Audio is an extremely subjective field that, in the context of higher end gear, is highly affected by the user’s own sonic preferences and reading graphs and terms guide can help you. Welcome to our guides. Especially in terms of what people call “warmth,” “veil,” and “texture” and the way different points on the frequency response and harmonic/dynamic spectrums stand out or fade away. The frequency response curve, it is essential that the reader understand the reviewer’s own preferences and underlying biases so as to make an informed decision on their own. A headphone that may be “peaky” for one might just be “mildly bright” for another, while another that seems “muddy” to one may be “lush and smooth” for someone else. This particular point seems to be a source of disagreement for a lot of people. For example, at what point does a headphone’s sound go from “smooth” to just plain “muddy”? Where is the line that divides the good and the bad?
In the audio world, there seems to be polarities to every headphone’s individual traits and signatures. They include, but are not limited to (you you better have a grip on reading graphs and terms guide):
“Lighting” (darkness/brightness): just as how darkness is defined by an absence of light, darkness in the audiophile context refers to varying degrees of treble recession. Treble emphasis gives energy to the sound, relating it to a “bright” feeling, while lack thereof gives the sound a dim, dulled signature. One may prefer the darkness due to treble sensitivity, while the other may prefer brightness for its energy. (Darkness is also sometimes referred to as a “veil”, as if a veil dulled the overall energy of the sound)
“Temperature” (warmth/coldness): affected by the overall resonance of the sound, a trait defined by decay speed and lower-frequency response. A slower decaying sound tends to exhibit “warm” traits, especially when paired with the heavier undertones of upper-bass/lower midrange (see “Body”) whereas a faster decaying sound would sound “cold” and some would say “analytical” in comparison, usually with neutral bass or lower. Which leads to my next point…
“Texture” (muddy/smooth/grainy): probably one of the more subjective aspects, texture seems to derive from the coherence between the frequencies at a micro level, affected by decay speed as well (it is for this reason that you’d hardly ever hear headphones being characterized as warm-grainy or even cold-muddy). On one end is muddiness, which is a characteristic of cheap, slow drivers that makes their sound too resonant. On the other end, we get graininess, commonly associated by fast drivers with thin, almost crackly plastic film diaphragms (like in cheap Superluxes or even Grados). Most companies reduce this distortion by making their drivers (mostly dynamic) stronger, which can be done in a lot of different ways. For instance, Astrotec utilizes DLC membranes to give its drivers further musicality in its movement while other companies choose to reinforce their drivers with metal coatings (such as titanium or more recently, beryllium).
“Body” (full-bodied/thin): While treble describes how bright a sound is, “body” describes how the bass response of a headphone sounds, specifically in the upper bass regions that border the lower midranges. The lower frequencies give extra heft to the midrange, while its lack thereof makes it sound “thin” in comparison. Resonance and decay speed do play an important role in a sound’s body, which is the reason why certain neutral headphones can sound more or less full-bodied than others.
Common combos: warm, full-bodied yet muddy; cold, grainy and thin; analytic, cold, distant, edgy
Frequency response or curve (FR): Not to be confused with “sound signature,” which is a description of the sound as a whole that includes all of the above qualities, FR is a way to measure how loud and soft a sound is in different frequency ranges. Without delving into more scientific mumbo-jumbo like Harman curves and inner-ear acoustics, FR is split into six popular broad categories:
- The state of having nothing emphasized and everything being of equal significance to one another is referred to as neutral. Alternately referred to as “monitoring,” “flat,” or “reference.”
- V-shaped: placing more focus on the treble and bass ranges while lowering the importance of the midrange. A naturally enjoyable sound that may be found in a lot of DJ-style headphones.
- A linear curve has an emphasis on either the bass or the treble, followed by a downslope into the other frequency direction. This is not to be mistaken with a neutral or flat curve, which has no focus on either the bass or the treble.
- The sound of a treble-linear curve would be recessed in the bass range, making it seem light and thin, whereas the sound of a bass-linear curve would be recessed in the treble range, making it sound dark and heavy.
- U-shaped refers to a frequency response that is largely flat, but places more emphasis on extremely low and very high frequencies. Those who find neutrality boring but V too much enjoy this option.
So, back to my main point: the reviewer and you, the reader. It’s crucial that you and your partner share the same perceptions, or at least have a solid idea of how much of a gap there is between the two of you. What he hears as “thin-sounding” might be what you call “full-bodied,” and what he calls “neutral” might be what you call “recessed.” Have a gauge of your differences in opinion and judge his review accordingly. Reviewer A, for instance, has mentioned that the SE215 is nearly neutral in terms of treble and bass but lacks sufficient body in the latter. You find the same in-ear monitor to be excessively bassy, warm, and almost muddy. Take reviewer A’s thoughts and add some extra low frequency to get a good estimate of what your own personal perception would be, since he is likely to have a higher bass tolerance than you and a preference for volume and body.
This is an extreme case to make a point, but you understand what I mean in reading graphs and terms guide. Since every person is unique, you can always expect to encounter a range of perspectives when seeking information about a particular topic. If you, the reader, are able to meet the reviewer on the same page as his own preconceived biases (which are entirely personal), you will obtain a much more accurate picture of the product that you are reading about.