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Main | C Series: You Can Afford To Listen To Music That Sounds Great »
Feb 18 2015

Several Hundred Words About Timbre, Or, Did You Know the LS50 Is Also Available As A Center Channel?

One of the more elusive terms in the audio world (and in music in general) is the word timbre . First of all, if someone starts explaining TIM-bur to you and they are not speaking exclusively about a forest or a logging operation, run away and leap unabashedly into the arms of your nearest audio expert who knows the word is pronounced TAM-bra (it's a French word).

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language:

  1. timbre
    [ ˈtambər, ˈtäNbrə ]
    noun: timbre · plural noun: timbres
      the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity

Three Things We Need To Concern Ourselves With When It Comes To Sound

  1. Pitch (the note being played, or how high or low the frequency of a sound is)
  2. Intensity (the volume of a sound)
  3. Timbre (the subject of this blog piece)

Let's Listen To Some Examples Of Pitch And Timbre

In the above video that I borrowed from the Internet, we can easily hear the differences in pitch within the two examples. The intensity (or volume) is constant. In the first example there are three synthesized flute notes, two have the same pitch and one has a different pitch, but all three examples display the same timbre.

In the second example, there are four different synthesized voice notes and there are some other subtle differences. All four have the same intensity, so we need not worry about volume. But if you listen to the character on the left, you can immediately tell that the character is female (as compared to the male constant we are comparing to). In this case, not only is the pitch different, but so is the timbre of the note. That difference in timbre is what allows our brains to process the auditory sensation as being distinctly female when compared to the male constant. When listening to the third choice as compared to the constant (the character on the right) it is easy to tell that the pitch is obviously different, but there is also a slight difference in timbre, which again allows our brains to process the note as being different from the constant.

What all of this means is that when listening to music, or any other audio program, our brains contrast and compare three things while processing what we are listening to: pitch, volume and timbre.

Now let's listen to some examples of different instruments playing the same note (pitch) with a graphic representation of the sound-waves created. By actually seeing this presented graphically it becomes clear what timbre is, and how important it is.

A couple of disclaimers: All of the notes here are re-produced electronically. What this means is that the natural instrument will have (typically) more detail, air (space) and quality within the frequencies created, but for our purposes this illustration is fine. Also, the use of this video in no way endorses the content on the original website of the producer of the video, but is used here strictly for educational purposes under Fair Use.

Here's the Point

The point is, we hear a lot of gobbledygook about timbre matching when it comes to speakers, and the simple fact of the matter is, timbre matching is extremely important.

As important as timbre is in distinguishing a violin playing an 'A' from a banjo playing the same 'A', your speakers need to be able to accurately and articulately make that same distinction when re-producing those notes. Equally important to that, if your speakers are not timbre matched, the violin in say, your left channel, will sound markedly (and annoyingly) different from the same exact violin playing in your right channel.

Certainly, you want to timbre match your front three speakers (Left, Center, Right) as closely as you can, and if you listen to a lot of music that is mixed to 5.1 (or higher), timbre matching the rear speakers is equally important. If you are going to use your system to listen mostly to movies, timbre matching the rears to the fronts is not as important, but you should definitely stay as close as possible to the timbre of the fronts.

That Means

Your front three should be the same brand and model (or series) speaker whenever possible, and your rears should match as much as is reasonable. You can certainly have a mis-matched pair of rear speakers (relative to the fronts, not to each other) and your movie watching will be acceptable, but you will absolutely notice the difference when you timbre match every speaker in the system.

From series to series, KEF speakers are timbre matched, ensuring amazing articulation from channel to channel. To up the ante a bit, we have also begun offering our LS50 in a single speaker package for use as a dedicated center channel, so now it's possible to have a 5.1 (or higher) system made up entirely of our incredibly popular LS50.

So, as you put together your dream home theater or music listening system, when deciding on your speakers, remember, timbre and accuracy are every bit as important as is power handling.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

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