Describing What We Hear

Describing Flaws in Freq Response

We have all been in hundreds of discussions centering on a description of “what we heard” – usually to evaluate the quality of a given system, component, mix, or piece of music. And we’ve all been alternately mesmerized and frustrated by the unusual things that we read and hear, such as:

  • “Where’s the air? The music has no air or sense of space!”
  • “God that’s sweet and syrupy. Makes me want to cry.”; or
  • “There’s just more ‘there’ there!” (with emotion)

Perhaps we’ve even used these phrases ourselves.

But what do they mean? Is there any logic at play?

The chart above attempts to better quantify these statements, at least for their frequency domain manifestations. The shaded horizontal frequency axis extends from 20hz on the left to 12Khz on the right.

(Note: I’ve encountered this illustration several times in my reading, and I can’t recall the source. Sorry about the poor image quality – not my doing. Click on the picture to see a bigger version!)

Let me explain…

The way that you read the chart is to visualize the frequency response as “bulging” from neutral in the direction of the label. The peak of the bulge corresponds to the label, and the width of the bulge to the width of the lines on either side of the label. For you techies, I’m describing the magnitude and Q of a notch filter.

This is perhaps best understood by examples:

  • When we describe a system as “edgy,” we mean that it’s upper midrange and lower treble (4Khz-5Khz) have a moderate peak.
    • “Edgy” systems have a taller and less wide elevation than “bright” systems.
  • Similarly, a system is “thin” if it’s overall bass response is slightly low.
  • And perhaps the most severe bass defect is “muddy,” which is a large, narrow peak in the 200-300hz region.

Pretty neat, eh?

It is neat as far as it goes, but this method of describing sound is flawed. First off, hardly anybody knows about it, let alone agrees with it. Second, it may be inaccurate or incomplete (e.g., are there other ways that bass can sound “muddy”?). Lastly, the time domain is entirely ignored. So we can’t use this chart to describe a “slow” interconnect that we just heard.

But I applaud the effort at consistency. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008 Bob, General

1 Comment to Describing What We Hear

  1. I agree with your definitions. Also I have struggled with describing what I hear, particularly several years ago when I wrote an article on evaluating hearing aids for Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity.

    You might find the article interesting as I had to establish listening and evaluation criteria. See the following URL:

    http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/volume_13_2/hearing-aids-6-2006-part-1.html

  2. wasa on March 11th, 2008
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