Maxims for Understanding and Describing Sound

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.


I’d love to see this expanded on by people explaining what they hear with different headphones. Take any song they like, using different headphones they have, but telling us what differences they hear… like at 2:01 you can hear a cymbal in the background, and at 2:06 hear a string vibrate while a finger slides down it. I’m not great at explaining what I mean here but I think it would be helpful so people know what to look for when giving impressions/reviews.

I did something like that (not as detailed) awhile ago on reddit, I was imbibing though (which could affect how things are heard, but I find whiskey and listening is a big part of my enjoyment). I wouldn’t mind reposting it and then maybe coming up with a newer version of it. where I test multiple headphones with singular songs/small playlist. Also it would be important to list your DAC/amp you are using because that will make a pretty big difference as well, from my understanding.

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Okay wow, this is something completely new to me, and it fundamentally changes the way I interpret what I hear. I have 100% noticed that turning up the volume on some of my headphones helps a lot with the bass, but I never really understood why until I read this. I thought that maybe the headphone drivers themselves needed more juice to render the bass better, but it might have just been my ears.

I would love to hear more on this. I wonder if there is any sense in standardizing volume levels for reviews, though people’s volume preferences are wildly varied.

Yeah, seriously, Volume matters (not sarcasm)… also the impedance of the different headphones you are using (volume matching is damn near impossible) that is why I think when people compare headphones it can get so “heated”. When I do my headphone swapping I do my best to start with the volume at nil and work up to comfortable listening volume before doing my attempted “critical” listening between headphones.

You know, in a way this knowledge makes it easier for me moving forward. If I know that there’s almost no chance that I can match the listening experience that someone else has, I can rely a lot more on my own interpretation at my comfortable volume.

Now that I think about it, a very useful guide to have would be one on “How to Find YOUR Best Sound”. Instead of just recommending one headphone or the other, it can account for each of the aspects that affect your listening experience.

  1. What are the parameters that affect sound?
  2. How to find a comfortable listening volume?
  3. Which tracks are the recommended to highlight different aspects of sound?
  4. Sound signatures
  5. Difficulty to drive
  6. Price bracket recommendations for each of the sound signature archetypes.

Like a set of exercises that you can go through for any headphone, at the end of which you will know if you really like it or not.


I have a constantly recurring question that almost applies to many of the posts here. How do you differentiate the music from the sound?

That is a critical listening to relaxed listening type of question for me. If I’m trying to be critical “Sound” is all the ambient things to the Music, I.E. fingers sliding on strings, thumping on wood, breath being exhaled/inhaled, shuffling of a body etc. Where as the music is “sound” put into melody, that you can lose yourself in. When you combine the two things it is capable of transporting you to a place, or allows for intimacy such as a singer singing “to” you. But that is like just my opinion, man! :wink:

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But “sound” can be a jackhammer or it can even be a negative thing as a lawnmower early on a Sunday when I am still wanting to sleep. What do we think when we put our headphones on. Is it a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of the technical or can we simply listen to the music or is it some constantly changing balance of the two.

My thoughts wood be the space between the notes

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the space between the notes can be looked at musically or technically(equipment). How do we find a balance?

I think that for me, I put headphones on to relax and enjoy music. Where as “sound” jackhammer, mower everyday noise is life and chaos. I can put headphones on and make the chaos lessen/disappear and just relax and listen to the music. Or at times I will catch a “sound” in the music, and I’ll then chase it trying to find out what it was/is, which then turns into a critical listen for me (not that I’m a critical listener) :smile:

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good answer but much of the discussion here focuses on the technical versus the musical. Do headphone enthusiasts place too much emphasis on the technical?

Oh yeah, that is a deep dive…I would say that as a fan of technology in general, that a big part of the enjoyment for me in this hobby is seeing how technology is improving with headphones/amps/DACs, mostly because I think they are more or less perfected to some degree, for example HD600 considered one of the best current headphones to get…were released in the 90s… most of the headphones we see are just refinements of old tech, that is either still good enough/or isn’t surpassed yet. Another aspect is aesthetics and the beauty of a thing matter also… I got off topic…

On scope… yes I would say it is easy to focus on the technical when you’re on these sites, but I think everyone is in the hobby primarily to enjoy to the best of their abilities/income/etc the listening of music. It is in the course of writing down your thoughts that you begin to get maybe too technical in how you are describing what you are hearing. It is like whiskey/wine sommeliers in a way they can get a lil too haute for their own good :wink: sometimes it is best to just say, if you like it, than that is all that matters, and anyone that tells you different, can go piss into the wind :wink:


This may be off topic a bit but I listened today to a recording of Bruckner 9th/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski/ Minnesota Orchestra/Reference Recording label and I listened to the HDCD level and it happened to be through my standard speaker/amp/preamp setup(not my headphones). It was … OMG. I kept on raising the volume to get to a satisfactory(very good) sound quality. I don’t think I have ever had to raise the volume so much on all my other CD’s. Raising the volume became a noticeable issue.

Critical listening reminds me of music practice, which can be tedious and involve musically uninteresting sounds like scales, but ultimately serves to enhance the experience of the music’s final performance. I don’t enjoy critical listening, but it helps me better understand my gear so that I can do things like:

  1. Pick the right headphone for listening
  2. Create useful equalizer presets for different situations
  3. Settle on a comfortable and safe volume that’s also enjoyable
  4. Figure out which sources meet my needs in terms of sound, tweakability and convenience

I find that the effort of critical listening has paid off by bringing me to a listening setup that allows me to throw on my headphones and immediately and without much thought start enjoying music at the drop of a hat.


That’s an interesting way to look at it. Regarding equalizer presets, how often do you switch? Per song? Per artist? Per genre?

That sounds like a useful expansion of The Ultimate Headphone Test. I would also suggest that a useful output from this process would be equalizer settings/convolution files that capture a person’s unique hearing profile and preferences.

It occurs to me that someone should make a headphone-centric audio player program that includes wizards for discovering your own preferences and tweaking the environment to the user’s needs. This could include stuff like:

  1. ABX testing different file encodings to find the smallest file size that still sounds great to the user (and then automatically transcoding to that whenever importing new music).
  2. Generating equalizer profiles, ideally even volume-sensitive ones (the ADI-2 DAC actually includes this sort of thing with its “Loudness” feature, but it would be neat to have in-software

I don’t switch that often. I have a basic preset that works most of the time. For certain recordings it can sound a little veiled, in which case I’ll turn it off. Sometimes I just feel like more bass (highly mood dependent), so I’ll switch to a preset for that.

It did, however, take me a fair amount of critical listening and tweaking to arrive at this preset, and it does evolve a bit over time.

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That’s easily overlooked. Thanks for highlighting its importance. I think it also matters what time of the day we do our critical listening, i.e. AM, PM vs. mid-day.