Towards a music-focused tango: the audiophile milonga

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to tango music on my new audio system. This is the HiRes 24bit/96kHz music files, sourced from TangoTunes.com and Archive.com, played via my Chord Qutest DAC, NAD amp and ELAC Reference speakers. I also put some effort into room acoustics with some absorption and diffusion treatments in the form of carpeting, bookcases, and bass traps in the corners of the room.

The sound that is reaching my ears is transformative: I have a wholly new conception of Golden Era tango music. It’s not the muffled, distorted, noisy, flat sound that you get coming out of the PA speakers at your run-of-the-mill milonga. The music is present and has emotional impact. It sounds no lesser than many modern recordings. The piano is sparkly, the bandoneons are resonant, the violins are singing, and the singer is clearly present in the centre stage. This is how tango music is meant to be experienced.

I’ve listened to many reviews of audio equipment and discussions among audiophile experts and aficionados discussing speaker cables, tube amplifiers, sound diffusers, HiRes audio files, etc. There is a question of how much of this is snake oil and obsession with gear over the enjoyment of music. But it is pretty clear that they get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing great sound and care a lot about it.

This stands in stark contrast with what I see on the “Argentine Tango” scene. Before we say anything else, it is my common experience that when I ask people at a milonga about the music being played they have exactly zero to say about it. They’re for the most part totally clueless. It seems that for most people the music is not something you really need to pay much attention to at all. I’m not sure how these people feel tango is different from Salsa, Bachata, Zouk, etc. but it seems to be a matter of age and style.

The other attitude is that the music selection is the main thing. These people can tell D’Arienzo from Pugliese, or at least the traditional from the non-traditional stuff. And they might express a preference for one thing over another. But they seem to have no understanding of the issue of sound quality. You can have MP3s piped through a bluetooth speaker as long as it’s the right tune. I tried screening milongas by asking the DJ over Facebook Messenger about his set. When I arrived at the milonga I found that they guy was playing Golden Era tango as he promised, only the sound was so awful (probably MP3s/iTunes/no DAC) I could barely stand it. Total waste of time. Everyone else there was apparently having a whale of a time. A guy came up to ask me why I wasn’t dancing. Total disconnect.

I’m not going to comment on people who view the music as a sort of vague background to their dancing and socialising activity because I feel I have nothing in common with people for whom tango is merely a social activity and a fashion show. In response to the people who are not concerned about music quality I would point out two issues: (a) noise and (b) emotional content. This crowd is focused on whether they like the song and whether they can “tell a difference”. But the question of whether you like a piece of music is different from whether you want to listen to it.

But ask yourself: how often do you actually just listen to tango music?

Audiophiles are concerned with what they call “listening fatigue” and whether the music is actually enjoyable to listen to, independently of whether you like a particular tune. Listening to MP3s via a cheap DAC/amp/speakers there are so many distortions and so much equipment noise that your auditory system becomes quickly fatigued. You’re probably not consciously aware of this because you have no point of comparison. But even if you identify as a “tango fan” you find yourself switching the music off and rarely if ever actually listening to it.

This is the issue that the selection-over-quality crowd fails to address but it’s critical from the point of view of people actually connecting to the music emotionally by actually listening to it and enjoying it.

You often hear people expressing that tango is a feeling. This is characteristically vague. The question is what we should be feeling? It’s possible, even likely, that many people don’t feel tango, that is, they fail to connect emotionally to tango music. Perhaps responding to the emotional vocabulary of music is something that may need to be learned. But if people have only ever heard tango music in the compressed and distorted way through substandard audio systems (iTunes, headphone jack, cheap PA speakers, resonant dancing studio space) then perhaps the sound that reaches their ears fails to deliver the emotional impact of the music. The result is these low energy milongas in which people run through the steps learned in tango lessons mechanically and apparently without feeling.

My proposal is a new concept, an audiophile milonga that is organised by people who are focused on creating the best possible experience of tango music. I don’t know how to transpose the sort of set up that I have in my listening room to a venue for a milonga. I suspect that the organisers of such an event would have to bring their own equipment, even including the speakers, and would have to read up on room acoustics. This is on top of having a collection tangos on high resolution 24/96 audio files. I don’t know whether this sort of thing is economically viable. But I’m convinced that it would be far more satisfying than what we get on the contemporary “Argentine Tango” scene.

Promo Video: Using Remix Sets On Traktor's Remix Decks - Digital DJ Tips

I mentioned in the past the website Tango DJs For Good Sound, and this appears to be a move in this direction. Only when you look at the gear of the DJs listend there it’s not good. A lot of them use Traktor DAC and Traktor Pro software. While this type of gear is better than nothing, it does not really qualify as audiophile because it’s not designed for it. Perhaps people like the image of being a DJ and so like using DJ equipment to have that sort of a look. But Native Instruments is a company catering to the recording and reproduction of electronic music, whereas Golden Era tango is pretty much classical music, ie., it is music played by an orchestra, on acoustic instruments, typically intended for live performance.

What is worse, if you look at this sample of the player software and DAC it seems that these DJs are quite confused about what exactly they’re aiming for. Because some are using audiophile software with a cheap DAC, so they’re spending money on the software but then skimping on the DAC, while others are using a good DAC with rubbish DJ software. But generally, I really don’t understand how you can call DJs using something like Mixxx, iTunes or Embrace software with Focusrite or Traktor Kontrol “DJs for good sound”? It seems to set the standard of “good sound” so low as to make it virtually meaningless.

I searched the Embrace audio player and it’s designed for “social dancing” DJs. I know that it seems to make logical sense to do that, but you have ask yourself whether tango music played by live orchestras with classical instruments, recorded on shellac records in the 1930s could quality as “social dancing music” in the contemporary sense. You’re saying that this music is comparable to the music played at these ballroom dancing competition. Well, that is the problem and I don’t want to be anywhere near this DJ because that is not how I define “good sound”.

There’s also confusion on the DAC side. As I said, what you really need is equipment designed for best possible reproduction of classical music. That is how I would define good or adequate sound for tango. Would the RME Babyface Pro together with Audirvana suffice? Well, sort of. It’s a thousand dollar piece of gear. But it’s an “audio interface” not a DAC. It tells me that the DJ doesn’t understand the difference. Audio interfaces are devices intended for music recording. A lot of the money that you’re paying is for functionality that is designed for converting the analogue signal sourced from microphones and instruments into a digital signal. But this is irrelevant to playing and listening to music for enjoyment. So why not spend a grand just on the functionality you need, namely, just converting from digital to analogue designed for the optimal listening experience?

Yes, these interfaces often have more connections and knobs, but you’re sacrificing sound quality for convenience. You can buy a separate box for the connections and the volume control if you need that (eg., if you’re using active speakers), but if you actually care about “good sound” you would buy the very best DAC you can afford. I seriously doubt that this is going to be a USB audio interface for the equivalent price, even if it has “24bit/192kHz” written on the front.

I’m not saying that these are not great pieces of kit, just that they’re not fit for purpose at a milonga. Neither DJ DACs like Traktor controller, nor USB audio interfaces are designed for the reproduction and enjoyment of music such as classical, jazz, and therefore Golden Era tango. No piece of audio hardware is completely transparent and it’s always designed to generate a certain sort of sound. In particular, it needs to be designed specifically to reproduce the presentation of features such as space and timbre that is characteristic of ensembles playing on acoustic instruments. It’s doubtful that budget and even mid-range DJ DACs or USB audio interfaces are designed for this and so you’re going to end up with substandard presentation of the music at your milonga. But if you’re going to spend a couple of grand or more on a DAC why not get one that’s dedicated to audiophile reproduction and that’s going to blow people away?

My own suggestion is that any serious consideration of tango music reproduction for commercial purposes such as a milonga needs to begin with something at the level of Audirvana and either Chord Qutest or RME ADI-2 DAC or similar. That would be as low as I’d go. But to call something like Traktor Pro player with Focurite USB interface “good sound” seems meaningless. Moreover, if a Tango DJ can’t tell the difference between a USB DAC and a USB audio interface then what else is he clueless about? A more accurate for this website is “Tango DJs For Not The Worst Sound Possible”.

What hits my ear at a milonga is the final product of the whole chain from the music file all the way to the space in which the sound reflects off the surfaces. Is this Tango DJ capable of curating the whole experience? An audiophile concept in tango would require half of the thought and effort to go into dealing with room acoustics in particular in dealing with large reflective surfaces, especially large mirrors and windows, by making sure the speakers are placed well away from them and that there are sound aborbing surfaces like soft furnishings, carpets, heavy curtains and even sound absorbing panels (there are loads of videos on YT on how to make these really cheaply). So I’d say that the term “sound designer” should be used instead of DJ, as the latter is associated with merely selecting the music set. What we need is the design of the total acoustic experience that requires adequate understanding of the equipment and the space, but which unfortunately I don’t see evidenced among the “tango DJ community”.

Post Scriptum: RME ADI-2 vs. Chord Qutest

Having researched the RME ADI-2 DAC I found that it’s very comparable to the Chord Qutest DAC that I have and love. However, as I mentioned above, audio gear is never really “transparent”, meaning, completely accurate. So just because two DACs are comparable in specs doesn’t mean that they will sound the same. You’re always listening to some extent not just to some completely accurate representation of the music, but to the gear itself.

Now, in the audiophile community there are people who go on objective measurements and this sort of objective “accuracy” above all else. There are other audio designers such as Rob Watts from Chord who believe that there is a lot in the musical signal that you can’t objectively measure. Instead, they have a particular idea of what music should sound like, eg., in a live performance, and they try to replicate that sort of experience. They aim for a certain sound presentation that is not necessarily the most objectively accurate but elicits a certain auditory experience. You can also have too much information that may interfere with the optimal experience of the music.

So to get an idea of what you can expect from a DAC, namely one approach or the other, you can’t just go by the specs but should read a range of opinions by people who have experience of a range of DACs.

So to give you an idea, here is a telling comment on the Audiosciencereview.com forum about the RME ADI-2 DAC from someone who really likes it:

“It is THE perfect DAC. For objectivists. For scientists. For Engineers and for Bedroom Producers. … If you are “Left brained” I could not recommend this marvelously engineered DAC more strongly. If you are looking for euphonic or colour in your sound, you might listen elsewhere. … Sometimes I want correct sound so I go to the RME. Sometimes I want warm ‘garbage’ sound so I use my other DACs.”

“It really does seem like an engineers (tinkerers) dream.”

Audiosciencereview.com

I feel that for tango music you really want to be looking for euphonics and colour in the sound, ie., you don’t want to be left brained about it and have sound that is technically or objectively accurate. Looking at the higher end gear on the Tango DJs for Good Sound list I’d say we’re getting, intentionally or not, a “technically correct” left brained approach.