back up on our feet in the morning.

In hifi, I’d recently encountered a similar sleep-state softness in the Russian S.A.Lab White Knight. It’s a transistor amp which uses a step-up transformer for passive voltage gain, then output transformers like a tube amp. That too overdid it on Ralph’s chill factor. For my tastes, it required the Druid’s hard-hung 10.3” widebander with its taut punch and upper-bass feistiness to reconnect me with vitality even though it still didn’t meet my usual goodness index for that benign state of tension. There’s an actually even better word for it, a portmanteau of tension and integrity – tensegrity as coined by none other than Buckminster Fuller. Wikipedia defines it as “a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.”

The photo of this Australian bridge depicts it:


A look at one of Fuller’s tensegrity constructs illustrates how by cutting the cables or tendons, the structure collapses. Musical gestalt too relies on virtual tendons and sinews. Here it strikes me that certain components which are clearly committed to ultimate refinement and sophistication may move us too deep into mellowness. Everything gets sedated – perhaps very gorgeous but just a bit opium comatose at that. In short, the pursuit of removing all ‘edge’ and ‘sharpness’ can make playback entirely non- confrontational. Now it loses its power to communicate. It should confront our senses with sufficient intensity to force a response. We’re not supposed to mindlessly vegetate on our music like zombie couch potatoes inhale their chips.

I’ve noted a similar albeit far smaller-scale effect with certain noise removers like EMI/RF traps. I’ve noted it with DSD’s softer sweeter signature versus PCM. On the other hand, certain pro-audio speakers with compression drivers and horns hurry in the opposite direction. They might get nearly too direct, with too much bite, explicitness and raw piss’n’vinegar. Here everyone is their own iron chef to administer the right tensegrity dose. I just wonder whether some of the “old fogey” comments which younger show goers level at the sound of vintage Quads and their ilk point at this very issue. Too much “beautiful” softness, not enough “hard” attitude? Certainly much show music reflects the same priorities: to remain inoffensive, non-combative and remove the element of confrontation from the equation. Rather than speculate what causes ‘right’ tensegrity—again, to each her own—I’m much more curious about what others may think about this topic in general. Let’s start a confrontational discussion. Bring it on…

Written by Srajan Ebaen

Srajan Ebaen

Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Blondie the cat in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to DAR pro bono.


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  1. Peanut butter and jam. Chilli and coriander. Toast and cinnamon. Seemingly opposing flavours that sum to an unlikely eating experience. Audio is built the same way. One might not drop the PS Audio DirectStream upstream of buttery tubes lest we compromise its Tensegrity but a spicier solid state amplifier might hold things in place quite nicely. Similarly, the DEQX Pre-MATE+’s ultra vivid D/A conversion would stand up better than the PS Audio behind a wall of glass ‘n gas.

    System building isn’t just about output voltages, input sensitivities and impedance matching. It’s about flavour/balance according to taste. Everything matters. However, for non-engineers (like myself), we often see the tech talk wrapped up and smeared by a more nebulous term – synergy. The trick is to construct an audio meal where the ingredients tip the overall gestalt in one’s preferred direction, but hopefully without the dominant flavour drowning out all others. With too much mellow-yellow the Kulpira bridge collapses.

    Alas, in my experience, the audio industry’s tendency to prioritise a relax-and-recline attitude to music listening doesn’t play well for everyone. Those who wanna rock out or dance to a 4-4 beat might be drawn (to the likes of) Zu where excitement can be found in their loudspeaker’s sound, in the language they use to describe it (“pop”, “shove” etc.) and their overall attitude, all of which dovetails nicely into a preference for rock, indie and electronic. Spice abounds but not enough to kill softer possibilities (as you found with the LIO/DHT).

    Of course, there are those who just don’t enjoy the punchier hit of a jalfrezi. For them only korma will do.

  2. For me age has played a role in my preferences. I grew up on hard rock and metal listening on the crummiest of crummy “systems” and didn’t mind a bit. I’m now in my early 40s and I’m increasingly appreciative of a more relaxed sound. To that end I bought my first turntable since the 80s about a year ago and have been busy buying jazz records on Discogs and eBay. I find the vinyl sound a bit more forgiving on my ears. I’ve even been buying old rock records to balance things out.

  3. You hit on an important thing I was taught about audio. The tension between parts of music are a personal experience. With very simple music It is like building a tensegrity prism. You are deciding how to balance the prism, its shape and structural integrity. How I want a harmonica to sound influences the balance with vocals and a guitar to get a cohesive sound. I listen to a lot of live music to stay in touch with this balance. An this gets complicated in hurry as more sounds are added to the music you are listening to.

  4. hmmmm yes how well a system engages the listener depends as much on the listener and their experiences as the gear they are listening to not forgetting the source material that includes the recording process of course the performance itself is important…….
    finally if it gets you listening and keeps you listening its good!
    how to define the results is another matter ….sorry not able to help much!

  5. Kostas Papazoglou

    Strive to obtain integrity with the SYSTEMIC components – linearity, low distortions of all types, transparency and high resolution – and let the RECORDED tension manifest itself through the integrity of the playback system. The tension or insipidity should not be intrinsic qualities of the playback system but of the music, as they are musical choices of the musician, which had been ( one hopes ) accurately portrayed by the recording process.

    Take, for example, the early ECM vinyl recordings. There is often so much tension in the form of transient attacks, natural bite and edginess of certain woodwind and other instruments, which only a linear, neutral system can portray at very realistic SPLs without sounding unbearably bright and excruciating. Apply compensatory measures, such as lower volume levels and equalisation and natural dynamics suffer, together with the intended tension.

    And by the way, synergy for me is not a nebulous term at all. I choose components ( only by auditioning them in my listening room ) whose accrued sub-energies combine to form the holistic energy ( synergy ) that I aspire to as stated in my opening paragraph.

    Of course, we all know how challenging and painful it can be to synergize the intrinsic properties \ characteristics of components and I include the listening room as a very vital component.

    Finally, I consider my system to be unforgiving and I expect the recordings to be likewise – proper dynamics and transients and an uncompromising vividness compatible with the spirit of the music but not artificially exaggerated as to be perceived as artifice.

  6. If I may steer the rudder at a particular question: what do you guys think “creates” or “deflates” proper musical tension in playback? It’s easy to agree that everyone seasons to taste but, underneath that, what are the building blocks if one seasons according to this concept, not for lowest distortion, flattest frequency response, biggest soundstage, highest detail, most saturated tone colour or other specific goals?

    What musical virtues create more tension, which create less? And on hardware, is it all Russian roulette, i.e. up to pure chance, or are there specific things that will guarantee more tension or less tension so that if someone wanted *more*, there’d be somewhat of a road map on what type gear to pursue?

    Again, I’m simply curious what the perception is about this; and what the personal experience of posters…

    • Drawing from a simple experience with portables: Ayre’s Pono player is the only DAP I’ve heard to date whose circuit relies on not one jot of global feedback – Charlie Hansen is dead against it – and it’s also the most relaxed, most elegant sounding player I’ve heard to date.

    • It is perhaps all too individual. Proper room, with proper sizes, concrete floors and acoustic treatment is prerequisite. Temperature, light and libations in hand is next. Now the music and hardware…

  7. I’ll pick up that glove. In my amp stable, the high-feedback wide bandwidth DC-coupled Job 225 amp is the most “lit up all over”. At the same time, it’s inherently leaner and drier. So negative feedback (how much, how well implemented) versus zero negative feedback as a potential tensioner? It could well be a contributor. How about passive voltage gain (by transformer) and passive preamps in general?

    • Passives found inside DACs even when not bit-stripping have a tendency to sound leaner, zippier. Aka quicksilvery. My limited experience with active pre- stages tells me they add tonal mass (which helps with structure) but slow proceedings somewhat. I wonder if this is because the passive pre offers a more agreeable impedance match to the power amp.

  8. it may be too simplistic, but when I think of what creates tension without creating distortion in musical instruments, it seems to me, it always comes down to a combination of two things – whether you play drums of a piano or a guitar or a trumpet – speed and firmness. How these are achieved technically electronics is outside of my area of expertise. But on the side of music, I think, it is all about transitions (transients) or movement. Bowie’s voice in Rock-n-Roll Suicide or Davis’ trumpet in Blue In Green sound dramatic and tense, even when they are soft, precisely because they are amazingly exact in hitting specific notes, while transitions from one note to the next are never haphazard. It is the same with excellent dancers: the movement of their bodies is uninterrupted, and yet, specific points in that movement are reached and emphasised with precision. (this, I think, is by far more important than dynamic range, but it cannot be measured and therefore – less talked about.)

  9. For me, it’s the speaker and then, what precedes it, that can make or break the tension.. If you can sustain tension with spartan compositions (think Anouar Brahem), then the bull’s eye has been gouged. If that level is attained, then any other type of music will succeed as that system is already dialed in.

    Hardware aside, it’s the composition. Like perfume, properly applied to be noticed when close enough to whisper but faint from afar and still able to provoke the desired response. The tension is in the strength and application of the medium, as I appreciate it (ear of the beholder and all). Some music soundtracks come to mind as examples as well as any kind of music that can sustain tension with a light or sparse touch. The space between notes are just as important as the notes themselves. It just pulls you along. This is just personal preference but hopefully conveys my point that one needs not bombastic to complete the desired effect. Just some masterfully done arrangement to lull you along is all that’s needed.

    One can bounce, sway or toe tap along with a light crescendo and pull it off.
    Therein lies the tension.

  10. Now we distinguish between musical tension (inside a composition and then in how that piece of music, notated or improvised, is interpreted/rendered by the artist) and playback tension. These are two very different things. Anouar Brahem or some minimalist Jan Garbarek can still sound/feel very different depending on whether the playback chain intensifies or mellows that tension.

    As a trained musician, I’m quite familiar with what an artist does on his/her end. I’m far less clear what causes it in playback though I can hear it easy as day (and anyone else would, too). So far I see most responders focus on the inside-the-music part which is 100% valid and real. But if certain systems can put you on the edge of the seat and others push you into the lounger so to speak, *regardless* of the music … what creates that effect?

  11. Srajan

    For me creating the proper musical tension starts with recreating in miniature the reflections of my favorite venues.

    Speakers must be sealed boxes for many of the reasons you stated in KIH #34. Additionally I match the tweeter to my desired “bite” with a harmonica. Then I match the midrange to the tweeter and confirm that the midrange will reproduce a banjo properly. The woofer needs to reproduce bass notes above 100 hertz and not be sluggish.

    Amplifiers need to have zero negative feedback or feed forward. I’ve always used integrated amps or receivers to minimize the number of cables since any cable degrades the sound to a small extent and that can alter the tension of the music.

    Turntables that work for me are almost always direct drive but some idler tables don’t mess up the tension and balance I’m trying to create. I prefer moving magnet phono cartridges from my years consulting in the broadcast industry.

    A DAC should subtly match tone of the speaker but shouldn’t dig out the last bit of detail because a highly detailed DAC reduces the tension in the music.

  12. Steve: So your recipe relies on sealed speakers and zero-feedback amplifiers. How do you match your tweeter to a harmonica and your midrange to a banjo? What kinds of adjustments do you make and where do you make them?

    • Srajan I’m sorry this is a bit late.

      I recorded a local harmonica player at The Doug Fir Lounge in Portland Oregon (favorite venue) and asked him to play the highest notes he could. Then I listen to the tweeter and match it to the amount of “bite” I want. The amount of “bite” is either right or it isn’t there isn’t much tuning involved. A note here sometimes to hear the tweeter properly I’ve had to disconnect the other speakers doing this test.

      For the mid-range I asked the banjo player to just play “what’s in your heart” and recorded it at the Doug Fir Lounge. I’m looking for a touch of harshness in the banjo. Again not much to adjust, it’s either there or it isn’t.

      For the music I like these two instruments are the hardest to accurately reproduce. Everything else falls in to place if these two are correct to me.

      There never have been a lot of speakers for me to choose from. So it was fairly easy me to select the speakers I use today. And I’m certain my ears have not improved since that time so there is little reason to change them.

  13. Srajan

    I understand that there is a difference between musical performance and reproduction of that performance, But I also think that this distinction cannot be watertight in the overall context of what you are trying to do.
    And the way I see this overall context is as follows. You are arguing throughout that the quality-level of today’s components is such that traditional – ‘vertical’ – criteria for evaluating and putting together systems (frequency response, soundstage, DR, etc) no longer tell the difference between the best and the not-so-good. To tell that difference one has to (re)learn to focus on the ‘horizontal’ aspects of reproduction (flow, ease, and now – as a correlate of ease – tension).
    But this shift – from ‘vertical’ to ‘horizontal’ – is also a shift from mere sound to the sound of music. So it necessarily refocuses attention to musical performance. IN part, this refocusing may be due not only to the quality of components, but also to the growing prominence of digital recording and reproduction which forced critical questioning of some aspects of reproduction that were taken for granted with analogue technologies.
    (As mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t know, and wouldn’t dare to discuss, how this ‘horizontal’ quality may be best achieved technically.)

    • Alex this was always the case. I was taught this in the seventies and others have always thought this way. Take heavy metal, I was there when the Kinks started it as a young boy. If you can’t reproduce the flow, ease and tension of metal you aren’t listening to the music you are listening to just sound so why bother?

      • Steve, I certainly agree. But I also think that the matter was brought to attention from a new angle with the rise of the ‘digital’. I remember hearing CD for the first time. And that was in a radio-station studio, with fairly good equipment. It was certainly appealing of a while. But then one night I got back home and put on an LP…
        By now, there’s a whole generation of music-lovers who never heard anything but digital, and of mediocre quality at that. Plus the show-industry. ( Which is not exclusive to HiFi shows. I happen to observe with horror what the show-circuit does to some dog-breeds, for instance.)
        So, this is what, I think, makes revaluation of the good old virtues once taken for granted relevant here and now.

        • Alex, the problem with early an early CD was they were mastered to sound good in a car. I had a client back then that made movie soundtracks. He made me three once, one mastered for a car, one for a movie theater and one for home system. They all sounded great in their proper place and not very good otherwise. The reason why the good old virtues went away is again a people problem. There have been a surprising number of audio journalists who write well. And a surprisingly tiny number of audio journalists who understand and apply well understood fundamental principles of stereo music reproduction.

          Mediocre digital audio is nothing but a people problem generally the mixing and mastering. MP3 and cassettes are basically the same and both work in the right environment. And in the typical home environment with a quiet average db of 30, Apple’s AAC is fine. Based on my experience at T.H.E. Show last June I can describe High End Audio with one word unprofessional. Nobody can even play music that makes their systems sound good. I felt like a border collie playing classic rock that made rooms sound good and get people out of the hallways and into seats.

  14. Could it be that all it boils down to is your own system preferences? We all strive to make the best system possible for ourselves, as far as our ears are concerned. We are intimately comfortable with our rigs with tweaks here and there that we can instantly identify.

    At audio shows where music that I’m familiar with (that tension), there are always rooms that just can’t convey it like the one I have at home. Allowances aside (room setup and treatment) can’t be the answer as I’ve heard great rooms in the same predicament as others with little to no treatment that give me pause and make me want to upgrade. The good stuff always stands out despite the variables.

    So maybe there’s no certainty since both variables (music and gear) are essential to the goal of tension in playback. I have to love the music in order to get that tension (certainty #1) and the gear has to be able to take me there (certainty #2), and it has to meet my selfish standards as well (certainty #3). 🙂

  15. You asked for a confrontational discussion. So try this 🙂
    “Fidelity”. It means ACCURACY.
    “High Fidelity” means GREAT ACCURACY.

    So if it ain’t accurate it ain’t HiFi. So don’t spend more than a few hundred dollars at most on it. All you want is something ‘nice’ – to your personal taste. That is why you see so much stuff about “this DAC is better than that DAC” etc. in reviews. And why people buy ‘nice’ amplifiers like the Ongaku.

    Or enjoy DSD, which as you say, rounds everything off. Have these people ever heard a REAL trumpet the same distance away as their speakers?

    We can only use recording as the ‘source’ They are as close to the real thing as you will get at home. So don’t waste your money on expensive ‘nice sounding boxes’ – just buy a 500 dollar Sony music centere. It’s not ‘distorted as such, just ‘mellow’ due to low power and limited frequency response..

    If you haven’t got a ‘piss and vinegar’ (your words) 30,000 dollar dCS Vivaldi or the (amazingly) nearly as good 400 dollar Chord Mojo, a ‘straight’ amplifier, and ATC speakers or similar boxes you haven’t got a HIGH FIDELITY system at all.

    You don’t like the noise it makes? Try some different recording without trumpets, loudly played violins, etc.. It’s not that you don’t like my suggested HiFi, iit’s that you don’t like trumpets and violins 🙂

    Despite my smilies I am absolutely serious about this.

  16. Mark, why should I search for the highest accuracy? I’m not a sound engineer, I listen for pleasure. I do season music playback. I use a valve amp for listening to music that has, to my mind, a high level of energy. Electric guitars, cymbals, drum computers, horns played back loud may suffer a little from distortion, but this is what might give the little bit of extra tension Srajan asked about. More tension? I got a new subwoofer that moves some air, so Amelie Lens can be enjoyed at the proper volume. I have tried it the other way: mini monitors with enormous speed, imaging and accuracy and a very clean sounding class D amp with a super black background, i.e. no audible distortion. Didn’t work for me, sounded too clean and the tension (fun) was gone. So back to “dirty” or “wet” sound and I got the wonderful illusion that I understand why Elvin Jones felt that he had to play his solos just like he did. Illusion of course, but the tension is perfectly there. My recipe: a clean source component, old fast valve amp, biggest speakers your significant other does accept and a mighty subwoofer. Lots of records and books in the room to tame reflections. And a nice Equalizer and a Limiter in software if I listen to my digitized Vinyl. Not exactly HiFi I admit.

  17. Mark: Accuracy requires a reference, hence comparator. For audio, what do you use to know when/whether something is accurate or more accurate? If you cut and mastered your own recording, you’d have an excellent reference. 99.999999999% of all listeners simply don’t have that reference. Some play an instrument so they may use the sound of their instrument as a reference.

    But, they still can’t know how badly or not a given recording screwed up the original sound. They could take 50 or so piano recordings and on that basis decide which hardware gives them the most realistic piano sound (of course differences in instruments, i.e. Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Steinway, Yamaha and so forth must still be factored). A drummer like Ken Micallef who reviewed for me and now contributes to Stereophile most likely uses his knowledge of what his drum set sounds like to gauge a system’s accuracy.

    The rest of us tend to go by what we *imagine* accuracy to be. In fact, most pleasure listeners probably could care less about so abstract a concept like accuracy which can’t be gauged against anything definitive. Instead they select and voice their systems for the greatest satisfaction it brings them. Some might be triggered by the most gargantuan walk-in soundstage in quasi holographic relief. Others might prioritize dynamics; or tone. And so forth. The permutations of tastes and options is quite endless

    Even reviewers who do use their very own recordings must still rely on memory (which I don’t believe is that trustworthy if, say a recording was cut 2 years ago and they’ve done 50 reviews since to blur that memory). So – how do ordinary listeners with no clue what went down in the studio and subsequent mastering sessions judge whether a hifi system is accurate?

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