Can I use Headphones to critique my loudspeaker based stereo setup?

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Hi, my name is Garth. I primarily listen to my stereo setup through Salk Sound Songtowers. However, I would like to use Headphones as a tool to diagnose what is “good” and what is “bad” in my system.

Let me explain. I feel that my system has some midrange harshness in it, particularly around female voices and electric guitar. I generally listen to acoustic music to minimize the harshness that I hear. I would like to use headphones to try to isolate my various components to determine where this “harshness” originates, DAC, Preamp, speakers or lack of acoustical treatments.

Is this a reasonable endeavor?

Will a set of headphones plugged into my DAC, that has volume control, capture the same sonic signature as the DAC feeding the speakers?

Likewise, I have the same question regarding my Sonic Frontiers Line 2 preamp. When I plug my headphones into the SF Line 2, the Mute light illuminates. Consequently, I don’t know if the tubes are engaged when driving the phones so am I capturing the sonic signature of the SF Line 2 through headphones?

I could go into a lot more details but I will stop here to see if there is any input regarding this topic. If so, I can elaborate based on any feedback.

Thanks, Garth

G Georgopoulos

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The problem is with the speaker imho
For example i have listened to bad mids in a two way speaker.
The woofer reproduces the mids, the mids are reproduced by the woofer at its high end roll off so the woofer straggles because its not a mid-range driver, if again you crossover the mids to tweeter the mids the tweeter operates is at its low end roll off where it is not at its best,this problem is most profound in two way speakers ,but it can occur in any multiway speaker,crossover between drivers create this undesireable harshness as you put it. Anyway long story short.MHO.Hope it helps.


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I think the headphone may be able to help.They would need to be pretty good ones?
The amazing detail given using headphones could offer a way to sort of some problems with the electronics.
As for the Sonic Frontiers headphone jack. Usually the output is going to the headphones. The jack typically is not earlier in a preamp.
Nearly all headphone jacks mechanically lift a connector when the plug is inserted. That connector mutes the main output. Pretty much all preamps with a headphone jack do the same thing.
So the tubes are in use for the headphones.

I would challenge the other poster on the speakers being the problem.

My 52 years of experience says the harshness is more likely powerline related, or D/A conversion system related. Smoothing the harshness out with a conditioner would be my suggestion, but it may not be a solution.
Usually DACs can use a bit of love on the AC line Also perhaps trying a different cable from CD to DAC
(or are you using a computer source via USB? Same thing, maybe a better wire. Or try someone elses computer? Some computer music innards Suck....)

dB Cooper

There are several different iterations of the Songtower (dome tweeter, ribbon tweeter, 'Suoercharged', etc) so it would help to know which version you have. Also, you don't specify power amp, or room size.

The very popular and well-reviewed Songtowers do not have a reputation for harshness and I would contact Salk for ideas if you don't get any useful suggestions from this thread. Salk knows how to design speakers in which the drivers are not pushed beyond their effective range. Do you hear the harshness regardless of source, or playback volume? Have any friends you could do some component swapping with to see if the issue is affected? If the problem is in the DAC or preamp you may hear it through headphones (good ones, as Elizabeth points out); if its after that, headphones won't reveal it. But it's worth a try.


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The problem with this approach is that if you are not familiar with the headphone, then it doesn't really help much for diagnosing any particular component. Furthermore, even if you got over that hurdle, the headphone will be fed from a different amplifier. That's two unknown reference points, making comparisons even harder.


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The problem with this approach is that if you are not familiar with the headphone, then it doesn't really help much for diagnosing any particular component. Furthermore, even if you got over that hurdle, the headphone will be fed from a different amplifier. That's two unknown reference points, making comparisons even harder.


Recommend swapping out only one component at a time to isolate the problem.  (But you must also be familiar with the second component.)  Ideally that second component should be "reference standard" quality.  By your description you'd be comparing a preamp, power amp, speakers, and room versus built in headphone amp and headphones.  That might only tell you if the problem is with the source, DAC, power source or preamp, power amp, speakers, room.  All those variables (plus the difference in presentation between in-room and headphone listening) it would probably only serve to confuse you.

BTW in my experience power issues are localized and cables (if of "minimally acceptable" quality) contribute very little to system sound.  Jim Salk is a very nice guy and a cabinet maker who picks out drivers.  He is not a speaker designer, in fact he hires two different guys to design (one for the cabinet and one for the crossover). 


After looking at the pictures of your set up in your gallery, I say look at speaker placement. I'm not saying there's anything wrong, and it may not be the problem, but it's where I'd start.

My advice would be to pull the speakers out in to the room and do some nearfield listening to see if the harshness is indeed coming from the speakers, and not some reflections. I had a very similar problem that present itself with female vocals that sounded harsh, or a tad distorted if my head was exactly centered in the sweet spot. Tweaking speaker positioning, particularly toe-in, fixed it.

Good luck.


Thank you all for your input. I will go into a bit more detail on a couple of points.

Source: C.A.P.S 2.0 - like, with SoTM USB 2.0 PCI card, SSD etc..., red book lossless files -> April Music Eximus DP1 DAC -> Sonic Frontiers Line2 Pre -> Krell KAV 250a/3 amp -> 1st gen SongTowers (ST) with dome tweeter. Marrow Audio Speaker cable, mogami balanced cables (running balanced from start to finish. No power conditioning.

System is dual 2 channel/home theater using home theater bypass on Sonic frontiers.

I suspect that the harshness is a couple of things. There is probably a bit of distortion in the form of room modes/reflections as well as the honesty/slight midrange forward character of the ST. This comment regarding the ST is a feeling of mine but in now way proven fact. Also, I have no acoustical treatments. I have considered them but after correspondence with the folks at GIK, I was given the impression that there was little that treatments would do to improve my sound.

Regarding speaker placement and Toe-in. I've played with these and now have the speakers toed in considerably - this seems to help a bit.

The headphones are the Audio Technica ATH-MSR7. These sound pretty neutral to me and don't seem to do much wrong. I like their sound, they sound similar to me to the songtowers. I think I prefer their sound plugged into the SF Line2 vs the Eximus but I'm not certain of that.

I may also have Tin ears. I have difficulty coming to definitive conclusions about components, how they differ in sonic character and which I prefer.



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I have a set of first gen Salk SongTowers with the dome a fairly small room over my two car garage with all kinds of wierd angles etc...the setup, and toe in were cricital to get the best soundstage and a good stereo image....I also have a 75" LED tv inbetween them which doesnt help.

I can feed then via a variety of sources but to minimize everything to the least amount of devices , cables and mechanical connections I play music from a cd on an Oppo a Van Alstine Pre-Amp to a VanAlstine Ultravalve tube the SongTowers...I can also easily go from a laptop to a usb dac into the preamp etc...that said.

I dont have any harshness like your describing etc....the SongTowers going on several years old now still sound as good as I got them. Vocals are very nice IMO..smooth and natural...electric guitar, like Clapton, Satrini, Bo Diddly etc..are just perfect to my ear.\

Getting your system down to the least amount of "stuff", the least amount of cables and connections etc....makes it easier to "troubleshoot".
I would get a cd transport and go as direct into a preamp or an integrated amp to the speakers, check all you cable connections for age, being dirty etc...making a good mechanical bond etc..

Hope it works out for you, I really dont think its the speakers unless they are/got damaged?

Talking to Jim is a good idea as well, he is a great guy.


Note: Forgot to mention I have many headphones, dacs and amps...trying to compare the two are not easy at all, quite a difference in the way the sound is getting to your ears, speakers vs headphones...


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IME, harshness is a result of acoustic issues, or dirty power. I would look into these area first. If the harshness is in the midrange/upper midrange, it could be reflections causing problems.

Gik 242/244 panels are pretty inexpensive, if you don't already have first reflection treatment, you could give that a shot.

As for power, you will get a lot of back and forth, but in my townhouse, dealing with the power issues made a huge improvement. If you don't have a dedicated circuit, I would try having an electrician run one of those first. After that, if the harshness is still an issue, I would try a power conditioner. PIaudio sells some very reasonable options.


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Quote from Garth: "I may also have Tin ears. I have difficulty coming to definitive conclusions about components, how they differ in sonic character and which I prefer."

I suggest finding several albums you really know and enjoy. Listen to them very carefully, with earphones.
Then with the speakers. Note what subtle things seem different.
To be able to hear changes, you actually have to KNOW the material playing well enough to automatically 'catch changes which you did not hear before, or which now sound different.

Also, realize the part of the mind we use to 'enjoy' music, is NOT he same part we use to make critical decisions. It takes a learning and an effort to get the two to work together.
Thus some folks just cannot function as critical listeners.

Also knowing YOURSELF. What part of the audio spectrum turns you on and what does not matter. Both in the music AND in the equipment..
Seems clear the midrange matters.. and female vocals!
Use this TO YOUR ADVANTAGE. So choose albums which give you goosebumps, stuff you LOVE. Not stuff other folks tell you to try.
Anyway, good luck.

dB Cooper

Elizabeth makes some very good points. The subtext, to me, is: critical listening is a skill. You develop it by using it- listening to lots of different material on as many different systems as you can. I saw your equipment list. If you truly had a 'tin ear', you would never have considered buying any of it. The ears- and expectation bias- can play tricks on us sometimes, so playing lots of music is essential. By that, I also mean live music, so you know what a playback system can and cannot do.