Macrodynamics, what is it and how can it vary?

Macrodynamics is one of those things that I feel like I’ve been able to hear but not properly explain. I perceive good macrodynamics as a high dynamic range between soft sounds and loud sounds. One of my favorite tracks on which to hear macrodynamics is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley” on Couldn’t Stand the Weather. It’s got this relaxed bass line and quiet drumming laying down the rhythm, with Stevie singing in what sounds almost like a loud whisper and mostly just kind of improvising softly on the guitar, and is then punctuated with these sudden loud guitar licks that really stand out from the rest of the playing. That difference between the soft bass and those loud guitar licks is what I think of as macrodynamics.

I’ve been playing with EQ a lot lately, and just by chance noticed that when I’m messing with the area around 3-5 KHz, it makes a big difference to the perceived macrodynamics in this song. Armed with that little bit of knowledge, some Google searching led me to learn that a lot of the attack of electric guitar tends to live in that area.

When I compared the HD58X to the Elex, I noted that the HD58X sounded like it has the stronger macrodynamics, largely on the strength of its performance with this song. Looking at Head-fi’s measurements of the HD58X and Elex, we see that the HD58X has a more pronounced peak at around 5 KHz, so that might be what accounts for the difference.

The LCD2C is another headphone that, unequalized, can tend to sound a little flat. Perhaps not surprisingly, its 2-5 KHz region is quite recessed.

So, what does this all mean? I can’t make broad claims about macrodynamics generally, but I can say that in this particular case the reason that I perceived differences seems to have been frequency response. When listening to music, large dynamic shifts will sometimes be associated with different instruments (e.g. a violin concerto in which a full orchestra might join in a crescendo following a prolonged violin solo) or different techniques (e.g. switching from bowing to plucking a string on a double bass). These different sounds will interact with headphones’ frequency response in different ways, such that perceived macrodynamics can vary depending on the source material.


I’ve read pretty wildly varying impressions of these headphones. Some people on the Internet describe them as sounding macrodynamically “compressed” whereas others like InnerFidelity describe them as very “dynamic” and “punchy”. Insofar as perceived macrodynamics emerge from the unique interaction of specific recordings with headphones’ frequency response, that could account for such diverging opinions. The LCD2C could sound very dynamic on some songs (for example those on which the loudest sounds are dominated by bass) and very flat on others (where the loudest sounds happen in the high mids and low treble).

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First, thank you for the callout to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley” – I’m listening to it now. On my old STAX headphones and wow, does it sound good. The macrodynamics include not only the guitar, but the sound of the wooden drumsticks. No EQ needed on my setup. And I can’t resist listening to his Voodoo Chile (slight return) on the same album.

The attack of electric guitar strings is also prominent on Dire Strait’s Brother’s in Arms album, on the cut "Ride Across the River. But attack, and sound of the pick or fingernails as they play the guitar is not unique to electric. I don’t often hear it in folk, perhaps due to different miking, but it is clear in a lot of classical guitar, and also in Flamenco and “Modern Flamenco” like The Paco de Lucia Project


This is a great thread @pwjazz. Thanks for discussing it. It what I find really interesting. These type of discussions are really educational and I’m here to learn.


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Your choice of music is great. I love all of these songs/albums. It’s my kind of music, that Acoustic/Electric guitar type rock thing for want of a better word. :slightly_smiling_face:. It’s the Attack as you mention that’s pleasing to my ear as well as the macrodynamics of the music. Classical guitar music I also like to listen to too. Although as ever I am an amateur in these discussions. I just like to listen to anything and everything.


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Yes it is. He’s got me thinking about and comparing my two preferred headphones in a different way. The Hifiman HE-560 has more extended bass than my old STAX, but even the planar-magnetics render the nuance of macrodynamics differently than the lightness of the electrostatic design. I suspect this would be even more pronounced with a modern electrostatic – my SR-5n’s are from the 1980s. I’m less likely to want to use EQ with the electrostats. I will have to dig my Sennheiser HD-580s out and compare dynamics also.

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So you are saying that this can be a way of isolating frequency response differences between headphones? I’ll assume that a flat frequency response would be the most desirable, although that might not fall out of A-B comparisons of particular song recordings.

I’d like to suggest Joe Jackson’s You Can’t Get What You Want as a good track to evaluate these differences, since it has explosive drums, strong bass guitar, and piano and vocals. I think it would show differences similar to the way that Tin Pan Alley does.


Good question. It’s @pwjazz 's post, but my personal take is that it may be something other than frequency response differences, although changing the EQ will emphasize or de-emphasize the difference. Transient response must also play a role here.

I’m not sure how to state this, but:
Even more important may be if there is something going on with changes in volume perhaps not being linear or identical between headphones. If the quiet parts measure 60db and the loud parts measure 105db on one set of headphones, what would the range be on a different set of headphones?

I think, but don’t know, if that’s the difference I hear between the electrostats and the planar-magnetics. But it’s not easy to get a good A-B test with them because the electrostats are driven by a FET/tube headphone amp, and the planar-magnetics are driven by my iFi xDSD DAC (or by a different headphone amp).

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That’s an important point. If by “flat” you mean tuned to sound like studio monitors in a studio (i.e. what the engineers used to produce the record), then I think you’re probably right. Neutral headphones sometimes get a bad rap as sounding “boring”, but I think if music sounds boring on neutral headphones, one needs to listen to different music!


I don’t know that this happens in practice. I performed an experiment with my LCD2C and my Magni 3 to test whether I could measure the “dynamic range compression” which some people report hearing with this amp. My test was somewhat limited by a 50 dB noise floor in my listening environment, but within the range of 50-100 dB this setup measured perfectly linear in its response.

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Interesting thoughts. I distinguish between frequency-bound dynamics (e.g., single instruments) and large changes to the overall output signal (e.g., a soft song suddenly goes loud). The first seemingly follows from system resolution, while the second relates to power/headroom.

Narrow range precision dynamics (e.g., require a high resolution system to fully perceive):

  • Almost any acoustic guitar solo, from Rodrigo Y Gabriela to classical: possible to hear air from the sound hole, the fingering, and small changes in mic positioning

  • Vance Joy - “Riptide” acoustic ukulele intro (~first 45 seconds): Sounds absolutely “3D” with my Elex due to complex volume differences, but just passes right by with other devices

  • Run DMC - “Down with the King” bell/chime riff that starts 28 seconds in: The unique bit is 4 beats that go ding-ding-drop-ding. With the Elex the last 2 sounds become too soft and virtually disappear. Is this a frequency hole in the drivers, or a mastering artifact?

Massive output or massive changes in volume (i.e., possibly stress the amp or overwhelm speaker drivers)

  • Any classical composition that includes both soloists and an orchestra
  • Half of the songs from Led Zeppelin
  • Sleigh Bells “Crown on the Ground” when it shifts to full-spectrum noise rock
  • Virtually the entire My Bloody Valentine “Loveless” noise rock album

Also see below regarding human-specific hearing sensitivities by frequency:

So many variables, and so many interactions…


I can’t see that this doesn’t happen in practice. I think of the differences in transducer design – different sizes of speakers, different stiffnesses of membranes, different amount of air moved. The effect of open or closed spaces, and mass of the transducer. Granted, I’m applying 50 year old lessons from loudspeakers to a much smaller space, and size may matter. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

And I wasn’t even considering the points made by @generic above with regard to power/headroom and human-specific considerations.

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Whoa excellent way to sum it up, I’ve always simplified it and spoken of Macrodynamics in regards to larger changes in decibels, some gear does well with larger dynamic shifts than smaller

This though… very well thought out! I’d love your permission to barrow this use of the term!

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Thanks. I’m flattered and can’t very well stop you! Please use it as you see fit.

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This is a good, and perhaps important thread. I’m sure we’re just scratching the surface, trying to define what the Macrodynamics are. Perhaps @ProfFalkin might have something to add.

I did check the Sennheiser HD-580 against the Stax and HiFiman, and there is less there there. We talk about “faster” headphones, and I don’t know if it’s the lightness of the diaphragm moving the air, or if it’s the strength or response of the field moving the diaphragm. (A top of the line dynamic may be qualitatively better at this than what I have available).

So what goes into making good macrodynamics? Stiffness of the diaphragm? Amount of travel? Evenness of force applied to it? What about ambient air pressure? Would my headphones sound better in Denver than in Baltimore? (at 3000m than at sea level). (This is not a commercial for recreational maryjane).


This is another quality post @pwjazz . It’s a very Interesting subject. So rather than Macrodynamics having much to do with detail it’s more about how the Dynamic range reacts to changes in volume. I am not sure I have put it correctly. But I think I know what your saying.

Sound from source and headphones changing with differing altitudes. It makes sense to me. Though that’s something I have never thought about. Unless you’re joking, which I don’t think you are.:slightly_smiling_face:

Certainly not joking. The Macrodynamics thread is interesting, and raises questions that I expect someone has thought about. While I am not going to be able to A/B headphones in two different altitudes, I can wonder about them. My intuition would say that the difference between dynamic and planars/electrostats would be less in thinner air.

We know that the difference in altitude has gross effects in other areas. Airport runways are longer. Internal combustion engines may be tuned differently and produce less power normally aspirated.


I agree. I wrote a satirical atmospheric explanation in the cheap IEM thread. It’s logical but perhaps lost in the physical changes we all experience at altitude.

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Again some great points. I am going to have to try kick start my brain and think about it for a while. Things like this are fascinating. Though I don’t possess a great scientific brain.