There’s nothing more satisfying than tuning in to the music you love and appreciating all its elements, no matter how small. Of course, the quality of playback you get in your car, on your phone and through your sound system is different, and it all boils down to one word: timbre.
But first, let’s go through briefly about the attributes of sound, which can be categorised as such:
Pitch: dependent on frequency and on sound pressure level (SPL)
Intensity: the volume of a particular sound
Duration: how long that particular sound lasts
Timbre: a combination of all three mentioned above; serves to distinguish between different sound sources.
What is timbre?
According to KEFdirect's research, timbre is the “colour” of a sound. It’s what makes something sound like what it is – like how a violin can sound distinctly different from a cello, and how a guitar twangs differently from the ukulele. Even when each instrument is playing the same note at the same volume, you are still able to differentiate between what is used to make that sound.
Timbre can be described quite adequately with a multitude of adjectives, like: gentle, melodious, smooth, clear, rich, rounded, full, resonant, bright, warm and more. On the other side of the spectrum, it can also be brassy, raucous, shrill, breathy, piercing, harsh, dark, or even flat.
Berklee Online instructor Erin Barra likens timbre to the flavour of apples:
“Some apples are very sweet while others are sour; some are red while others are green. They’re all still apples, but each one with a distinct characteristic. Red Delicious is different from McIntosh, Gala and Honeycrisp. Even when describing one type, there might be variations from apple to apple – same thing goes for sound sources.”
The role timbre plays in music
In an article by Henley, Warren, Frost, et al., which was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, timbre affects the perception of emotion in music. According to the researchers, “it’s not what you play; it’s how you play it”. The feeling of sadness can be evoked, not just through melodies, but by changing how the music is presented.
An earlier study by Behrens & Green also found that participants were more accurate at recognizing sadness and fear if the same melodies were performed on the violin, as opposed to the trumpet. A “dull” timbre is often associated with melancholy, while a “brash” timbre denotes anger.
Is timbre important?
Yes, especially if you are setting up a sound system or home theatre. As important as timbre is in allowing you do distinguish between a violin and a banjo playing the same notes, your speakers need to accurately and articulately make that same distinction when reproducing those notes. At this point, timbre-matching is something you’ll always want to bear in mind.
Expert Q&A: Timbre-matching
Here are some common questions asked by music lovers – we asked the experts at KEFdirect to help out.
Q: Why do I need to timbre-match my speakers?
A: When listening to music, timbre-matched speakers reproduce identical colour and texture, making the transition extra-smooth if the sound alternates between different speakers. The entire experience will feel seamless, allowing you to enjoy surround sound without any distractions. If your speakers are not timbre-matched, the violin in the left channel will sound markedly different from the same exact violin that’s playing in your right channel, and that’s annoying.
Q: Which speakers should be timbre-matched?
A: As KEFdirect advises, you’ll want to timbre-match your front L/C/R (left, center, right) speakers as closely as you can. This is where the majority of budget should go. However, if you listen to a lot of music mixed to 5.1 or higher, timbre-matching the rear speakers is equally important.
Q: Can I mix and match my speakers?
A: Whenever possible, your speakers should be the same brand and model (or at the very least, within the same series). This minimises the possibility of sonic imbalance. When putting together your dream music listening system, timbre and accuracy as every bit as important as power handling and SPL, maybe even more so.
Q: How/where can I get timbre-matching speakers?
A: British hi-fi industry pioneer KEF has been producing speakers for over 50 years. Paying attention to detail in terms of producing the best sound quality, they’ve managed to timbre-match their speakers not just within a particular series, but across the entire line.
The brand’s edge lies in its innovative engineering, design and development, making it a firm favourite among discerning audiophiles.
Often referred to as the gold standard, the compact KEF LS-50 belies its performance: the Uni-Q driver delivers fast, clean sound without adding or subtracting anything, resulting in a natural, accurate timbre. The result: a rich, multi-dimensional “soundstage” experience, even in small spaces.
Its prolific list of awards says it all: Sound + Image Stereo Speakers of the Year 2013, Stereophile’s Product of the Year 2013, What Hi-Fi Product of the Year 2014, AV Forums Highly Recommended Award 2015, SVI Best Bookshelf Speaker 2015, and many more.
Its predecessor, the LS50 Wireless, is also raking in the accolades, garnering Best Product 2017/2018 at the European Imaging and Sound Association Awards (EISA), T3 Awards Best Hi-Fi Product 2018, and What Hi-Fi’s Product of the Year 2018. With the KEF Control app, the speakers bring your favourite tunes to life, producing pristine, timber-matched sound in the comfort of your own living space. It even connects to any type of input you can think of, like a turntable – vinyl revival, anyone?
With the convenience of timbre-matching at your fingertips, the future of music is boundless.
Cover Image: Angel Jimenez / Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Underneath her RBF, Michelle is actually a friendly raccoon. Loves collecting ugly things, changing her hair colour, and dinosaurs (not necessarily in that order).