What is "Detail"?

Probably the most controversial aspect about sound in headphones, so I’m curious to hear what people interpret as “detail” in the sound of their headphones.

My own take on this is that “detail” is the sum of all technical qualities of the headphones. Each individual aspect; frequency response, transient response, macro/micro-dynamics, soundstage, imaging, timbre, harmonic saturation, layering, separation. Anything that isn’t “perfect”, detracts from the perceived sense of detail.

Thoughts? Different ideas? I’d love to hear what everyone thinks! Perhaps we can come closer to a consensus on what “detail” is.


To me, “detail” is about the hearing part, not how I got there. When I listen to say, six jazz musicians playing can I hear each individual musicians instrument by itself as well as all six simultaneously. With a large orchestral work there could be several different themes playing simultaneously and perhaps in different time signatures, can I pick them out? Is the recording itself good enough to let me do that or is some aspect blurring or homogenizing sounds? Is it intended to be that way or not by the composer? It’s about what I hear not the technical capabilities of the transducer, those are mechanical /electrical, technical details. Those technical details of the mechanics of the headphone /speaker, the electrical prowess of the chain of boxes and wires may or may not give an indication of what I might hear. But measurements and listening / hearing are not the same. And the reason we’re here is we know the measurements of those technical details never tells the whole story, they are just a possible indicator of what we might hear.


Thanks for your response! I think you and I mean the same thing, just described differently. When I mean “perfect”, I don’t mean what would measure to be perfect, but when the point is achieved where our ability to recognize that aspect of the sound disappears. When it’s not “impressively close” anymore, but “right there”. That is of course something that will be perceived differently by everyone, and is therefore as subjective as anything.


More detail refers to higher fidelity, higher resolution, greater focus. Using a digital photo as an analogy: additional detail refers to a 20 megapixel image versus a 1 megapixel image. A canvas print usually has less detail compared to a metal print. Pour over filtered coffee will have more clarity/detail compared to french press coffee.


But what if that 20 megapixel picture is blurry and the 1 megapixel is sharp?

I don’t overcomplicate it myself. My use of detail retrieval is very simple: how much can I hear and how distinct is it? Can I hear the pianist humming to himself, the birds chirping outside, the conductor’s baton? A number of factors contribute as already mentioned.


Detail is tricky because of auditory masking. If I have a hip hop recording with monster bass and there’s a relatively quiet whistling from one of the background singers, I might never hear that detail, but if I put a high-pass filter on it to cut out the bass all of a sudden it becomes audible. Likewise if I listen to the same track on a bass-light pair of headphones, that might reveal that “detail”, but is it fair to call those headphones “detailed”?

I think a fair subjective assessment of “detailed” would be something along the lines of “with the specific songs and genres that I listen to, X headphone allows me to hear the parts of the music that matter to me”.

When it comes to trying to objectively classify headphones as “detailed”, the best way I can think of for doing that is to look at harmonic distortion, which outside of low frequencies is typically low enough to not be much of an issue.

As a fun experiment, if you have a headphone that you consider to be less “detailed” than you like, try some EQ to drop 100-200 Hz, boost 1-2KHz or boost around 6KHz and see if it sounds any more or less detailed to you. From my experience, a lot of the stuff that I subjectively perceive as detail seems to be disproportionately affected by these frequencies.


True, I’ll be sure to bake in those assumptions next time – apples to apples and all else equal.

Your simple approach is workable.


I’ve experienced the same. Now I really want to hear your designed cans :+1:t3:


It just kinda depends on how you would hear it if you were there yourself. Auditory masking applies to the real world just as much, and the general perception of detail in audio reproduction is how realistic it sounds.

And indeed, frequency response contributes to that perception of detail for sure. I just feel like everything contributes to that perception of detail. You can hear all of the information, but if the presentation is dynamically compressed or otherwise presented in an unnatural way, that also reduces the sense of detail.

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I think detail is very simple. A driver with super short decay (as seen on a CD plot) will always be more detailed than one that has a longer time reaching the rest or zero position. A fast driver will always have better transients.

Do many companies lift part or all of the treble area to simulate detail? Sure. But that’s just perception, not reality.



This is why planar drivers are typically more detailed than dynamic drivers. The weight of the diaphragm is usually very small which allows it to respond faster to a signal. The diaphragm is also usually under tension so it retreats to the resting position faster.

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Posit: the gear that one can listen to at the lowest volume is likely the gear with one’s desired detail.


That would explain why I can always listen at relatively low volumes with the Sennheise HD6X0 series.


That emotional response is truly inspiring!


Macro-detail vs micro-detail.


level, macro details are imo short sounds that are relatively close to the average dB of the piece as a whole, having excessive odd harmonics and high frequency forwardness makes this stuff POP out

So hearing the strum of strings over the sound of “fretting” ideally I want to hear and appreciate both

Micro detail or transients are super short sounds that are below the average dB of the arrangement as a whole, NOT having excessive harmonics, odd or even, or upper-mid/top end emphasis in frequency response allows this detail to be discerned and heard more easily

I also sometimes consider “mechanical” sounds with heavy odd harmonics to be “macro” detail, as a lot of BRIGHT entry level “hi-fi” headphones shove a lot of these heavily mechanical details in your face, and they imo do that by having an elevated frequency response in the top end of the spectrum. The true micro detail that is heavily condensed in the mid and lower frequencies is very much masked by this Macro detail

Like a vocalist taking a breath detracting from your capability to both hear and discern the slight vibrato in what ever is being sung

An for me “detail” is what makes what ever I’m listening to “unique” so for example listening to two pieces of music performed by different artists at the same tempo and same average dB what will separate the two pieces is the detail

So like Jimmy Hendrix for example, he likes to throw super short tiny quiet little bends at the end of his riffs, I didn’t catch this detail till I got my RME adi2 and LCD 2 Prefazor, it was also… well discernible

Excess harmonics imo will cover over detail, or those super short but complex and unique harmonic profiles for a given sound.


Excellent take!

As with anything, more isn’t always better. It’s all about finding the right balance between different variables, calibrated to our own ears.

And then there is the circle of confusion, making it impossible for there to be any 1 headphone that is “perfect” for every single recording/production. Digitally produced music, or music recorded either in a studio or live, mixed/mastered in non-standardized ways by humans with imperfect judgement/hearing/monitoring systems. It all changes the “ideal balance between technical variables” to reach that hypothetical optimum. There is a general consensus on how detailed different headphones are, but that doesn’t mean that we should all individually agree with the consensus. That’s why we just have to use our own ears and trust your own judgement.


Yup, there is no perfect headphone for every single recording/production

HD 800 and 009 do different things and one works better for some recordings [mix-downs/masters/literally how it’s mic’d] another for others


I got back into hi-end phones in Jan 2016 after leaving the Stax world to focus on 2 channel in a dedicated listening room back in the 80’s. My first purchase in 2016 was the HD600 listened to on my Oppo 105D, that sent me down the rabbit hole on a new hi-fi quest in my downsized / retirement world. They were very good but a little warmer (sound and heat buildup wise) than I wanted and a not completely comfortable on my largish head and ears. After running thru a number of candidates I finally got round to auditioning the HD800.

Today the HD800 seems to be the elder statesman of high-end phones, but I still listen to it often and I have yet to wear a more comfortable pair of phones with the exception of some heat build up in the ear pocket. With an amplification chain that points up its strengths both it and the S model I now own offer me a different approach to enjoying my music along with my 1266 Phi, SR1a, and (recently sold) Utopia.

But as always, it starts with the specific qualities of the recording.

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