¿What is detail retrieval?

Hello friends!!!

In the course of this hobby I have come across many reviews and opinions about this description, which have not been clear to me, particularly I am a user with a reduced budget, from my experience I have come to notice very detailed details and to such an extent identify more complex areas, all this with the same gear, it will be a placebo effect, distortion in the connection or that the headphones and the DAC / AMP sound better than before, I don’t know.

I hope that you will help me formulate the concept “detail retrieval” based on your experiences and that the above is not confusing it with something else…

Greetings to all with a good weekend.


Interesting question, might mean different things to different listeners.

On the “Chesky Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc” the very first track “When the Saints Go Marching In”, can you focus in on each individual instrument when all are playing in unison, can you follow one of the instruments to the exclusion of the others, and can you hear and keep track of all 6 players simultaneously as well. Notice how the high hat cymbal strikes at the end of the drum solo lose intensity with each successive hit? These qualities may seem obvious but the more I listen (to any music) the more these aspects become clarified for me as a listener, up to a point. And when I evaluate a new piece of hardware I’m listening for those fine points And then there are those times when a new piece of hardware in your system suddenly reveals something you never heard before. But, that case could also be a factor of that new piece providing an emphasis in an area that wasn’t emphasized before, and that could be a right or wrong thing especially if it interferes with some other aspect of the sound to it’s detriment (to your way of hearing it).

On the second track “Don’t You” can you sense the bow strings “rubbing” on the cello bodies strings? Can you sense the vibration of the wood body. Does the violin have a “juicy” quality to its sound? How about Amber Rubarth’s voice? How about the hand slaps on the drum? How real do they sound?

I listen primarily to classical music (and acoustic jazz) which, in many cases, may utilize up to 100 musicians. How easily can I follow one instrument or group of the same instruments through the overall texture of the other instruments especially when all are playing in unison. Does the recording capture the air and space, the reverberant qualities, of the recording venue which are generally unique from one location to the next. Can I hear an occasional chair squeak, a page turn, a conductor shift his/her weight on the podium. Spotlight mics provide high-lighting of certain instruments and can vary from one recording to the next and can affect overall balances from one recording of the same work. These micro details are a quality of the recording captured by the engineers, and can vary with mic positioning, type of equipment used, producers/conductors expectations for a sound design, the acoustic qualities of the recording venue, and I’m sure there are other factors as well and is one reason why, along with interpretation and ensemble execution, classical listeners will generally have several different recordings of their favorite works.

(An Aside: I have read that some composers of classical music, especially large orchestral compositions, don’t score the music with the expectation that every instrument will be clearly heard at all times. Sometimes instrument(s) are employed to provide a sense of weight, color, atmosphere, rather than being obviously, there.)

With popular genres, usually a recording release is a once and done, plus maybe a “live” performance recording. Perhaps someone else more knowledgeable in popular genres could better answer this. But I think the rules are still the same; if you know how many players are involved and is it a studio or “live” recording, what are the finer details you hear with repeated listening? And with a live performance recording how well do the balances bring out everything there is to hear?

The more times you listen to a recording, the more familiar you should become, and the more fine details you should be able to hear, up to a point. And here is where your playback equipment becomes a determinant as well. And then there is the psychological side to music and listening to it, there are many books on the subject.

I’m not sure if my answer helps you or not, but that’s my take.

Happy Listening


Hello Johathan,
Welcome to The Headphones.com forum!

Your question on detail retrieval stems from coming “across many reviews and opinions.” Which would yield congruent variations of the word’s meanings. That which is conveyed, is determined by context. For example the context that you provided in your example was in regards to reduced budget gear in identifying complex areas. When I read this, my mind takes me to the extreme left consisting of $100 amplifiers and $100 DACs. The selection of these pieces of gear will determine how the headphone paired with them will perform and perhaps to some an effect on detail retrieval. However, in your context provided you have related detail retrieval with placebo, distortion and gear changing over time. This is all very important to your formulation of what detail retrieval is because you are working within your realm of experience within a specific selection of gear. Your experience will only be the same as someone that is using the same gear, with the same headphones, yet different in terms of preferences, different tastes, and variances in physical anatomy. Your understanding of, and your concept of audible characteristics to describe audio experience is unique to you, and mine to me. This is where the magic of the forum shines. When you share that experience and I experience your realm of experience through written words. What I gain from your words are insights into different perception of audio and gear in a new and unique manner.

To begin with, my formulation of the concept of detail retrieval is based heavily on what other’s have lead me to understand it in forums. It has also been formulated through my experiences with my gear. Most of this has been through gear that is around $500 each, and nothing over $1,200. This has created a meaning that is different from someone that is using $100 pieces of gear and someone that is using $10,000 of gear. The person with $10,000 per piece of gear will be describing detail within detail that I have not yet experienced. The person with $100 gear, I can relate to and can share some of their experience.

As for detail retrieval in my realm of audio experiences, it is my ability to reproduce as much information from a recording through selection of gear. As FLTWS has pointed out, this is not limited to hearing one instrument in a given moment, such as the ring of a triangle within a massive complex movement from a large sea of orchestra, but also to the nuances of reproduction by the associated gear being used. For me, this is heavily based on spatial cues. Whether it be placebo or distortion as you have brought up, does not matter that much to me, however, yes, I enjoy understanding technical influences upon the final produced sound and how I might incorporate this into future equipment selection.

One thing that I have not yet been able to find, is gear from a lower level tier that can outperform gear from a higher level tier. I have always thought that I would find this unicorn, however the market has priced gear accordingly by performance. I attribute much of this to the forums in which our sharing of quality and value has placed a foundation to pricing that must be followed or the item quickly fails to succeed in the market. In terms of detail retrieval of reduced budget gear, there is a reduced limit to what can be achieved. Nevertheless, it can still be a very enjoyable one. Of my $100 gear, I am able to reproduce detail from recordings by focusing on spatial cues which are predominantly found in the high frequencies of inexpensive gear. The Beyerdynamic DT880 which is valued at $120 to me, can reproduced a huge amount of high frequencies compared to other headphones in this price range. I am able to hear individual instruments more and spatial cues that are related to high frequency with this setup. However, with most amplifiers, the DT880 produces an abundance of piercing treble that most would not enjoy. So, with careful selection I have determined that the Monoprice Liquid Spark $100 amplifier is able to both tame some of the highs and to reproduce some of the quality sound approaching realism and performance of slightly higher priced gear. Again, whether or not placebo or distortion play into this or not, I am not sure. However, the resulting produced sound is very pleasing and detailed when listened to at reasonable volume.


The detailed is captured by the recording, so, I personally don’t believe a headphone is detailed, but rather the transducer has a certain level of clarity that allows the listener to hear the detail better. The amp and DAC can contribute to the ability to add or subtract the level of clarity, but nothing will effect it more than the headphone.

In my opinion, detail retrieval applies more to the mics and recording equipment used to capture the music and the ambience & acoustics of the recording space. I.e. are they retrieving and/or capturing everything being produced by the instruments, voices and acoustics in the recording space. A headphone’s job is to playback the signal accurately and clearly; some do a much better job than others, though.



at first, no when I began this hobby I went from drug store Panasonic and sony headphones to a Sennheiser hd650 the amount of music discovered in music I thought i knew was amazing. but then, I played around the mid-fi area (under $1000) and noticed about the same level of detail but they offered different tunings. after reading reviews I took the next leap hd800s and yes, there was more, more soundstage more detail, and more critical. (hd800s will make you hate badly produced music) but so will a lot of the headphones in that space (over $1000). all in all the placebo effect does happen will dealing with closely related cans
(under) to name a few hd650, fostex elex, he-4xx, hd6xx. (over) fostex radiance, hd800s, Lcd-x. I only mention the headphones here because Dac/amp and combos present about the same rabbit hole. (i was very generalized here more money does not always mean better headphones or equipment)
if here as a hobby enjoy the ride and all of the nuanced differences you’ll find in the journey if looking for that final end of the line purchase Good Luck and be careful…


A headphone can’t supply more detail than exists on the recording but it can supply less.

There could be something like a low volume shaker or bell that won’t be heard on some headphones but will be heard on others.

This is an example of one headphone providing more detail than another.


I prefer to call it providing better clarity so that you can hear the detail easier (because the detail, or bell in your example, is already present on the recording). Or, the FR is simply cleaner in that area. So, less clear or more clear, but not really more or less detailed.

IMHO most of it comes down to tuning emphasis, volume and distortion.

Tuning Emphasis - Whenever I switch back and forth between two headphones with distinctly different tunings, for example a DT 1990 and an LCD2C, I immediately notice some details that I hadn’t noticed before. If I switch back and listen for those same details, I can still hear them, but they’re less emphasized. For example, on the DT 1990, thanks to the broad treble elevation, cymbals and hi-hats really stand out, with lots of brilliance and just a ton of detail all around. On the LCD2C by comparison, thanks to the emphasis around 1KHz and the relatively high amount of upper treble, I can much more easily hear the room, with a great sense of reverb and air. Which one seems more “detailed” really depends on which details I’m interested in.

Volume and Distortion - Most headphones I’ve listened to sound more detailed the louder I listen, as long as the headphones or the chain don’t start distorting. Low distortion planar magnetic headphones tend to be amazing at this. If I turn up my HE6SE to really loud levels, it just murders me with detail. And this is where tuning comes in again. Full size Audeze cans like the LCD2C have a big dip in the presence region and great bass and treble extension. That dip in the presence region makes it easy to turn up the volume really high without the sound getting shouty or overly aggressive, at which point you get to hear tons of detail across most of the frequency spectrum. Of course, this comes at the cost of ear health.

By contrast, Sennheiser 6__ series headphones don’t have the Audeze upper mid dip, if anything they’re overemphasized there, so they clearly present a lot of that midrange information even at lower listening volumes. But, they do so at the cost of less impressive bass and treble detail. I also find that I can’t really crank the volume on them very high because their bloomy and relatively distorted bass becomes distracting and the strong presence region becomes fatiguing. This kind of sound profile tends to work well for more extended, lower volume listening sessions, and sounds much more “speaker-like”, for better or for worse.


In my experience, detail retrieval (also “resolution”) generally lives 2 places:

1 - the ability to reproduce complex layered passages in such a way that each instrument or layer of sound is distinctly audible
2 - instrument timbre & spacial cues in well recorded well mastered music are reproduced in such a way that they sound lifelike. Lesser drivers, not capable of the highest level of detail retrieval, fall short of “lifelike”. It’s in the tiniest most minute almost subconscious details of a recording that the “lifelike-ness” of the sound lives.

Also I’m convinced that detail retrieval, aka resolution, is mostly about speed, i.e. how fast the driver can react and recover.


But isn’t speed another way of looking at high frequency response? If a headphone has a flat FR to, say, 20khz then the driver must be able to move at a resolution of 1/20,000 of a second aka 0.05 ms with the appropriate amplitude.


No. It’s not high frequency response. It includes things like capturing attack. My feeling about speed is that you need to listen to an electrostatic headphone to understand it ( or at least to have your nose rubbed in it ). While some planars are quick, almost all estats are- even older ones and those lacking bass.

Listen to classical or flamenco guitar or even The Other Side (Dire Straits- Bros in Arms) and pay attention to the initial sound of the strings. In flamenco also listen to the initial sound and the decay of the castanets.

The above are fast sounds that do not have much to do with high frequency.


I always figured “speed” was related to spectral decay and impulse response. What causes it, though? Maybe driver excursion in DD designs and how fast it starts and stops moving plays a role; for planar, similar but how fast it starts and stops vibrating? Driver material is likely a part of it. Mad Economist and Oratory would be better references reguarding this, and also Resolve.

To my ears, details follow from driver speed, dampening, and the frequency potential dictated by construction/technology. Per my testing:

  • HD 600: Drivers are fast, light, and responsive, but made from plastic and relatively undampened. They sound bright and scratchy on a noisy amp/DAC. They are smooth but “hollow and boom boxy” on a suitable chain per the inherent frequency character of the plastic drivers. I’ve never found a way to make mine generate crystal highs and spaciousness or truly deep bass.

  • HD 6XX: Drivers have a pre-loaded bias (or dampened) to be bass heavy but treble light. They thereby cannot reach the potential of the 600 in reproducing details, but also avoid its worst failings on bad chains. They sacrifice details not through reduced speed (i.e., with technology very similar to the HD 600), but lose details with an anti-treble tuning. As with the 600, the drivers limit their potential high and low extension. You cannot hear details in frequencies that the drivers cannot reproduce.

  • Koss Porta Pro and Beyer DT 880 (600 ohm): These both exhibit similar characteristics to my ears, as both outclass more expensive products in the middle frequency range. They also have limited bass (i.e., nothing at all) and a tendency to generate piercing treble artifacts. As such, both are fully undampened and reveal what happens when one turns up the details as much as possible with modest driver technology. The 880 in particular can “reveal” stunning vocal and acoustic instrument details that escape other products – they are smooth, creamy, and nuanced. However, I’m using a pad swap plus EQ to control the treble issues. The 880 then beats the Clear and is neck-and-neck with the HD 800 S in the mid range only.

  • Focal Elex: Per @Nuance, their dynamic drivers sound “heavy” to me, as if they have a hard time getting going and a hard time stopping. They thereby exaggerate the volume differences far beyond most other headphones. This creates punch and a sense of separation or “dynamic detail retrieval” at the expense of nuance (but not at the expense of @Nuance, he he).

  • Focal Clear: These functionally extend the HD 600 profile to higher and lower frequencies, and the metal drivers better control noise than the 600. The drivers seem much lighter, faster, and more responsive than the Elex, with a delivery that balances speed, frequency range, and dynamics. When compared to other $1K+ headphones, they generate tons of noise or haze. However, this isn’t noticeable without A/B testing or when compared to anything in higher quality tiers.

  • Focal Utopia: They cross the dynamics of the Elex with the nuances of the HD 800 S and Clear. As such, all the “detail” knobs are turned to maximum while noise is minimized. Ironically, they then become prone to generating unpleasant treble artifacts akin to the Porta Pro or DT 880 – but seemingly through technology that outclasses production hardware and thereby reveals flaws that were never heard in the studio. “Did I really want to focus on how far the mic was shoved down the singer’s throat? Uggg!”

  • HD 800 S: This has some characteristics of the HD 600 and takes a different path in “details” than the Utopia. Instead of tightly controlled volume differences, one gets exaggerated width and staging. Flatter dynamics but wider, especially as the volume increases. As with the HD 600 and Clear, it’s much easier to hide artifacts as air or hiss than with the unforgiving and stabby Utopia.

I’ll get there someday.


Oratory’s input:

I think we’re starting to blur the distinction between a transducer’s speed and the perception of speed when listening through the the headphones. I was only addressing the former. I agree that the sense of speed and/or detail is not sufficiently explained by the headphones measured high frequency response (or impulse response or distortion for that matter).


Yep I have. I will check out your recommended music through them, thanks!


Hello, thanks for your great contribution, it helped me a lot, that all the parts are so essential and necessary to carry the escalation of perception, determining where the limitations of each part of the chain are.
Excuse me, I will have more composers that I can share where I can locate more singer-songwriters grounded in the atmosphere as you mentioned at the beginning, I would also like books on the subject to cultivate in my hobby.
Thanks in advance, greetings.

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Hello, an authentic perception of seeing things, regardless of whether budgets are something that limits us for some and that is where, as you say, this wonderful hobby comes in, we all learn from everyone and we bond with their experiences and empathies, I think I suppose that in My understanding is a perception that is normally already included in the chain and that our brain when calibrating in so much listening and pause comes the right moment to show the clarity of what started in the beginning, everything more detailed, articulated, clean in favor of everything what is in the recording, for this I have tested with an Akg 702, sennheiser hd600 and tried a hd800, apogge groove, chord mojo, some in ear, all the ie series of sennheiser, shure se425 and others, I hope in the future to be able to update my chain and see more panoramas.
Thank you for your help, Greetings !!!

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Hello, it can be a fact that everything that is lost in the recording by any system is recovered when passing through an electrodynamic conductor with more advanced geometry. I could consider it as microdynamic and macrodynamic, would you agree?

Hello, I also thought that money is not a determining factor, but to a certain extent, how expensive is a very particular niche that once experienced you do not return to the above, however the basics do not take away from you the beauty of the musical essence.

Hello, … but it would be your technical capacity that determines this increase in nuances,
I have a colleague who mentioned that with a song two models of headphones sounded very even, but when I change the recording I notice a great change in technicalities and timbres, he did it with a Sprint 2 and an Audio 64 tia trio and a commercial genre with a classic one and flamenco.
Cheers !!!