01 Episode: What’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
Hello, fellow audio nerds. This is the first article in a series of weekly articles called, “What’s the deal with…” where I work through some of the common questions I hear audiophiles ask. This week, I’m addressing the different words audiophiles and reviewers use when they are talking about the sound of different products. So, what’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
Before getting into it.. In order to understand the audiophile terminology, you must understand a few objective definitions:
Frequency Response: the range of bass, mid, and treble of a sound system (20Hz- 20kHz is the range of human hearing, although frequencies above and below that range can affect the frequencies within human hearing if they’re harmonically related)
Transient Response: the ability of a sound system to reproduce sudden peaks in audio energy
What is Audiophile Terminology?
Articulating the sensations we experience of sound is hard. Not only is it hard to describe to oneself, but then translating that for another person to understand is even more difficult. My experience with this terminology has been less of a mastery, and more like an acceptance and an adaptation to the ever changing nature of it among peers, professionals, and our agreed upon understandings of each other, just like all language.
In the audiophile world, there are a few pieces of terminology that tend to stick around. From living and communicating in this world and in the professional recording and mixing world, I’ve adapted these words into my vocabulary, often mindlessly. Sometimes, though, this results in a “jargon-like” gobbledegook that confuses my non-technical friends.
So let’s go through a few of the most common pieces of audiophile terminology. I’ll do my best to explain what they mean in a more objective sense so that less is lost in translation.
Boost/Cut – What’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
When I mention a Boost or a Cut, I’m referring to the the relative levels of frequency information. For example, if a headphone has really heavy bass frequencies, I might describe that as having a boosted bass or a bass boost. Or if a headphone has sort of a smiley face curve… wow… that’s another piece of terminology… see how deep this goes? If a headphone has a lot of bass and a lot of highs, the midrange, relative to the lows and highs, is quieter right? I might describe that as a midrange cut.
I think of it this way because of my background in audio engineering. It’s the type of terminology we use when we’re EQing an instrument. For example, “i’m going to cut a little bit of the lows on this acoustic guitar because there’s too much bass, but let me boost some of the highs so I can hear more finger noise on the fretboard .” Boosting and cutting refers to manipulation of the sound as-is, and that’s how I think of headphones and speakers. Each one manipulates the sound differently. Sometimes, they don’t manipulate it much at all, but that objective truth is a sound signature among other possible sound signatures so it is worth noting.
Dark/Bright – What’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
In a general sense, Darkness and Brightness refers to the amount of high frequency information. As you might imagine, darkness refers to a lack of high frequencies and brightness refers to an abundance of high frequencies.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Think of a camera. By adjusting the settings on the camera, you can make the image look overexposed with brightness, or shrouded in shadows? Sometimes, this use of changing the amount of light coming through the camera is an artistic choice. The photographer might choose to take an image that has less light because it will relay a feeling of mysteriousness. Sometimes they might blow out the image with light so that, while having less details at the bright spots, will convey a sense of extremity.
The same can be said for headphones and earphones and how they represent high frequencies. Some headphones want to brighten the high frequencies so that cymbals, vocal breath, and strings come through with a certain character. It may not sound realistic per say, but it will affect the music in a particular way that will make it aesthetically pleasing for some folks. Likewise, some headphones want to darken the high frequencies so the cymbals and strings come through in a different sort of aesthetic way. Brightness and Darkness are preferences, and different headphones have different aims depending on the type of aesthetic they’re trying to convey.
Thick/thin – What’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
Thickness and Thinness refer to the presence of low-mid frequency information or not. If there is a lot of low-mid frequencies, the sensation that comes through is a sense of thickness or fullness or body. If there is a deliberate lack of low-mid information, that sensation is thinness, fragility, weakness, or smallness.
For example, one thing we all know of that is and will always be consistently thin sounding is speaking on the telephone. Think of how your best friend or partner sounds in person. Compare that with how they sound on the phone. The lack of low-mid frequencies in the phone call leaves a thin, almost nasally sound that is extremely easily identifiable. If I were to play you a recording of a phone call versus a recording of a normal voice, you’d know right away.
Sometimes headphones have a lack of low-mid energy, and a similar sensation comes through. It might not be as drastic as the phone call metaphor, but it is noticeable compared to how you’d expect certain instruments to sound. One good example is when you listen to electric guitars. Many times, mixers and musicians dial in their electric guitar tones to have a lot of body and come through with a sensation of power. On the flip side, thin electric guitars sound smaller yet pokier. They don’t carry as much weight, but they do cut through an otherwise thick mix. Perhaps their role in a recording is not to provide bigness, but rather to stand out as a solo. Just like brightness and darkness, thickness and thinness can be used as an aesthetic tool. And similarly again, it can also be done poorly.
Warmth – What’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
Warmth is a somewhat controversial word. It’s meaning sometimes sparks disagreement, but I’ll do my best to express the way I use the word. To me, warmth is a combination of a dark-leaning frequency response that happens to be thick and a smooth transient response.
For example, let’s think back to our camera analogy. Think of a somewhat dark picture. It has more shadows than accents, but has lighted accents all the same. The brightness of those accents aren’t pure white, but instead, light grey. Now, imagine the contrast tool. Moving the contrast tool greater will make the light parts lighter and the dark parts darker, so the difference between them is extreme. Likewise, moving the contrast tool lesser will make the darker parts closer in tone to the lighter parts. This contrast lessening is how I think of a slow-ish dynamic response.
So this combination of a darkish, thick sound, with a lack of contrast between the super loud and super quiet parts of a hit creates this sense of smoothness, a sense of thick syrupy warmth. It might make the separation between instruments less extreme, but it ties the sound together into a homogeneous sauce of sound (for better or worse). Many times, folks will say describe older albums recorded to tape or playing back on a vinyl record as warm. Again, this is an aesthetic tool that is sometimes used well and sometimes not.
Overview – What’s the deal with audiophile terminology?
Overall, the nature of language is that it shifts over time. The words we use with our peers, our mentors, in our professions, are the words that we use for now. They are subject to change. Although this sometimes makes it difficult to follow along, ultimately it is with the goal of a more complete understanding of the world of sound around us.
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