Sound Quality2020-06-01T17:17:55+01:00

The 3 Pillars of Good Sound Quality

Introduction to Good Sound Quality

If you are interested in good sound quality, this article aspires to help. My thanks must go to the outside assistance given by 4 professional designers and reviewers who have contributed and proof read the ideas included. This was necessary in a subject which can be confusing for a number of reasons which will become clear as you read.

At face value, good sound quality seems like an easy thing to evaluate. We say things like:

“I know what I like”

“My system sounds great”

“This item got a great review on sound quality”

“It’s either right or it’s wrong”

Most people want a system which gives you the feeling of “being there” at the original performance – of hearing the singers and instruments as if they were right there in the room in front of you.

In the process of both hearing and conducting many equipment auditions I have found that what seems simple is far from it! 

Origin Live has won around 20 “product of the year” awards for their designs. This article seeks to pass on and distill over 3 decades of professional listening experience into easy to understand concepts. 

  1. Things to watch out for when evaluating sound quality
  2. Knowing how people listen differently
  3. How to figure out your priorities in sound quality
  4. How reviews and recommendations may come from particular standpoints

I often discuss with clients how they wish to upgrade the equipment in their audio system. Many have great systems which they are happy with but are also aware that they have heard better.  This leads to interesting conversations involving the pros and cons of various options. One of the most common difficulties expressed is that the range of choice is massive and pretty much everything is recommended by one source or another.

There are many stories of clients trying different items of equipment in an effort to address a particular shortcoming in sound quality. For example in a search for more detail in the sound, you may have purchased a pair of speakers, thinking they had great clarity in the audition. However, after a while you recognize that there is no bass warmth and listening becomes a fatiguing experience – tonally these speakers have too much treble.

So you duly acquire another pair of speakers without such an “insightful” treble – these are OK for a while but eventually you notice that the sound is not very exciting or involving. If truth be told, it’s boring because the dynamics are poor!

This story is the syndrome of swapping one set of problems for another. All part of the learning curve in achieving good sound quality. Whilst this may be fun for some, it is often too expensive and time consuming for others.

You can usually recognize good sound quality instantly. However it’s prudent to go further than initial impressions as there are many common pitfalls which need to be avoided. If you are relatively new to Hi Fi you may find it  challenging to describe in detail what you are hearing. It’s like learning about computers or smartphones – flashy looking products can have underlying issues, and there are  unfamiliar words and ways of describing the things which are not always consistent.

Why you need to evaluate products to your own satisfaction

Businesses are told by skillful marketing companies that it’s not about the product, it’s about the marketing! There is a lot of truth in this. Just because something is popular and well marketed does not mean it’s the best product out there. Putting claims to the test yourself through audition is the only way of knowing whether something really lives up to the hype.

Opportunities to audition equipment may occur at a dealer, hearing a friend’s system, Hi Fi shows or products ordered on a money back guarantee.

When these opportunities occur, it is extremely helpful to be on the lookout for key aspects of sound quality and know why they are important. 

Remarks on listening to Hi FI

I used to think that unless someone had severe hearing loss, most people had similar hearing. I put down variations in the way people respond in listening tests as a matter of experience.

When new to Hi Fi, I myself used to find comparison tests of different systems quite demanding in terms of always understanding people’s comments. This was usually because I was particularly focused on one aspect of the music. Over time I have learned to tune in to things in a more holistic way rather than just being focused on certain aspects of the music.

Hearing varies from person to person in the same way that some have 20/20 vision, others are short sighted, others long sighted etc. It’s estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people have absolute pitch perfect hearing (meaning you can tell what key is played without a reference note). More commonly 1 in 50 have relative pitch perfect hearing (meaning you can tell whatever key is played relative to a reference Key played). 1 in 50 are tone deaf so everyone else is somewhere on the spectrum in between.

These facts tell you that designers, reviewers and listeners vary in their ability to hear tonal correctness. Some will pay a lot of attention to tonal quality and others will value different characteristics.

Technical measurements are of value but have limitations when assessing sound quality for reasons that have been well documented over the years. 

People have differing preferences in what they like to hear in music.

If you are not used to hearing live music (un-amplified), you might not be so aware of how things should sound. It’s then easy to simply accept mediocre sound quality.

We quickly get used to the sound of our system without realising how much it can be improved. When you listen to a piece of familiar music on a different system, it can often shed a different light on things. 

It takes time, experience, and critical listening to improve how you identify what makes good sound. Reading reviews or listening to sales people doesn’t guarantee you will end up with the best solutions.

I for one, have made many seriously poor buying decisions by listening to the enthusiastic opinion of others before listening for myself. So when reading reviews or listening to recommendations it helps to have a well charted map of what great sound quality really consists of. 

3 Main Categories in Good Sound Quality

At Origin Live we find that the elements which make up good sound quality mostly fall into 3 core categories: Clarity, Dynamics and Tonality. What follows is not necessarily the most perfect way of looking at things but it helps to simplify and clarify a complex subject.

Clarity – promotes “Interest” in the music.

Diagram expanding qualities of Clarity

Please see “Notes on Clarity” for more information

Dynamics – promotes “Excitement & Attention” from the music

Diagram expanding qualities of Dynamics

Please see “Remarks on Dynamics” for a more in depth look at this often misunderstood topic.

Tonality – promotes “Pleasure” from the music.

Diagram expanding the qualities of Tonality

Please see “Notes on Tonality” for more discussion on tonality

The Winning Combination for Good Sound Quality

It is surprising how you can demonstrate 2 systems to a room full of listeners and there will be different opinions as to which is best. You can then carry out a similar demonstration between 2 other systems and the room will be unanimous on the winner.

The most likely reason for this is that in the first instance, one system appealed only to listeners with a given preference for clarity (by way of example) whereas in the unanimous verdict, one system appealed to all types of listener. This can be illustrated in the diagram below where you can see the sweet spot of truly good sound quality.

“Best Sound” which finds Universal Acceptance

An evaluation of good sound quality will not only look at individual aspects in the music but also appreciate things holistically.

One way to do this is to score the above diagram. The intersection of the 3 circles in area CDT represents the overall score. The perfect sound is one which would score 100% in all three categories. The score at intersection “CDT” would be averaged to  100%      [100C + 100D + 100T]/3 = 100%.  Where C is Clarity, D is Dynamics & T is Tonality

The value of seeing the individual scores 100C 100D 100T – is that you may have a particular preference for clarity (for example), and not care too much about tonality. So if the score was [100C + 100D + 30T] / 3 = 77% you would be happy and the system may come at much less cost.

Of course no such scoring system has been formalised but it gives a concept of how reviews on good sound quality could score things to arrive at their conclusions.

It is interesting to note that the quality of Clarity/ Dynamics/Tonality can be enhanced or diminished by every component in your system – from source to loudspeakers.

Basis of Observations

In 35 years carrying out listening tests, hearing demonstrations, giving demonstrations and sitting on professional blind test listening panels, it’s very clear that an understanding of what people like and why, is of supreme importance. This understanding helps avoid a myriad of pitfalls which may occur in:-

Design. Evaluation, Reviews, Your Choices etc.

Observations on Preferences

Everybody, even reviewers focus on different things when listening to music. Just as people prefer different genres of music, so we have particular preferences on aspects of what we consider to be good sound quality. Different aspects of sound draw different people in.

A  parallel to what people like in good sound quality, is the type of books or films people like. Genres such as thriller, detective, romantic etc, all have their equivalents in music and equipment sound. Some people are more analytic in their listening and looking for the fine details in playback. Others are looking for the thrill you get with quality dynamics. Some most enjoy great tonality and the pleasing effect on the ear of wonderful harmonics in the music. The all round listener will latch onto all three of these while listening to music.

If you  are not particularly sensitive to tonality, you will probably pay a lot more attention to things like dynamics or clarity. If on the other hand, you are sensitive to pitch and harmonics (e.g like a musician) then you may find tonal anomalies extremely irritating and will not rate equipment which is poor tonally. Tonal anomalies can include things like singers sounding flat, piano harmonics sounding unnatural etc. Knowing what you like in good sound quality is an important key to making the best equipment choices.

Magazine reviews are often very helpful in shortlisting products for audition as they often discuss sound quality in depth. However it’s worth recognizing the following:

  1. A huge number of products all receive the same rating (number of stars or % score etc)
  2. Scoring systems don’t rate absolute performance of products. For example a £200 product will get 5 stars which means that it’s good in it’s class. What this score does not tell you, is how it compares to a £1000 product. The truth is that there are products which outperform others at over 10 times the price.
  3.  It’s natural that any review will be colored by the reviewers hearing and personal tastes. Ignoring the overall rating, good reviews still give a picture of a product’s characteristics which helps.

Food for Thought on Good Sound Quality

Hopefully this article has provided food for thought in what makes good sound quality from a subjective point of view. This is a huge subject of course but sometimes new ways of looking at things can provide all sorts of breakthroughs.

Closer Examination of the 3 Pillars of Good Sound Quality

Hearing ability

Hearing ability varies from person to person. Some have great hearing but are not always experienced or trained in listening. Others have hearing loss. Some worry about age – see article below – How age affects hearing.

How Age Affects Your Hearing2020-05-13T16:10:41+01:00

Does age affect your hearing?

This article is prompted from talking to some of our clients, who are concerned that because they are not getting any younger, their hearing may be on it’s way out.

I would like to start by saying that 25 years ago, I personally knew an excellent audio reviewer by the name of Peter Turner, who was still reviewing at the age of 80! In case you are wondering if his reviews were reliable, I can say that he would sometimes go round to a much younger friend’s house to get a second opinion. I was with him on one of these occasions and can report that his hearing was as sharp as a pin – we had little to add to his observations during this equipment audition.

A few other factual stories are worth relating before drawing a few conclusions.

On radio 2, there was a phone in discussion regarding the rights and wrongs of 20kHz sirens installed outside city centre bars, to disperse young teenagers. Most adults hear up to 18kHz and are not supposed to be affected by this, whereas the under 15s should find it deafening. The surprising thing was, that there were 40 year old women phoning in to say how painful they found these sirens. This indicates very strongly that they probably retain hearing at 20Khz simply because they have not exposed themselves to much noise.

One of my friends was a sniper in Iraq. At age 23, he experienced severe hearing loss from the regular firing of a rifle with it’s very high impulse levels of sound.

A silver medallist swimmer who was also a real audio enthusiast, related to me that his hearing had been knocked down to around 10 kHz from the constant high frequency noise of rushing water past his ears in the pool. Although he was unable to hear top end detail, he was still able to appreciate even the smallest improvement to his Hi Fi, especially in the bass as this part of his hearing was relatively unaffected.

The star drummer at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics was deaf from birth, and simply “feels” the music from vibration.

Lastly there was a concern a while ago that older orchestra conductors might not be as good as younger ones due to hearing loss. Bear in mind that orchestra conductors suffer hearing loss from standing in front of very high dynamic sound levels. So a test was conducted – It was found that the more experienced older conductors were able to point out things that the younger ones did not pick up. This is explained by the very important way, in which note frequencies and harmonics interact with all the other frequencies (called inter-modulation effects).

The brain is incredibly adapt at interpreting these inter-modulation effects. So although your ear may not hear high frequencies directly (because of hearing loss), the brain interprets the inter-modulation effects to “hear” higher notes which the ear is not physically hearing. The BBC studied this phenomenon and gave the example that even on a phone which only produces sound above say 500Hz, the brain still can identify a deep voice and is “hearing” the voice as producing notes down to say 200 Hz or less. This is the same phenomenon that can trick the brain into thinking small speakers are producing deep bass when they are not.

From these stories, the following suggestions can be made:

  • Hearing is the last sense to go and remains better than we may think, right up to the end of our lives.
  • Hearing loss is more related to exposure to excessive high frequency noise, than age.
  • There is much that we do not know about hearing, one scientific journal was
    reporting that sensors in the eye retina, pick up frequencies far above 20kHz

Hopefully this will go some way to dispersing some of the concerns regarding the validity of experiencing high quality sound as the years pass. In a future article we shall talk about why a small minority of people do not seem to hear the differences that others rave about. Part of this discussion will go through why the ability to hear even minor differences is important and how to succeed in hearing them.

Some reviewers and designers have what we can call “hypersensitive hearing” but not many. Please see article below.

Hypersensitive Hearing2020-05-12T11:30:25+01:00

Hypersensitive Hearing

This is a difficult subject to talk about without the danger of seeming to create elites. Some individuals are gifted in certain areas. This is no less true when it comes to the way designers and reviewers listen. The truth is that some are bound to have more musical sensitivity and ability than others.

I have found it invaluable to recognise those in the industry who are the equivalent of world champions in listening or design.

In athletics it’s obvious how physical attributes like huge feet give swimmers an edge.

In the world of Formula One racing, Jackie Stewart (3 times world champion) said of his hero Jim Clark (2 times world champion but life cut short) –  “He was hypersensitive … he felt things other people would not feel”. Jim Clark was absolutely exceptional. Not many drivers have won the Indie 500 by 2 laps or in another race, come in 5 minutes ahead of the rest in torrential rain conditions.

Some pilots in the war are recorded as having something better than 20/20 vision in their ability to spot enemy fighters in the distance long before anyone else could see them. There are other notable instances of exceptional eyesight which proved life saving – like Mr X on the ill fated expedition led by Scott of the Antarctic where exceptional eyesight enabled him to spot seals in the distance (for food) which no-one else could see.

In the world of sailing, one of the best sailors I knew personally (long ago) used to operate the hydroplanes in submarines. This task was only given to those with an exceptional touch and feel, as instruments can only tell you so much and computer control did not exist.

In Hi Fi there are those with exceptional intuition when it comes to design. There are others with exceptional hearing. Both these qualities are important as the ability to detect quite minor shifts in musical playback on different designs which then sets direction. Good direction soon extends into big performance leads which are blatantly obvious to everyone.

Distributors and Designers who don’t have great hearing themselves often use or employ what are affectionately known in the industry as “Ears” (these are folk with reliable and exceptional hearing ability).

Sound stage ( 3 dimensionality)

This is probably the ultimate test for any system as the ability to create a sonic hologram of the sound involves all 3 of the pillars of great sound quality.

  • Left to right image is linked to clarity.
  • Depth of image, in terms of front to back positioning tends to be linked to accurate tonality.
  • The ability to accurately pinpoint instruments and singers in the mix is linked to dynamics. As mentioned previously dynamics draw “attention” and the ear follows dynamic sounds much more easily to locate them positionaly in the mix.  If an instrument is producing good dynamics it’s a bit like turning a stage spotlight onto it.
The Importance of Dynamics2020-05-15T13:27:10+01:00

The Importance of Dynamics

The word dynamic can mean different things to different people. For musicians it basically equates to the change in volume, but in Hi Fi and recording studios it is much more nuanced. For example recording studios can decrease dynamics to increase the apparent volume of a recording! Confused? For those interested you can read about it in the link Loudness wars.

Dynamic Sound is: Powerful, Explosive, Effortless, Exciting, Fast, Projecting notes into space, has attack on leading edges of notes.

Bass Dynamics will usually manifest in a fast, tight bass with spring and “snap”. This is a far cry from an overblown, slow “soggy” bass, which some mistake for a dynamic bass.  Dynamic bass carries Authority, punch, impact, speed, confidence, and breathes easily.

Other words describing a bass lacking in dynamics can be:  “Laid back, soggy, slow, lethargic, congested, woolly, strangled, stifled, bland, boring, lean, light, with softened transients”.

Frequency extension – Deeper bass and higher frequency extension beyond the hearing range can improve dynamics through the combining of different frequencies.

The whole subject of frequency extension is interesting. Many systems don’t reproduce the actual fundamental bass frequency recorded at all but the harmonics are reproduced and this is perceived as the real bass. As frequency drops off on most speakers somewhere above 50Hz many bass frequencies are weaker than they should be and that affects the overall experience. In many rooms, modes cut and exaggerate bass frequencies creating a completely different canvas on which the painting is crafted.

Dynamics give more texture and shading in the music.

Dynamics in photography mean you have greater contrast and more shades in the colours. Sound quality has similar effects, you can hear more detail and depth to the music, sound feels more alive and present.

The ear perceives dynamic sound as more prominent.

In other words if you play the same music, at the same volume through a system with good dynamics and then one with poor dynamics, your ear perceives the dynamic system as slightly louder. 

The reason this observation is important is that sometimes you can observe 2 products with a level frequency response but one will sound bright and not the other. Why? Often the treble on the “bright” product has better treble dynamics than bass dynamics. Unfortunately this sort of behaviour is not shown on the “averaged” output of whatever test equipment is used. This is particularly true of cartridges and speakers but applies to all other components as well. 

Dynamic sound travels further:

When played at the same volume dynamic sound travels further than one which lacks dynamics. For example:

  • Reviewers say that going round a Hi-Fi show, you can usually hear the sound is good in a room from outside the door before even going in.
  • Church bells travel for miles – if you played a speaker at the same volume it would not travel the same distances.
  • Professional violinists say that a high quality violin will reach the back of the concert hall where a poor quality one will not.

What creates Dynamics?

Dynamic sound travels further because it includes transients (short lived bursts of energy) which possess much greater instantaneous amplitude and energy in brief moments of time than a non dynamic sound.

Most of the time other notes will be well below these transient peaks and these produce the average loudness whereas dynamic transients have little effect on volume but a lot on perception. Interestingly the ear notices dynamic peaks and they improve the perceived quality of the sound – the eye works in a similar way when it comes to dynamic range in photographic images.

A Dynamic transient is formed by the peaks of the various frequencies in the music all piling on top of each other to create a transient of enormous amplitude but for a very short period of time. These transients are so large they can travel an awful long way before they become  inaudible. Unlike clarity or tonality, this is the hardest thing for an audio system to do. It must have the headroom to follow such large transients, have an accurate phase response so that the various frequencies all pile on top of each other at exactly the same time, and not suffer from things like thermal compression which will reduce the height of these transients. All reproduced sound systems suffer from these effects.

How to judge dynamics

The only way to hear proper dynamics is from live instruments and voices where the resonant structures have no trouble creating these transients.

Bass dynamics sounds like a contradiction, why do you need fast transients for the lower “ slower “ frequencies? but they are more important here than anywhere. Good bass needs to be quick and powerful, not slow and ponderous. It needs to stop as quickly as it starts with no booming. Good bass is felt in the chest cavity as much as it is heard by the ears. Good bass is often considered lightweight by people too used to reproduced music and I would encourage everyone to get the texture in the bass from a good grand piano in their head and then listen to their system.

What is Great Tonality?2020-05-15T14:31:49+01:00

What is Great Tonality?

Tonality is about a mix of aspects:

  1. Tonal Balance is the balance of bass and treble. Too much bass makes things sound leaden and lacking sparkle. Too much treble on the other hand is “bright” and can sound harsh. A good tonal balance is essential for a system to sound natural.
    However as we will see later, it is also essential in creating the depth (front to back) placement of instruments  of a holographic 3 dimensional sound stage.
  2. Tonality is also a word used to describe the correct pitch/timbre of notes in relationship to one another throughout the audible frequency range. Theoretically pitch should not change, but resonance, harmonics, inter-modular distortion and other aspects all affect perception of pitch.
  3. Well produced harmonics give each instrument it’s distinctive timbre and sonic character.
  4. Eliminating coloration and added artifacts in the music makes it much more real.
  5. The correct timing of notes in relationship to one another also subtly affects  perceived pitch/timbre due to inter-modulation effects ( how sound waves of different frequencies interact together).

This is not a complete list.

Words commonly associated with good tonality are: Natural, Realistic, Tuneful, Lyrical, Organic, Fluid, Musical, Swing

These all communicate the way music should flow easily from one note to the next without changing relative pitch accuracy. Poor reproduction tends to make notes sound disjointed, there are jars and peaks where there should not be etc.

Bass: Full, rich, weighty, tuneful, textured, warm, goes deep, expansive.

Not: Cold, Thin, Lightweight, dry, clinical, sterile, Lean, lacking body, one note.

Rhythm:  The overall swing in music, organic, smooth. Not: Discordant, tonally jarring or peaky .

Timbre: Texture and harmonic cohesion are defined.

Freedom From: Coloration, artifacts, grain, fragility, nervousness, breakup, distortion.

Treble: A good treble can be emotionally uplifting. It promotes attention, creates sparkle, insight and alertness. Too much treble on the other hand creates fatigue and unease. Getting this balance right is important for long term listening pleasure. 

Treble should be sweet, beguiling, highly defined, airy and dynamic. 

Treble should not be: Bright, brash, harsh, sibilant, fatiguing, edgy, hard, aggressive, or soft.

Even, neutral tonal balance: The balance of bass / treble volume is critical for many listeners. The problem is that manufacturers often sacrifice tonal balance in the pursuit of clarity. The reasons for this are explained below.

Bass: Deep, fast, dynamic bass is usually present in live music – however this area is by far the most difficult to control in music reproduction systems. Poorly controlled, resonant bass masks midrange and treble quality. In an effort to obtain clarity, some systems deliberately reduce bass output slightly. 

Good bass performance is fundamental to music reproduction as it adds a sense of power, authority, ease and confidence – too much bass however sounds heavy, flat and oppressive.. Without great bass a system can have clarity but ultimately sounds thin, wearing and lacking.

Good Technical measurement?

You can have 2 products with an identical measured output but one may sound bright and the other dull. Some reasons for this are:

  • The way harmonics are reproduced
  • Resonance, Coloration and Artifacts from the equipment
  • Transient dynamics (e.g a dynamic tweeter will sound brighter than one with poor dynamics).
The Role of Clarity2020-05-15T14:16:23+01:00

The Role of Clarity

Clarity helps you hear everything that is going on in the music. This might range from the tiniest brush stroke on a cymbal to previously unheard vocal inflections of a singers voice.

Clarity also helps you to “see” with pinpoint accuracy the placement of instruments and singers on an imaginary stage (known as the sound stage). On systems with poor clarity, an individual singer may appear to occupy a space about 2 feet wide across the sound stage. Whereas on a good system he/she would appear precisely positioned, the way a real person would be.

Clarity not only positions instruments/singers but also allows you to follow each individual instrument in a complex mix. A large scale orchestra with numerous instruments is an obvious example where clarity makes things much more interesting. As the music becomes busy, a system with poor clarity tends to obliterate some instruments and lose many fine details.  For those unfamiliar with Hi Fi terminology, the ability to easily follow individual instruments in a complex mix is known as separation.

Words used in association with clarity are:

Separation of instruments, vocals and all the various strands of the music,

Well defined sound-stage from side to side with correct placement of vocals and space between instruments

Good transient definition, high resolution, open, clean.

Overall freedom from: Blurring, muddle, congestion, compression, distortion, resonance, coloration, breakup, confusion, thick or muddy sound, overhang on notes, wooliness

Timing: Notes are all in time with one another –  this is one of the hardest things in sound reproduction as bass notes and lower mid-band notes usually tend to slightly lag the upper registers.

Bass:  Tight, Accurate, Expansive, Well defined with proper transient decay (not cut short).
Mid-range: Transparent mid-band, Crystal Clear, Pure, Grain free
Treble: Detailed, Airy,