As an audiophile, I derive enjoyment not just from listening to music but also from dissecting the experience to learn more about the music, myself and my equipment, and I ultimately enjoy sharing my impressions and what I’ve learned with fellow audiophiles.
I’ve been at this hobby for less than a year and have learned enough to know that there’s a lot left to learn. A lot of my learning so far comes from reading reviews and from occasional nuggets of wisdom buried in comment threads.
Though I know little, collectively we know a lot and I’d like to capture that knowledge in a single place and in a usable format. Please share your insights, tips, techniques and tools about how to listen, understand what we hear and describe it in a way that helps others understand. Similar to the compilation in Head-Fi’s Describing Sound - A Glossary, I’ll update this opening comment to summarize.
I think it would be fun to organize this as a set of short maxims, but if you have something to share that doesn’t fit that format please share it anyway!
Know your Frequencies
Take a look at this Interactive Frequency Chart to learn about frequency ranges in general and in particular how specific frequencies relate to the qualities of sound of commonly used instruments.
You Can Only Hear What’s There
One of my favorite headphones are the Beyerdynamic DT 1990. Their frequency response includes a very prominent treble peak at around 8 kHz.
Some people find the peak absolutely intolerable (me), some don’t mind it and some find that it depends on the recording, with the general sentiment being that the treble peak is mostly an issue on poorly mastered/overly hot recordings.
The thing of it is, while 8 kHz doesn’t seem that high (heck, we can hear to 20 kHz, right?) it’s actually pretty high relative to much of the frequency content in music. Some recordings have a fair amount of content at and above 8 kHz, but some don’t. A good example of two such recordings are The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Jean Sibelius’ “Violin Concerto in D Minor”. When I listen to “Hotel California”, I use the EQ to bring down the treble peak and the rest of the treble too. Listening to the concerto, my EQ settings don’t seem to make much of a difference to me. Why is that?
Here’s a spectrum plot for about 2 minutes from “Hotel California”:
And for comparison, here’s a plot of about 2 of the louder minutes from the concerto:
Notice how “Hotel California” still contains considerable information at 8000 Hz and even past that. The concerto by comparison is already quite rolled off by 8000 Hz and continues to roll off from there.
So, if you’re listening for something like a high treble peak, make sure your source material actually has stuff going on up there!
Volume Matters (A Lot!)
Headphones’ frequency response doesn’t tend to vary much by volume (someone correct me if I’m wrong about this), but our perception of their frequency response varies quite a bit due to equal loudness contours. Human hearing is dramatically more sensitive in the midrange than in lower and higher frequencies, and this distinction grows even greater at lower volumes as shown on this chart.
If one person hears a headphone as neutral and another person hears that same headphone as v-shaped, it may very well be due to them listening at different volumes. Take the frequencies of 100 Hz (bass) vs 4000 Hz (high mids) for example. On the above chart, on the 50 phon line, these frequencies are about 20 dB apart. On the 70 phon line, the difference decreases to about 15 dB. So, turning up the volume by 20 dB effectively applies a +5 dB EQ to the bass.
In practice, when trying different headphones, this may play out as preferring different headphones at different volumes. For example, if I tend to prefer a v-shaped signature, I’ll probably end up turning up the volume on relatively neutral headphones to bring out the bass and treble whereas I’ll be perfectly happy with v-shaped headphones at lower volumes. To add to the confusion, my preferences may vary by genre so that I’ll prefer some music louder and some quieter.
Give Yourself Time to Evaluate and Compare Components (by @pennstac)
Volume Matters. Back in the day, when I haunted Hi-Fi shops, it was difficult to match volume levels of speakers. It was also known - and used by less than honest salespeople, that in an AB comparison, most people will choose the slightly louder speaker as sounding better.
The standard advice to avoid this trap applies equally to headphones. DO NOT do AB style comparisons. Listen to each source separately for a reasonable amount of time, and vary the volume level occasionally while listening.
Try to keep the same source material and setup and change out only the component you are evaluating. This way you will be able to note the differences between the headphones and eventually decide which one you like. With headphones, it’s even more critical, as comfort is as important as sound.