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 the question of how much of this is snake oil and obsession with gear over the enjoyment of music. But it is clear that many of them 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. Here we find people expressing two sentiments. One attitude seems to be that tango 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. You can have MP3s piped through a Bluetooth speaker as long as it’s the right tunes.

I’m not going to comment on the first sort of sentiment because I feel I have nothing in common with people for whom tango is merely a fashion show. In response to the people who are not concerned about music quality I would point out two issues: (1) noise and (2) 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. Ask yourself: how often do you actually listen to tango music?

Audiophiles are concerned with issues such as “listening fatigue” and whether the music is actually enjoyable to listen to, regardless of whether you like a particular tune. Listening to MP3s via a cheap DAC/amp/speakers there are so many distortions and equipment noise that your auditory system becomes quickly fatigued, even if you’re not consciously aware of this because you have no point of comparison. This is the issue that the “selection over quality” crowd fails to address, and it is important from the point of view of people actually connecting to the music emotionally by actually listening to it and enjoying it.

So this brings us to the second issue, that of the emotional content of the music. It is often stated that “tango is a feeling”. This is a very vague and amorphous statement (which is typical in tango, hence this blog). The question is what we should be feeling? That this even needs to be stated is probably due to the fact that many people don’t feel tango, that is, they fail to connect emotionally to tango music.

One reason for this might be that some people are “deaf” to the emotional content of tango music, eg., because 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 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 without much feeling.

My proposal is a new concept, an “audiophile milonga”, one that is organised by people who are focused on tango music and on creating the best possible experience of the 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.

I mentioned in the past the website Tango DJs For Good Sound, and this seems to be a move in this direction. Only when you look at the gear of a lot of the DJs there, if not the majority, it’s not really 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.

It seems that 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.

So what you really need is equipment designed for classical music. Also, an “audiophile” concept in tango would require at least 50% of the effort of the DJ to be spent on room acoustics. So I’d say that the term “sound designer” or “audio engineer” 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 a good understanding of the equipment and the space.