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 four 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 such as:
“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 twenty “product of the year” awards for their designs. This article seeks to pass on and distill over three decades of professional listening experience into easy to understand concepts:
- Things to watch out for when evaluating sound quality
- Knowing how people listen differently
- How to figure out your priorities in sound quality
- 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 recognise 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 skilful 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 marketed well 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 whate
ver 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 charted map of what great sound quality really consists of.
Three 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.