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Our Sound Quality Score and Tests
Headphones

What it is: How accurately the audio is reproduced. The tests are performed with the headphones' most commonly used features enabled (noise-cancelling, wireless, etc.)

Sound quality is how well audio is reproduced as arranged.

From music and movies to podcasts and spoken word, audio is arranged in studio to have a distinct sound and accurate headphones would be able to reproduce that sound as intended. Though some listeners might prefer a more hyped bass or mid-range frequency response, in our tests we consider accuracy more desirable.

For our sound quality score, we evaluate the bass mid and treble frequency response, total harmonic distortion, soundstage and imaging of the headphones we test.

Test results

Our tests

Bass

What it is: Frequency Response from 20Hz-250Hz
When it matters: When the material is heavy on bass frequencies, such as those of kick drums and bass guitar.
Score components:

Bass frequency response describes how accurately headphones reproduce the low-frequency region of the audible frequency spectrum. Bass ranges from 20Hz up to 250Hz and represents the low rumble, punch and melodious bassline you can hear in tracks.

Good bass does not overpower the presence of instruments and vocals and adds excitement to tracks that would otherwise sound weak or thinned out. In our frequency response score, bass is assigned the same weight as treble and the mid-range.

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Mid

What it is: Frequency Response from 250Hz-2KHz
When it matters: When the material is heavy on mid-range frequencies. This is the case for the majority of audio content.
Score components:

Mid-range frequency response describes how accurately headphones reproduce the mid region of the audible spectrum. The mid-range spans 250Hz to 2KHz and represents the lower and higher harmonics of instruments and vocals, as well as their comprehensibility and clarity.

The mid-range is where the bulk of the audible audio frequencies reside and when lacking causes the instruments and vocals in music to sound distant and muffled. In our frequency response score, the mid-range is assigned the same weight as treble and bass.

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Treble

What it is: Frequency Response from 2KHz-20KHz
When it matters: When the material is heavy on high-range frequencies, such as voice, cymbals, and any other material where brightness, brilliance and airiness is desired.
Score components:

Treble frequency response describes how accurately headphones reproduce the high frequencies of the audible frequency spectrum. Treble ranges from 2KHz to 20KHz and represents the comprehensibility of higher harmonics for lead instruments and vocals, the sibilant tones and the airiness you can hear in tracks.

When treble is lacking, the higher harmonics of instruments and vocals lose detail and brilliance. This is significant, as the absence of good treble may make audio sound dark and lacking openness. In our frequency response score, treble is assigned the same weight as the mid -range and bass, even though very high frequencies are less audible to older listeners.

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Total Harmonic distortion

What it is: The subtle, unwanted frequencies (harmonics) produced alongside the intended frequencies.
When it matters: When clean and pure sound reproduction is desired, though its effect is not as noticable as frequency response.
Score components:

Total harmonic distortion is a flaw in audio reproduction that generates unintended frequencies that muddy the expected sound. At high levels of harmonic distortion, audio quality deteriorates because the unwanted frequencies make tracks sound unclear and fuzzy.

Luckily, harmonic distortion is hard to perceive by ear alone and although noticeable at higher volumes or by very sensitive ears, for most people it’s rarely audible. This is why we have not assigned much weight this test.

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Soundstage

What it is: Soundstage qualities are not inherent to the audio content, the headphones have to 'create' them rather than 'reproduce' them. They determine whether the sound is perceived to be coming from inside or in front of the head, how open and spacious the soundstage is, how much the headphones acoustically interact with the environment, and how strong the phantom center is.
When it matters: When an accurately produced, large and spacious soundstage, similar to that of a stereo loudspeaker setup is desired.

Soundstage describes the perceived location and environment of sound, as intended by the audio arrangement. Headphones that can reproduce this effect give the impression that sound is coming from outside, rather than inside of your head.  A good soundstage will sound more like speakers in a room compared to headphones on your head. 

Soundstage gives spaciousness to an audio reproduction, which sounds more natural and open. This makes soundstage an important component of sound quality.

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Imaging

What it is: Imaging qualities are inherent to the audio content, the headphones have to 'reproduce' them rather than 'create' them. They determine how accurately the objects are positioned in the stereo image, and how transparent the imaging is.
When it matters: When accurate positioning of the objects in the stereo image, and clear and transparent imaging is desired.

Imaging describes the accurate reproduction of location, stereo balance, and transparency of instruments, as intended by the audio source. Headphones with good imaging reproduce the slight time and amplitude differences responsible for generating a stereo image.They also typically have a flatter phase response.

However some aspects of imaging are very hard to notice for the average listener and therefore, imaging may not be as important for everyone.

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What is not included

A few elements that you could care about are not included in the score:

  • Format of audio (Compression, bitrate, digital, analog, etc...)
  • Source of audio output
  • Impedance and Phase (Coming soon)

If you feel there is an item missing that should be included, please let us know in the Q&A section.

Conclusion

Sound quality is how accurately audio is reproduced compared to the original audio arrangement. An ideal headphone's audio reproduction is balanced and accurate to the source material as it was intended to be heard. For sound quality, we evaluate the bass mid and treble frequency response, total harmonic distortion, soundstage, and imaging. Headphones that score highly for sound quality will sound great no matter what you are listening to.

 

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Questions & Answers

1 ANSWERED QUESTIONS
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Will you be reviewing more open-back headphones? What about some planars? I am curious about the following: HiFiMan HE400s, HE400i, HE560, Oppo PM-2, Audeze EL-8, and Audeze LC-2.In regards to dynamic open-back, a few headphones of great interest are: Sennheiser HD600, HD650, AKG 7xx (previous massdrop), and AKG 702 Anniversary edition (basis of current massdrop). And of course the Audeze Sine (closed planar).

It would be great to create some reference tests for soundstage. IMO, soundstage and imaging are what make music immersive, and it's quite difficult to engineer great sound with immersiveness. Drivability/matchability would be another good metric, with a subscore for phone/tablet pairing.

Thanks for your suggestions.

We are currently in the process of refining our soundstage and bass response tests. That's why we are holding off on more high-end open-back headphones until we can better measure the qualties that sets them apart from lower-end models. Planar headphones are especially interesting for our new sounstage and bass response tests, so it's likely that we will review some in the coming months.

Adding impedance and drivability-related tests are also on the agenda, as well as publishing articles on our testing methodology and philosophy. However, these are of a lower priority and will be added after sound-quality-related tests.

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