Thursday, May 5, 2011

Which Headphones To Buy? - Part II: Sound Signature

Ever get confused by the language that wine connoisseurs use when describing high-priced wines? Terminology for niche products such as expensive wines, computers, and even headphones are indeed necessary to describe subtle but important differences; many users unaware of such attributes may overlook these nuances.

Headphones are one of these products. Every headphone has a different sound signature, almost like a wine has a unique taste regardless if it falls into larger categories such as Red Wines or White Wines.

There is a lot of jargon within the audiophile community involving sound signatures in headphones, but today I wish to clarify some of these terms in order to make it easier for you to purchase the headphone that is right for you.

Many headphone sound signatures can be compared through a Frequency Response Curve. However, this does not ultimately reveal what the sound signature of the headphone is--it is more of a glimpse into how the headphone may sound.

Headphones fall into three large categories, after which other attributes follow a hierarchical structure or a branch structure. All of these main categories have strengths and weaknesses.

These three main categories are the following:

1) A "Colored" sound; this sound signature means that the headphone is taking in the audio signal and is manipulating what the audio input is telling the headphone. The end result is either a bassier sound, a "brighter" sound which emphasizes vocals more or instruments more, or simply a "clearer" sound. Colored headphones tend to "Wow" at first but may reveal flaws such as a muddy bass response or a lack of a realistic vocal range. However, colored headphones are usually the most popular headphones due to their initial "Wow" factor.

Some examples of colored headphones are: Bose QuietComfort, Dr. Dre Beats, Skullcandy headphones. Personally, I do not enjoy colored headphones at all.

2) An "Analytical" sound; this sound signature is usually associated with a large amount of clarity in the headphone. Even the tiniest details and nuances can be heard, such as pages being turned in a classical music symphony, or the sound of air rushing through the vocal chords of a singer before words come out. However, this analytical sound tends to be weak on a "musical" presence. Cohesiveness of the audio is sometimes a flaw in analytical sound signatures.

Some examples of analytical headphones are: Etymotic ER-4P, Shure SRH840. I enjoy analytical headphones from time to time.

3) A "Neutral" sound; this sound signature is what audiophiles usually lean towards. A neutral sound signature takes the audio signal and barely touches it. What the headphone strives towards is an accurate reproduction of what was recorded, not bass boost or a treble boost. Neutral headphones are usually harder to tune properly by the manufacturer due to the ear's natural tendency to hear different frequencies at different volumes. A decent neutral headphone will have a very clear sound and a "musical" enjoyment to it. However, neutral headphones are usually said to be "uninvolving" or not enjoyable due to there being no "fun factor" in listening to the headphone.

Some examples of neutral headphones are: AKG K702 , Sennheiser HD600 & HD800, Beyerdynamic DT-880. I am a big fan of neutral headphones and use them often.

The Etymotic ER-4P is famous for its analytical sound signature and extremely detailed sound quality.

Again, all of these sound signatures have strengths and benefits. However, after listening to many headphones it is easier to tell which sound signature suits your tastes. For example, I prefer neutral headphones with a touch of an analytical sound signature and a slightly warm midrange.

If you have the opportunity to visit a Head-fi meet where users bring many headphones and amplifiers, you will have an easier time understanding which sound signature is right for you. usually has several headphone meets every year, and some may be very close to your location! (For me, there was one in New York City so it was right where I was located). If you can't go to a head-fi meet, then it is good to try out many headphones at a department store or an electronics store. Usually a big name manufacturer like Sennheiser has its own "house sound" which tends to remain the same across their different models, changing slightly. So by trying out many different brands, you will expose yourself to different "house sounds" and it will then be easier to make your final decision.

Certain genres also tend to have good synergy with specific sound signatures. For example, Pop music tends to pair well with Colored Sound Signatures or Analytical Sound Signatures. Jazz and Classical tend to pair well with Neutral and Analytical Sound Signatures. Hip-Hop tends to pair well with Colored Sound Signatures. However, a very good headphone will usually sound OK with any genre, regardless of the headphones' sound signature. It may not make that genre sound as good as it can be, but it will produce a sound that is certainly satisfactory.

The Sennheiser house sound is enjoyed by many. It is described as a "laid back" sound signature with a warm mid-range and a deep bass response that is not overpowering. The Sennheiser HD 650, pictured above, requires a good headphone amplifier to bring out its true potential.
Source: WikiMedia Commons

It is important to note that so far we have only covered the three major categories for headphone sound signatures. Each of these categories can be further broken down more precisely in terms of how they actually produce sounds in certain frequency ranges, but I will save that for a future post.

To summarize, every headphone has a unique sound signature that tends to fall into one of three main categories. These categories are: colored, analytical, and neutral. Depending on your tastes, some of these sound signatures will sound OK to you will others may not be satisfactory. However, a large portion of this depends on what genre of music you are listening to on the headphone, as well as your personal expectations of the sound.

Nevertheless, if you do plan on purchasing headphones, it is well worth your time to research and try out different headphones to find out which sound signature suits you--it will save you money, time, and the frustration involved in purchasing the right headphone for you.

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