Listening Priorities: Part 1.

We all have biases when we listen ....


E. Walter J.

7/31/2022 4 min read

Listening to music is one of life's pleasures. It stirs and moves us and takes us on a journey that touches our souls. What do we listen to? What do we listen for? How do we find a common description of these things that we hear?

Audio reviewers and many of us listeners have tried to describe this with varying results. I have my personal methodology and a list of these audio 'terms' that I use to 'rank' components that I listen to. This is where almost all who listen to audio will agree.. we all listen for specific and certain things. I have wrestled with how to cover this topic and finally settled on this multi-part post.

Let's start by listing the various terms used to describe what we hear in our audio setups..

  • Tone and tonality.

  • Frequency range.

  • Dynamic range.

  • Spatial Rendition.

  • Resolution.

Tone and tonality: This is the most fundamental quality that we hear. It is what allows us to distinguish and recognize what made the sound we hear. Its the difference between a male voice and a female one. It allows us to distinguish a viola from a violin, or more specifically an Amati from a Stradivarius violin. Or a Yamaha piano from a Steinway or Bosendorfer grand piano. It is the fundamental note played , along with its harmonic structure and its envelope of vibrational energy. This can be further broken down into separate time domains starting with the initial transient, followed by its body, then its decay.

Descriptions that are commonly used are 'Cool', warm, heavy, light, piercing, shrill, glassy, silken, ponderous , rounded, etc. I like to think of it as the seasoning added or flavor missing from a favorite dish. The gold standard is to compare a playback recording of an instrument ( preferably acoustic, unamplified and thus repeatable.. ) to the instrument. ( easier to do if seated at the mixing board sitting in on the recording session... )

Frequency range: This is the ability of the system to reproduce accurately, the lowest frequencies right up to the highest frequencies. These frequencies can be measured independently with sensitive instruments. In real life, the range we can hear depends on the proper functioning of our auditory system. Most of us have been exposed to high levels of sound for various lengths of time and as such have suffered a lessening of the total range of frequencies we can hear. I am fortunate to still be able to hear up to around 13kHz. and down to about 24 Hz. Drum sets are around 60 - 120 Hz. by the way ( BTW ) depending on tuning.

Dynamic range: This is simply the range that can be heard from the loudest sound recorded to the softest one. The noise inherent in all components add to the noise floor level. This is the level at which we begin to hear that there is something other than dead silence as we turn the volume up. This level is dependent on the entire sound reproduction chain, from source ie. CD, Streaming , LP record etc. right through to the loudspeaker. Most recorded performances are around 40 dB. Some exceptional uncompressed recordings can have a range in 60 - 80 dB. or more. note: most rooms without extensive acoustic treatment and dampening will have a noise floor of 40 dB. This drops to around 35 dB in the middle of the night when there is less activity generating noise. With a dynamic range of 70 dB, the sound level at listening will be at 105 - 110 dB when correctly reproduced. This will be at the threshold of permanently damaging your hearing, so beware!

Spatial Rendition: We are talking about the ability here to reproduce a 'soundscape' - a distinct, separate space that is clearly different from, and most times, larger than the room in which we are listening. It is the ability to reproduce without ambiguity the positions of everyone and their instruments in the performance and their relative distance from each other and the listener. Spatial rendition increases with the resolution of the system as it is basically the accurate rendition of very low level complex patterns of reflected sound from the boundaries of the recording room. Our hearing begins to group all reflected sound below around 4 milliseconds as coming from the same spot. The reflective surfaces of your own listening room affects this greatly. Keep this in mind when trying out new audio purchases - you will have to treat the room to get the most out of your equipment. I will address this issue and source of frustration in another article or blog.

Resolution: The quality of our systems are determined primarily by this last one. It enhances and contributes to all the above. It is the ability to separate out the minute low level details. To keep the distinctness of every detail in the recording and their character from blending into a blurry facsimile of the original. Leading edge transients , sustained sounds, decay trail-off , ringing , overshoot etc. power delivery into a frequency envelope.. This is where design and execution will determine the final quality of an individual component , a grouping of components and ultimately, the sound reproduction system.

Things to listen for: the splash of a hi-hat that should originate from a defined position and then can be heard radiating outwards in an expanding bubble of sound, getting softer the further out it expands until it hits the back wall and side wall. When you are able to hear the back wall and its exact distance from you, together with the side walls and the floor of the venue, to make it clear in your mind the size of the venue in which it is recorded - you know the sound system you are listening to has good resolution. When you are able to tell that the drum kit is on a raised platform and that the female singer is about 5' 4'' and the male singer is much taller at 6' - height information on the recording is being reproduced correctly. Yes - height reproduction is very difficult to achieve. One of the best tools to setup your sound system and demonstrate this is the LEDR test track from the Nordost System Setup & Tuning Disc. and from the Stereophile CD 2 ( if memory serves me ... ).

Layering, especially in good recordings of large orchestras where each row of instruments is clearly defined in its own space with the bass drums and tympani way back, is the result of good resolution in the sound system. Some descriptions like 'detail orientated', analytical are clues that describe resolving speakers, amplifiers etc.