If you’ve read some reviews of headphones or speakers, you’ve probably seen a lot of colorful metaphors describing how they sound. Some of these make sense intuitively, like a subwoofer sounding “boomy,” while others are a little bit tougher to decipher, like “warm” or “bright.” We’ll walk you through some of the most common audiophile jargon to help you better understand what we’re talking about in our reviews.
There are some core concepts that we need to know in order to understand what’s really going on with some of the other terms.
Harmonic Distortion: This is created when a driver tries to reproduce a sound that is outside of the frequency or volume level that it can reproduce.
Sub-bass: 10Hz - 60Hz The lowest frequencies at the edge of human hearing. Often these frequencies are felt as much as they are heard.
Bass: 60-250Hz Lower frequency signals which includes instruments like bass drum, bass guitar, tuba, and contrabass.
Midrange: 250Hz-4kHz The middle of the frequency spectrum, and largest block, where most of the action happens. Virtually every instrument crosses into the midrange, but things like guitar, piano, cello, and male vocals live there.
Treble: 4kHz to above the range of human hearing The top of the frequency spectrum. Violins, guitar solos, flutes, and female vocals are all highlighted here.
Describing Specific Frequency Ranges
Within each frequency range, there are terms we used as shorthand to describe the intensity or quality of a specific range.
Clear/Clarity: generally describes a well-tuned mid-range which enables the listener to clearly differentiate various instruments and parts in the music.
Congested/Bloated: has the feeling of too much going on that can’t be clearly understood. Generally this is the result of poorly tuned midrange.
Harsh/Sharp: when there is too much of the upper-midrange or treble. It is generally unpleasant and can even be slightly painful if you’re particularly sensitive to treble frequencies.
Muddy: used to describe bass or low mids that are overpowering and results in multiple instruments or tones becoming indistinguishable from each other.
Physical: when prominent notes in the bass can actually be felt and not just heard. The feeling comes from the flexion of the driver moving the air between the driver and your ear sufficiently for you to feel it.
Smooth: can be used to describe any frequency, but is often used to describe “smooth treble” when the treble range is loud enough to be clearly heard, but not loud enough to feel “sharp.”
Describing the Sound as a Whole
Some terms combine a number of aspects of the sound into one word. Rather than describing each individual facet, you use a blanket term to characterize a number of features.
Analytical: the tuning is intended to enable the listener to carefully listen and pick out small details in the composition of the song.
Bright: the tuning has more focus in the upper mids and highs.
Dark: there is a distinct lack of high frequencies and possibly a larger accentuation of low frequencies.
Natural/Transparent: The output of the headphones has the character of hearing the instruments played live, particularly with acoustic instruments.
Warm: the tuning has more focus on the lower mids and bass frequencies.
Often the sound signature of headphones is written out as “v-shaped” or “w-shaped” to describe the appearance of the frequency response graph by the curve of the letter.
- v: accentuated bass and treble with a deep cut to the midrange.
- u: accentuated bass and treble with a softer cut to the mids.
w: accentuations in the bass, mids, and treble, but with sharp cuts in between.
Outside of the different aspects of the frequency response, there are a number of other important characteristics we often talk about.
Detail/Data Retrieval: How well is the headphone delivering all of the original information from the recording to your ears? This is particularly important with high resolution audio formats.
Imaging: the placement and positioning of the musicians and instruments. With good imaging, you get a sense of how each member of a band or ensemble is arranged on a stage.
Soundstage: The Soundstage is how we describe the space that it sounds like the headphones are playing the music from. Do the headphones make you feel like you’re listening to music in a concert hall, or in a closet?
Speed/Attack/Decay: The speed that a driver can respond to input determines the “attack” and “decay” of a sound. A “resolving” sound comes from a driver that can quickly respond (attack) and reproduce a sound completely without either cutting it short or extending it too long (decay).
“Three Dimensional”: a combination of imaging and soundstage which provides the sensation of instruments or voices coming from different locations with some being next to each other while others are in front of or behind different instruments or singers.
The Bottom Line
While this covers a number of common terms, there’s a whole world of technical terms and jargon out there. Check out our reviews or our Audiophile 101 series to dive deeper into the deep, deep ocean of hi-fi personal audio.