Audio Terms Defined and Explained
When entering the audiophile world or even if you’ve been in it for a while now, you’ll most likely come across some terms from time to time that seem to make no sense at first glance. Maybe you see the word “timbre” and perhaps your first thought is of trees (at least mine was at one time >,<), or that something is “airy” and it might be tough to imagine what kind of sound characteristic that is until you actually hear it. Hopefully this will make it a bit easier to understand and eventually get you to where you’ll be able to use or think of these words to accurately describe what you’re hearing.
GO TO: Airy | Colored | Detail | IEM | Imaging | Impedance | Muddy | Separation | Sibilance | Soundstage – Width – Depth | Sound Signature – Neutral – V-Shaped – U-Shaped – Dark – Bright | Timbre | Warm
Low Frequency – The bass region; controlling the rumble, punch and how much you physically feel your music. Quantity and quality are simple ways to aptly describe the low frequency capabilities of your earphones. Dynamic Drivers are known to produce more quantity than Balanced Armature Drivers are, with the latter producing and decaying your bass more quickly.
Middle Frequency – Is responsible for vocals, typically with male covering lower-mids, and female covering higher-mids; however, the middle range also contains many instruments, typically the bulk of your sounds and can define your listening experience, with a good mid-range helping to give a “natural” reproduction to your music.
High Frequency – The treble in your music controlling those sweet high-notes, where most of your flute, violin, and other high pitched instruments fall into, also containing the most descriptors of any frequency, such as; “Airy”, “Sparkle”, “Brightness”, “Brilliance”, “Harshness/Sibilance” and so on.
Balanced Armature, Piezoceramic and the newer Electrostatic drivers will produce your high frequency sounds better than Dynamic Drivers will as their attributes are better suited to treble.
Soundstage – The perceived three-dimensional space created by your earphones.
Width: How well you’re able to hear individual instruments and vocals laterally, discerning positional queues on either side of you. Example: Excellent soundstage will feel like you’re hearing a sound outside of your head and earphone.
Depth: The spacing between instruments in front of you, from close and intimate, to far away and distant sounding. Example: Hearing a band from the front row, hearing the drums either in front of the vocals or if they’re behind them in the mix, as they were intended to be heard.
Height also factors into soundstage but has a less prominent role, it’s the vertical sense of sound produced such as a lightning bolt coming down from the sky.
Sound Signature – Describing the tuning, and tone, it’s the most important aspect when choosing a pair of earphones that will best suit your tastes. (Along with Driver type and count) The frequency response of a particular set of earphones will give you the best idea of what to expect before you listen to them. There are many classifications that can be used to describe a particular set of earphones but here are a few of the more popular sound signatures and characteristics used to signify a stronger emphasis in tuning.
Neutral: A balanced sound that doesn’t place emphasis on any particular frequency.
V-shaped: Lows and highs are more “Colored” and given an obvious boost while the mid-range is recessed. This typically creates a more “Fun/Exciting” overall sound.
U-shaped: The Lows and highs are elevated but the middle frequency isn’t as recessed as a V is, this is a safe sound signature to look for if you prefer your low and high frequencies but still want some extra body in the mid-range.
Dark: Priority is usually given to the low-frequencies, typically with thick mids/vocals while the high-frequency is recessed and rolled off.
(Dark does not always mean your treble will be terrible, most earphones can be classified with a darker or brighter sound signature, denoting which is stronger between those characteristics, from moderately darker to overemphasized)
Bright: Basically the opposite of dark, where the high-frequency is very prominent and forward in the mix, typically with the upper-mid frequencies being elevated as well. (Bright can also be used to describe the overall tone while applying the same rule as the “Dark” signature does)
Warm – Warmth is when the vocals are engaging, the mid-range has body and is clear to go along with an overall full and lush/rich tone.
Colored – When one or more frequencies are played back at higher or lower volumes than was intended in the original recording. This includes any signature that’s not “neutral”, and even neutral earphones usually have a slight degree of coloration somewhere in the tuning.
Timbre – The tone color/tone quality, it’s what makes the characteristics of one musical note distinguishable from another and allows you to readily identify each sound. Good timbre on your earphones will enable you to hear different instruments in the same category, such as string instruments, and easily tell the difference between them. Example: The difference in sound between a cello and violin that are both playing the same note at the same volume.
Airy – Typically used to describe the space and open sound you get from your high-frequencies, the term is more easily applied to open-back headphones, but can also be used to describe earphones that have well-extended treble and good soundstage.
Detail – Hearing every note how it was recorded, the subtle intricacies in every instrument and sound. Example: When a flute or guitar is played and you can hear the nuances in how the note ends and the varying degrees of sharpness or softness exactly as they were played.
Imaging – Similar to soundstage, this is the mental image you get when the instruments and vocals are placed and heard in their intended positions.
Sibilant – When some sounds produced by the high-frequency start to pierce your ears and sound harsh or hissing. A singer with a higher pitched voice can also sound sibilant sounds, more so on loud S’s. Example: Certain Hi-hats, Cymbals, Claps and high-pitched vocals are typically the first sounds that will enter sibilant territory by creating uncomfortably high-pitched feedback that will make you wince. Foam tips can help dial the sibilant sound back if you enjoy a certain set of earphones but have that issue on certain songs.
IEM – In-ear Monitor, basically a fancy word for earphones that has caught on and is now widely used for all types of earphones despite obvious coloration in said earphone. Monitoring is a studio term in which you want a flat/neutral response to accurately reproduce your recording.
Separation – How well each instrument can be heard and distinguished while other instruments are playing at the same time. Akin to layering and a product of soundstage (in my humble opinion), music can sound “muddy” or congested when it’s not separated well enough.
Impedance – Shown as OHM Ω on your earphone specifications, it’s a unit of measurement to show how much power is required to get the highest quality and volume from your driver(s). The higher the Impedance, the less electrical current will flow through your earphones, thus more power is required. This is more prevalent in headphones which can have 300+Ohm ratings, requiring an external power source to hear them at even 25% of their potential volume.
Muddy – When your overall sound is presented in a congested and unclear/unclean manner. More complicated tracks can reveal a muddy presentation in your earphones. Similar and synonymous with “Congestion”.