Just what exactly is good sound, you might be asking yourself? Well, I hate to break it to you, but there really is no simple answer. As, good sound quality is a very vast thing that literally can vary drastically. In other words, you can hear two entirely different sounding HiFi setups that sound amazing. There really is no simple straight answer to this question. In this article, I’m going to cover the topic of good sound quality in depth. In this way, you can better understand how sound is often described and also be able to describe the type of sound you hear.
Sound, is more than just frequencies.
Starting off, I want you to get this mindset out of your head if you think of sound as just frequencies. As, real world sounds really aren’t perfect linear frequencies at all. As such, more is at stake when it comes to good sound than frequency response.
While frequency response is still one thing that you can use to describe good sound, it really means nothing with how something is going to sound. As an example, two different sets of speakers can have a neutral frequency response, yet, they can still sound completely different. There is a big reason behind this.
Tonal Quality, one of the most overlooked definitions.
Tone and frequency response, while able to affect each other, are two entirely different things. Yes, you read that right. Tonal quality, as described by audiophiles as how good a frequency sounds, is actually one of the biggest things that affect how good a system sounds.
Here’s an example: Ever hear a set up that just sounds lifeless and dull? While listening to that system, did you feel fatigued from listening? Or, even worse, listen to one song only to find that it doesn’t sound that great and want to stop listening? That is what happens when a system has poor tonal quality. A system with good tonal quality will sound full, rich, and have you turning the volume up and make you smile uncontrollably. And, you’ll find yourself listening for hours on end.
How do you recognize good tonal quality?
This is a hard question to ask as tonal quality is one of the hardest things to describe to someone who’s not hearing it while you are. To put it simple, good tonal quality is sound that is literally energetic. You can almost taste the sound when a system has extremely good tone. Only a handful of systems I’ve had, were able to replicate this effect.
My Electrohome Kitchener 2428s are a great example of good tonal quality. They really bring sounds to life like no other set of speakers I’ve heard. When I listen to them, I can listen for hours upon hours of straight listening without fatigue. Instead, even with poorly mixed music, they leave me begging for more time to listen.
When you have gear that has a lifelike sound that you can (oddly) taste the sound, it has good tonal quality. When you find yourself forgetting about how long you’ve been listening, you have yourself good tonal quality. Good tonal quality is one of the most important factors when it comes to good sound.
Low End – Muddy VS Punchy Bass
While the average listener might consider low end (bass) a simple type of sound, it is far from that. They will claim that low end is not directional, does not have definition, or even unique tone. Well, what I’m about to cover is going to change this completely.
Starting off, I want you to forget about what ever old ideas you might have of how low end can sound. Instead, be open to the fact that just like any tone, low end can have definition, tonal quality, and even work with higher tones to produce one sound.
‘One good example is the sound of thunder. While thunder really isn’t that deep of a tone, it’s still within the range we consider bass. Ever stand in a field and hear thunder? Think about the way the thunder has a sort of echo to it. That right there is plain evidence that low end can easily be directional.
Also, while listening to thunder, notice how well-defined the sound is? That right there is also plain proof that low end can have a lot of details. Those details can also co-inside with higher tones including high end (treble).
Now how might this correlate with music, you might ask? Well, to put it straight, newer music doesn’t really contain highly definitive low end. There are quite a few, but they really don’t have a whole lot.
For a good example of music that does in fact have a lot of low end detail, tone, and punch, I highly recommend some late 1960s,-1970s music. Music from this era was recorded during what us audiophiles refer to as the golden age of stereo sound. Therefore, artists were really experimenting with the type of sound they could achieve while recording.
Now back to the point: A system with muddy bass will tend to sound “boomy”, with a lack of resolution within the sound. There will be peaks, dips, and what some might describe as a “boxy” sound.
A system with punchy bass will sound clean, well-balanced with a lack of peaks and dips in the sound. A quick bass punch will be quick but plainly audible. You will hear mid-bass and lower bass at equal levels with a good sense of depth.
As a bonus, low end imaging should be able to follow sounds higher up in the spectrum to the correct side perfectly. Mid bass is especially capable of being fully directional.
High End – Mushy VS Clean Treble
As with low end, high end also can have a lot of depth and tone. As an example, hearing the sound is a lot different from hearing it right. What I mean by this is that while some systems are capable at reproducing high frequencies, they can fail to reproduce the correct tones associated with the frequencies being produced. This is actually one of the best examples of tonal quality at work.
What does this sound like, you might ask? Well, improper tone within the high end will sound dull, like they’re being reproduced by tinfoil, and very fatiguing. This is an easy thing to notice if your ears are particularly sensitive to high frequencies.
Good tone within the high end will be very detailed. Some systems might be so good that the treble sounds as detailed as the mid range. When one first hears this for the first time, they will be speechless. The first time I noticed this was from my Yamaha NS-A637s when they used to be my Dad’s. The song “An Innocent Man” by Billy Joel came on. There was a very realistic metallic “ding” sound that is a little hard to hear. But the Yamaha reproduced it perfectly. It blew my mind even though I was very young. A well remembered experience for sure.
Now, there’s one more thing to consider when it comes to judging high frequency sound. Some setups I’ve come across had a major issue that is all too common with a lot of modern gear. This is a large peak around 6-10kHz. This can cause what we call the “hiss”. Ever notice when someone speaks a word beginning with the letter “S” in it? Imagine this S sound but very overpowering. This right here can make or break your listening session quick. It is possible to correct this with an EQ which can often lead to amazing results. But, knowing that you can recognize this sound will help you pick out your gear if you have the opportunity to listen to it before buying it.
Mid Range – Detailed VS Dull Mid Range
Moving on, we are going to enter the realms of mid range Arguably, one of the most important parts of good sound, mid range is where 75% of an audio recording lives in. While many will focus on low and high end extension, mid range is what ties everything together.
As I mentioned earlier, tonal quality within the mid range is ultimately, what determines how enjoyable your gear will be to listen to. As, tonal quality really brings the emotion out of your music
Within the mid range, there is also transient response. What I mean by this, is how well your gear is capable of handling the finer details within your music. A great example of good transient response in action would be the sound of a guitar string vibrating. Instead of just a steady frequency, you should be able to hear the indifference of each vibration the string is making as it echos and resonates within the guitar.
Finding a set of speakers with good transient response is hard. This is due to the fact that transient response requires a sturdy, yet thin speaker cone to be able to respond quick enough to these sounds. Vintage speakers are especially good for this. As when they were built, the drivers weren’t designed with looks in mind. Instead, they were designed for sound.
Transient response is directly related to how sturdy, yet flexible a speaker cone is. My Yamaha NS-A637s are a great example of this. This should not be a surprise. As back in 1996, they were actually THX certified for home theater use. Yes, back in the day, a home theater system could consist of a 2.0 channel setup. And, even today, they are extremely accurate in movies, TV shows, and when it comes to music, almost too accurate.
Two Channel HiFi – Why it matters.
While, I did cover the “2D” aspects of sound, now I’m going to cover the “3D” aspects of sound in depth. I see it all too often. Everyone forgets one of the most important things of high fidelity sound. That is the fact that you need a way to add depth to reproduction of the recording. In order to do this, we need left and right channels.
Getting good imaging out of a system falls on a ton of variables. These include speaker placement, speaker size, arrangement of the drivers on the speakers, and how the speakers were designed to be placed. Believe it or not, your receiver or amplifier is also a variable that can affect soundstage easily. A dull sounding receiver will often include a less immersive sound stage than one that has a very lifelike sound to it. Even your music can affect the soundstage. Poorly mixed tracks tend to not really benefit from having separate left and right sides.
Now, how do you recognize a good soundstage? This is probably going to be one of the hardest things you’ve ever tried to pay attention to while critical listening. Basically, a good soundstage is one that is wide, detailed, with excellent spatial separation. Sounds should not sound like they are coming from the speakers unless they’re mixed that way. Instead, they should sound like they’re actually present in the listening room at their respective locations. Music that is mixed in order to sound like it was recorded in a big venue should sound as such. You should be able to close your eyes and feel more depth than your listening room provides.
As you can see, there is a lot more going on in the sound that you’re hearing then you might think. The high fidelity audio reproduction is an ongoing hobby that, at times can be expensive. Or very involved. Or, you might get very lucky and end up with some very good gear for so little. There is so much gear out there both newer and older, being able to recognize good sound from very good sound, for example is part of this hobby.
I highly recommend reading my article on sound quality test tracks which explains exactly what to listen for in each track. It can be found here. I also have an entire playlist on Tidal which can be found here. Thank you for reading and as always, feel free to comment down below!