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The Language of HiFi: Putting Sound to Words

Putting the quality of a sound into words can be a tricky business. What is a resolving earphone? Airy? Focused? Bright? Dark? Are these things good or bad? Perception of various forms of media is a largely subjective experience, and finding the language to communicate our perception, or understanding pre-established, commonly used terms, can be a barrier to sharing our likes and dislikes in the realm of HiFi. 

Let’s take a look at some of these common terms and see if we can decipher the language of HiFi. 

Detail/clarity: These terms generally are aimed at describing an earphone’s ability to articulate and distinguish between the various instruments and vocals that are layered within a track. An earphone’s frequency response, in tandem with its soundstage, will create the sense of space and articulation that will reveal its level of detail. 

Airy/light: An earphone with a sonic signature that is referred to as light, or airy, is going to have a greater emphasis on high and upper mid frequencies, juxtaposed with a restrained and tempered bass response. 

Soundstage/Imaging: Soundstage refers to the sense of physical space around the music that your earphone creates. For instance, if you close your eyes and imagine the “room” in which your music is being played, this is your mind projecting the soundstage, the depth and width and layering of the various instruments would reflect the imaging of the soundstage.

Dark: Often, earphones with a focus on low end through midrange frequencies, while also perhaps downplaying the high frequencies will be described as dark or having darkness. Though it may sound like a negative, many enjoy earphones with a darker signature, and earphones with this emphasis may increase the enjoyment of certain genres. Genres that emphasize bass or that may have over-powering highs can interact well with darker-sounding earphones. 

Warm: Earphones that feature a well-rounded response in the mid frequencies, particularly in the vocal range, will often be described as having warmth. This creates a smoothness of presentation that many HiFi listeners look for in an earphone. 

Sibilance: This refers to harsh or piercing sounds that may come through in the upper high frequencies of your earphone’s signal. Sibilance can be expressed through shrill cymbals, piercing strings, hiss, or in “S” sounds of vocals. 

Tight: An earphone that has a “tight” signal presentation often has a restrained decay, meaning that various instruments will not “linger” and die out slowly in the mix, rather they will be controlled and articulate, and not run over other parts of the mix. 

Focused: A focused sonic representation can refer to a more “enclosed” or narrower soundstage, it can also refer to certain frequencies being emphasized or pushed forward in the mix.

Neutral/Analytical: An earphone that is referred to as analytical will usually have a very neutral frequency response, meaning that it doesn’t add too much of its own flavor and strives to create a true representation of a given track. 

Breakup/Distortion: Breakup or distortion can occur when a certain part of the frequency spectrum is overdriven and begins to create a rattling or static-like sound. This can happen through overpowering a driver or internal malfunction. 

Fun: A fun earphone is typically juxtaposed with an analytical or referential one, they often emphasize or boost specific sections of the frequency spectrum to create a desired flavor and enhance the listener’s engagement. Earphones with a more “fun” signature will often have boosts to the low and high frequencies, to create more impact in basslines and leads.  

Isolation: Isolation is created by sealing off the outside world and blocking out ambient noise. Most IEMs fit in the ear and create a seal within the ear canal. A small break in the seal will allow outside noise in, as well as allow bass frequencies to “leak,” and rob your music of its impact and richness. A custom-fit IEM will have the best isolation an IEM can create. 

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