Audio Dictionary: What Do Headphone Review Terms Mean?
Detailed headphone reviews often read like ancient texts translated loosely into modern language. If you’re not familiar with the terms used, it‘s a struggle to decipher what the reviewer is getting at.
Describing sound quality with words is really hard. Many readers rush to objective frequency response graphs, or direct comparisons of different models they might be familiar with personally, just to get a better idea.
It’s almost impossible to give headphones context in a vacuum.
Personal experience and subjectivity rule the day. But knowing some of the common terms is vital.
Terms that Generally Apply to Bass
What is Bass? The bass region contains the lowest sounds in a song: Drums, bass guitars, and electronic synth hits. Good bass adds impressive impact and depth to a pair of headphones. Weak bass makes headphones sound tinny. Over-strong bass makes headphones sound lacking in detail, or murky.
Basshead- Anyone that loves bass, and/or bass-filled music. This is probably a significant percentage of the headphone market, if the number of available bass-heavy headphones is anything to go by.
Punchy- This means the bass is quick to play, and doesn’t linger too long in the sound field. It has good fast attack, and short decay. Punchy bass is generally a good thing in a headphone.
Thumpy- The bass has good impact in the sub-bass regions, like the subwoofer in a home theater system. You might even feel the bass in different parts of your body, on a really thumpy pair. This could be exactly what you’re looking for, or it might lead to a less-detailed sound that muddles other details.
Muddy/Boomy- Both of these are usually bad. The bass is prominent, and then some. The decay is too long, meaning the bass sticks around longer than it should.
Bass Bleed- The bass is so prominent that it pushes into the higher frequencies, overwhelming them. This is usually a bad thing. Vocals will sound muffled, instruments will have an unnatural character, and soundstage will often suffer.
Terms that Generally Apply to Mids
What are mids? The mid-range is where most vocal and instrument information lives. It’s the most important range to get right for good music reproduction.
Boxy- The mids have a “cupped hands” sound to them, like you’ve got hands cupped over your ears, or seashells. This is most common on closed headphones. I’ve heard this phenomenon on the HyperX Cloud/Takstar Pro 80, and the Sennheiser HD280 Pro among others. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, and your brain can adjust to it over time, but it’s also not ideal if you desire the cleanest mid-range response.
Recessed- The mid-range response is quieter compared to the bass and the treble. This is also known as a “v-shaped” response, where the bottom of the V is the mid-range. This is a quick shortcut into tricking your brain into thinking a headphone sounds impressive. Bass and Treble make more of an immediate impact on our brains, but generally you don’t want too much of a dip in the mids for good audio reproduction. Some folks like to toss “Recessed Mids” and “V-shaped” at headphones they don’t like, as a form of insult, even if they don’t actually exhibit that response in measurements.
Smooth- The mids have an even, flat response across their entire range. This is what you want for solid music listening. Smooth mids=good. Almost without exception.
Detailed- The mids aren’t overpowered by the bass, and are the most prominent component to the sound. The treble complements them well. Another good thing to look for in a review.
It’s possible to still have good bass response without killing the mids, so don’t think you have to choose one or the other.
Terms that Usually Apply to Treble
What is treble? Treble describes the highest sounds in the music, like the upper range of voices, instruments, and cymbal hits. It’s the easiest range of sound for the brain to localize in relation to space. Treble is hard to get right, and this is complicated by large variances in personal treble taste in listeners. Treble generally needs to be fast and accurate to sound good for most people. Too much treble makes a headphone fatiguing to listen to over time. Too little treble, and a headphone sounds muffled and boring.
Relaxed- The treble sounds gently reduced in its highest ranges, compared to the mids. Many headphones on the market use a relaxed treble, so that high sounds don’t fatigue the listener over time. Relaxed treble is usually fine, unless you’re doing to the most detailed or analytical listening. You wouldn’t want relaxed treble on studio or pro equipment, for instance.
Sparkle- If treble is sparkly, it has a sharp and prominent zing to it. An impactful punch, if you will. Kind of like the sound of windchimes mixed with a trumpet hit. Some people love this. Others hate it.
Grainy- Grain can happen in mids and highs. It means the sound has a bit of a rough texture to it, like it has some sandy grit over it or something. Like sparkle, some folks subjectively enjoy this.
I actually like a hint of grain and sparkle to my treble, as long as it’s not too harsh or fatiguing. I know that to many it sounds like artificial detail has been added digitally or something, but I love it when it’s done well.
Both sparkle and grain often go hand-in-hand with an elevated treble response. You shouldn’t find them in the same review that mentions treble is relaxed or rolled-off. If so…something has gone horribly awry.
Sibilance- This means that “s” sounds read more like “th” sounds. Particularly noticeable in symbols/hi-hats. Those percussion sounds are the bane of badly-rendered treble. You want them to sound like the real instruments.
Harshness- Some headphones are outright screechy in their treble response. The threshold of acceptable loudness for treble is going to vary from person to person, but this variance is why most manufacturers roll-off or reduce the treble. “Harsh” is one of the worst things someone can say about treble response. It means they don’t like the treble at all.
Other Sound Terms
Rolled-Off- A region of sound, usually the bass or treble, that has been reduced after a certain frequency. On a graph, it looks like a gentle downward slope in the response. Most headphones use a gently rolled-off treble in the upper ranges. Excessively rolled-off bass is usually not ideal.
Peaky- The headphone has sudden, weird spikes or peaks and valleys in its frequency range. Usually not a good thing.
Soundstage- The sense of how wide the sound field is around your head. This is tough to do on headphones, since the drivers are right against your ears. Generally, over-ear headphones, open-backed headphones, and those with more prominent treble have better soundstage. This can also be achieved through digital manipulation, which some purists loathe.
Imaging- The sense of separation between the left and right channels of audio. Different from soundstage. A natural image will have a smooth progression between left, center, and right. This is possible even when the overall width of the field seems narrow and close to your head.
Hotspot- A place of discomfort/pain that forms over time. Most commonly used in relation to the center of the top of the head, if a headband is not correctly distributing the weight of the headphone. Hotspots can also happen around the ears, and at the top of the jaw. A good headphone shouldn’t cause hotspots with prolonged use.
Clamping Force- A measure of how strongly the headphone clamps to the sides of your head. This can cause comfort problems if it’s too tight, and the headphones will fall off if it’s too loose. Ideal clamp is subjective also. A tighter clamp generally leads to better bass response, particularly in a closed headphone.
Closed Headphone- The backs of the ear cups are closed off from the outside world. This generally improves bass response and isolation, at the expense of soundstage.
Open Headphone- The backs of the ear cups are completely open to the outside world, often with a mesh-like material. Sound can flow in and out of your headphones. People can hear what you’re listening to, and you can hear them. This has a more natural, speaker-like vibe to it…but is completely ineffective for any use outside the home.
Semi-Open Headphone- The headphone has some openings on the back of it to improve bass response or soundstage. These are a weird compromise. I have only really used this one, which I liked.
On-Ear Headphones- The pads sit directly on your ears. They’re usually smaller, and usually less comfy than good over-ear models.
Over-Ear Headphones- The pads sit around your ears, sealing against the side of your head. Bulkier than on-ear, but more comfy.
In-Ear Headphones- Also called IEM’s. The headphones are tiny, and seal to the sides of your ear canal with a small ear-tip, usually made of silicone. I don’t like these. It’s very unsettling to jam a tiny thing into your ear canal, in my opinion. But you might love them. Generally they have a good price to sound quality ratio….if you can stomach the fit.
Ear buds, or Apple Ear Pods, are not In-Ear Headphones technically, because they just rest in your outer ear and don’t seal against the canal. As a result, they’re way more comfy, but don’t provide the best isolation or sound.
Phew! That’s all I’ve got for now! You can find me on twitter HERE. Thanks for making it this far. Hope it was helpful to you!