Thoughts on the most difficult instruments for speakers to reproduce?

I’ve heard a number of speakers over the years, and the sounds of some instruments never seem as realistic as others. I would love to get some opinions on this, as I’ve been wondering about this for years.

My my vote on the toughest:
- Trumpet with mute (good example is Miles Davis)
- Alto sax
- violin (higher registers)


String sections, and yes violin higher registers.  It seems almost impossible to find sound reproduction that captures the combination of texture, bite and silkiness of real strings.

And most speakers tend to thin out the body of the sound as you move into the higher frequencies.  Drum cymbals in real life are big and round, never the tiny pin-points of bright sound as through most speakers.

Piano...yeah...always on the list.
I would say piano for all of audio, but violins specifically for digital audio, especially massed strings.
1) Without doubt a realistic live drum set. Percussion has such massive dynamics most speakers badly compress at realistic levels.

2)Grand piano is tough too.

3) Pipe Organ - especially the low notes.
Piano,Piano,and Piano.

When you have a system that gets all aspects of the Piano correct everything thing else will be there,with maybe the exception of the lwr Organ notes being totally realistic.

Piano for me. I have heard very expensive $0.5 million systems sound perfect, see: Until you play a grand piano. No speaker IMHO will reproduce grand piano lifelike. Some come close, but, at the end of the day it is very apparent you are listening to recorded music.

Let's hear why piano is so specifically hard to reproduce.

I'd say some reasons:

1. Spans more of the frequency range than most instruments, hence has wider scope to show weaknesses in upper and lower areas of the speaker design.

2. Has a combination of percussive yet soft quality (a soft "hammer" striking hard wires) that is so easy to miss, either becoming too fuzzy or soft, or too hard and artificial.

3.  It seems extremely hard to both record and reproduce the BODY of the piano sound.  In real life the whole instruments seems to be in play, and you can "feel" the weight of the vibrating strings and the soundboard, body of the piano.  On recordings and through hi fi systems piano becomes a set of detached, floating keys being if severed from and preserved, the rest of the instrument thrown away.
Another +vote for a piano. It is a percussive and melodic instrument.
Happy Listening!
I can think of a few things.

1 - Microphone placement - Audience, stage or in the case? This all affects what is in the recording to begin with. 

2 - Bass - This is why so many feel subwoofers can add so much to music. 

3 - Radiating patterns. Piano's radiate spherically, with some direction given by the main lid. Some sounds are mechanical and coming right off the floor. 

4 - Room acoustics. I heard the Magico S1MkII in the Magico showroom - they did great except in the bottom registers. A little too chesty due to the speaker tuning. However the rest of the piano was quite convincing. I can't help but think how much of that was thanks to having speakers in such a large well treated space in combination with speakers with unusually wide dispersion. 

It might be really interesting to do a 4 channel recording, but with the microphones in 4 directions around the piano and using speakers back-to-back to attempt to reproduce the sound. Would this make us feel closer to listening to a live speaker? :) Wish I was in college, it would make a good research paper. 


My bane is the human voice going from soft to loud (dynamics) or vice versa. There has always been a "shadow" made of distortion that parallels the transition. A corruption of the air coming out of the singers mouth? I can't explain it but I always hear it.
I don't think any one instrument is that difficult compared to complex orchestral pieces.  That's why you will rarely, if ever, hear orchestral music played at shows.   It's always something simple like Bach cello suites, Musica Nuda, some "girl and guitar" stuff.  Well, not always, but most of the time.  
Is there a definitive answer? Or is it all of the above / prior? Thanks.

@nonoise Nice to see your mention of Upright Bass and Oud.
I find most speakers having difficulty presenting the size of the piano on the stage same with vertical instruments like double bass. The sound may be close but the overall experience is not very real as the fingers move up and down the neck. 
Thanks for the excellent comments, interesting they lean mostly to piano. I agree, but IMO systems generally recreate piano sound that, while lacking, is still pleasurable to listen to. In my original post I was thinking more of instruments that are “off” in otherwise excellent recordings, enough to make you hit the switch.

Anyway, this has me thinking that any equipment audition absolutely needs to include bringing along familiar recordings that are difficult to reproduce. This will help greatly to narrow down the selection and spot significant strengths and weaknesses (especially in speakers).

I went to a high-end audio shop recently and auditioned a well-respected tube integrated and well-reviewed speakers (combined about $13K). The owner started by playing the Blood S&T Spinning Wheel opening horns (digital), truly a horrifically hyped disaster. It sounded like a screeching crow being attacked mid-air by a hawk…just unbelievable. That’s what convinced me that dealer supplied material is no way to audition equipment, and not bringing my own was a missed opportunity. There were some challenging recordings I could have brought that would have given the equipment a chance to shine…or not.

(jmcgrogan2, you’re dead on about massed strings and digital. I did some compares and you’re right the difference is striking. Goes to show that dig, though getting very good, is not yet on par with vinyl).
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(jmcgrogan2, you’re dead on about massed strings and digital. I did some compares and you’re right the difference is striking. Goes to show that dig, though getting very good, is not yet on par with vinyl).

Sorry to disagree with you but have you ever heard a 32bit / 192 master recording of massed strings. If not then you can't say vinyl is better, even well produced SACDs of orchestral strings can be superlative. It is usually the playback equiptment that does not perform to par. A lot of people think nothing of spending many many thousands on analogue playback gear and sometimes a couple of grand if that on digital gear. Some people even think an i phone is ok to play digital on. Can you even imagine how much jitter is being produced from those things. For too long the rivalries between vinyl and digital carriers have been goin on and people don't realise they are two completely different carriers. I say that if someone spent the same kind of money on a top tier digital system then the goalposts would be changed forever. No most people spend large amounts on one carrier and not on two. And of course there is the old chestnut of some people don't want to rock the boat by saying that yes it must always be vinyl but don't forget some people used to say shellac was better than vinyl and soft needles were better than hard when it came to massed violins on 78s. I have heard 32/192 master recordings , I have even made some and I have between my computer and CD player a huge amount of money invested and I have been hard pressed to say I have heard vinyl produce a breathtaking dynamic range and all round atmosphere that my digital system. I am not saying every one can have that kind of system because it demands parts and software that are second to none. But do remember jitter or the suppresion of it is just about the most important thing to slay in digital.
Most real instruments sound horrible in most speakers, specially in digital recordings which sound horrible bright, thin, edgy, sometimes not even within the note, like a good $20k hand made Spanish guitar, piano sounds harsh, violins sound thin & harsh, cymbals without extension at all, toms not silky at all, bad bass drum, electric piano without proper decay, well the list goes on and on. 
@glow_worm, I am assuming you are a Miles Davis fan, as am I. A real test for any speaker ( system really ) and an awesome musical experience is Miles's " A Tribute To Jack Johnson ". Could be my favorite of his ( although he has an amazing library ). There are 2 editions I am familiar with. A 1992, and a 2005, both on Sony. I prefer the performance and mix of the 1992 release. If you do not have it, it is a must. Enjoy ! MrD.
As a drummer I am sensitive to acoustic drums on jazz, or singer songwriter records. Cymbals have complexity and air. Not on rock records and for sure not on modern electronic records where samples are the thing, but actual beautiful cymbals at the hand of a sensitive player. When they're right they touch my heart.
Many instrument's sounds are difficult to accurately reproduce but the one that clearly is the most difficult is the piano because of the range, attack of notes and nuances that seems to transcend most other instruments.  I love organ music but I can hardly say that it doesn't sound realistic (except some close to subsonic notes).  If you listen to recorded piano music, it doesn't take a golden ear to tell it's not quite right.
I read this whole thread, and thinking about it, it seems like it's much easier to list instruments that are reproduced successfully by good quality speakers than those that aren't.
I would say sax, trumpet and brass in general are not that hard to get right. Same goes for acoustic guitar, as well as some small percussion instruments like blocks, shakers and bells.
Pianos, violins and other bowed instruments can be dogs to reproduce convincingly. Of course , part of the blame for that goes to the way they are recorded.

A speaker system with less than ideal crossovers will ruin piano every time.  I have hybrid ESLs with the bass woofers crossing over at about 500Hz, pretty much right in the middle of the keyboard.  Yikes!  Thankfully, I simply can't tell when the notes cross over and the timbre never changes.  Well done.  

I heard a respected 3-way system once playing piano and it was super obvious when the notes switched drivers.  That experience has since made piano my "tester" for speaker integrity/reproduction. 

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I would chose voices and acoustic instruments, especially piano, violin and trumpets.

Back eons ago I was a rock and roll drummer and with some (but not all) well-recorded ride cymbals, you can "hear" the ping of the stick against the brass and "feel" the timbre of the cymbal vibrating.
kdude661,121 posts04-23-2018 11:49pmPiano,Piano,and Piano.

When you have a system that gets all aspects of the Piano correct everything thing else will be there,with maybe the exception of the lwr Organ notes being totally realistic.


100% agree.  In building components, I spent a few years on how to get the piano right.  I wanted to not only hear the wood of the piano and the hammers hitting the strings but I also wanted to hear the length and thickness of the strings and the attack and the decay.  It was a long road but now at the end, it was worth the effort.  Happy Listening.
The obvious/tried-and-tested options are all mentioned above (ie, piano; massed strings; muted trumpet). 

But another instrument that tests speakers/entire system in a very different way is the vibraphone ("vibes"). This is primarily played in acoustic jazz and/or modern percussion composition.

The layout of brass keys is piano-like, but the sound is very different: keys are struck with mallets, so you get that 1st-strike transient, followed by lengthy sustain (courtesy of sound propagation tubes beneath each key). My favorite players use 2 mallets per hand & can play many notes, simultaneously or in fast sequence.

The result is a characteristic "shimmer" to the sound. It's a louder than you think, something microphones readily react to if not set up properly. 

I find that speakers & electronics that fully convey the complex sound of this instrument can generally hit it out of the park on just about every instrument.
Massed (not single) violins, I agree, and (surprised no one mentioned) full bodied, contrapuntal choral singing.
My wife plays piano. I am a lapsed student of the instrument.

I put on some audiophile record (forget what it was, but it had excellent piano reproduction) on the big system and she called from the other room - "Is that YOU??"  It sounded so much like her piano in the next room.

Most of the time recorded piano doesn't really sound like a real piano played (even in the next room).

I tried it later on my Electrostat system and it works there too - pretty sure it wouldn't if it was a hybrid speaker mating a cone woofer with the main panels.
Mrdecibel...Thanks for the tip on Miles's " A Tribute To Jack Johnson, very good.

Glad to see that this fairly long chain has remained so informative and positive. Amazing that it hasn't morphed into a hardware p*match (no hardware mentions at all!), I knew it was possible on the forum!

Hmmm...should I say something about cable snake oil and see what happens? J/K
@jdliguori, please do not do it here, as there are too many snake oil threads already ( which I am a contributor ). Enjoy the Jack Johnson, as it is awesome ! Always, MrD.
If using your speakers for home theater, which sports a wide dynamic range with Blu-ray’s and UHD’s, there are some interesting sonic categories that, while not falling under acoustic instruments as such can be a challenging effort for speakers to reproduce, and also reflect on their abilities into music reproduction. Take for example a ships horn from a warship or commercial ditto, like from the Blu-ray to the film “Captain Phillips” (2013) where towards the end there’re some serious bursts from such a horn flaring off on a warship. If the speakers are up to the task here you’ll experience a startlingly forceful, dry, dense and present sound, demanding dynamic prowess, ample air displacement area and very little smear (i.e.: transient “snap”), but also calls for a high degree of coherency. These are important traits reproducing instruments like (concert) piano, solo violin, drum kits and saxophone, and so is a telling ability on your speakers performance over an even wider arc, I find. A banal example on the face of it, perhaps, but I’ve found it to be quite useful; watching films from such high quality formats over your stereo brings along a new set of tools to evaluate your speakers worth in many regards, some of which may not be readily exposed with music only.

@wspohn -  "I tried it later on my Electrostat system and it works there too - pretty sure it wouldn't if it was a hybrid speaker mating a cone woofer with the main panels."

My JansZen Valentina hybrid ESLs are the exception.  I shopped for Martin Logans for years and never could get past the less than perfect integration.  The M/Ls have gotten somewhat better lately.

The JansZen's integrate the two driver types flawlessly.  Maybe it has something to do with the D'Appolito MTM design and/or its crossover approach, but the integration allows piano to play through the full range without any crossover or timbre change evident.  

Digital is not always bad, so with the proper set-up we can get quite acceptable quality, meaning a lot of instruments sound very acceptable. Of course, the rest of the system should support such elevated quality levels as well. Nevertheless, even with the current high end audio, it is still easy to differentiate life from recorded music. (analog and/or digital). It al comes down to what we find acceptable, which is personal. Some people are prepared to go further than others. I believe that the sound of certain instruments is harder to reproduce using audio equipment within a certain price class. To reproduce the sound of certain instruments properly, it may take a higher investment, perfect room acoustics and so on.... (however, I (and you) believe I (we) can easily detect if what I hear if life or recorded music, so...the engineers are not yet done with it...)
Yes speakers and equipment have limitations. But Its the recording that is often the real limitation. Several on this thread stated that the speakers can compress the sound of instruments like violin, piano, or just a simple cymbal crash. Speakers are not always the root cause. As a drummer I know most recordings of percussion are not captured at full dynamics. Other instruments have the same issue. If it's not on the recording how are you going to play it back. So much of what you hear live or in a studio still isn't captured by mainstream recordings. What's the hardest instruments to reproduce? Any instrument that wasn't fully captured. 
@vinylfan. Agreed, even with the best equipment, a poor recording won't sound good, however too often people blame the recording whilst it is the equipment not capable of reproducing what's on the recording. Not many speakers will be able to reproduce the dynamics of percussion to the full extend. Most rooms will not allow to enjoy such dynamics to the full extend either. It's always a bit of a compromise I guess. On the other hand, using higher end (not necessarily the highest end) audio equipment will indeed often reveal that the recording wasn't done properly.  
Completely agree. I think we spend far too much time (and money) on equipment variation and not enough on recordings quality. This has been a constant challenge and frustration over the years, first with vinyls (dirty, worn, warped, and poorly engineered), and now with digital.  Few dig recordings come with a provenance and are a real crap shoot. I still haven’t figured out what “remastered”even means, it definitely doesn’t assure that it isn’t just an upsampled dupe of the original cd made 15 years ago. Recording quality is the most important piece in the chain, because no matter what equipment comes after it, it is still garbage in garbage out. Ironically often times the better the equipment the worse it sounds, because it doesn’t hide the warts. All I know is that half the recordings I download from jd tracks land up unplayed. There is one benefit over vinyl though, at least they don’t collect dust. 
1) Piano (analog or digital)

2) Tutti strings played on bow (digital)

3) Cymbals (analog or digital)

(in any order)