Hi-Fi: What Does It Sound Like? | The Ivory Tower











Most activities and hobbies have their particular lingo. I think it’s one of the more fun aspects of any shared pastime. Members can talk to each other in secret code. 

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

When I’m talking about hi-fi with an audiophile, I try to understand what the other person is saying about the sound of a component or system and hopefully I can get my own observations across in a meaningful way. When I’m reading a review or other commentary about some piece of audio gear, I enjoy it more when I seem to automatically relate to the descriptions. That requires a certain mutually understandable lingo that audiophiles use to say what a set of speakers or a recording (or whatever) sounds like.

I Have The Best Words

The adjectives and phrases I like to use are borrowed (stolen?) from:

  • Classic subjectivist hi-fi reviews written with an ethos similar to wine tasting reviews but used to describe nuances of sound. This concept was first given wings by Harry Pearson and others at a time when these reviewers had broken away from the prevailing measurements-are-everything orthodoxy.
  • Terms used by professional music production people to communicate with each other and artists, usually in an attempt to arrive at some aspect of sound that one might imagine and then try to achieve. 
  • A sprinkling of tech terms most often used by well, electronics tech people. 

Each group uses their own terms for different situations, but I think it’s ultimately about a common goal of trying to put something into words that by its nature, is indescribable. Yet, few audiophiles would deny that this hard to describe sensory experience is intertwined with the music itself and capable of producing strong emotions, so why not try and talk about it?

I could simply hope the audiophile I’m speaking with or the reader I’m writing to would be able to infer my meaning about hi-fi. However, I’ve had lots of experiences during mixing or recording when for example, the artist would tell me they wanted the sound (or their instrument or voice) to be warmer. I would roll off some high frequencies, (right?) only to find out that warm to them was MORE highs. Where did that term even start? One time I had a producer ask me to make the reverb sound COLDER. 

I’ll also talk about some terms and adjectives that I don’t use and explain why not.

So first up, before I offend all the hi-fi reviewers out there, here is a little overview of audio frequency ranges and what they generally mean to me. Hertz is the unit of measurement and is abbreviated Hz.

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Frequencies*

*but were afraid to ask

10Hz-30Hz

The junk in the trunk. Except for very low-frequency mechanical rumble, or the lowest part of an explosion or thunder, this area has very little musical information. But before the Home Theater peeps throw tomatoes at me, wait – I like this area kept intact even on a non-film soundtrack recording because if a system can reproduce this area, there is certainly a heightened sense of “You Are There” to the ambiance (also known as room tone), especially in classical recordings. NYC subway rumble, anyone? I don’t consider myself to be an EDM aficionado, but if that last little bit of floor-shaking low end on a low synth bass downward sweep is your hi-fi thang, by all means, get your 20Hz on.

40Hz-60Hz

This is where things get fun for bass freaks like me. Because this is where the fundamental tone of bass instruments and low tuned drums live. If a hi-fi system can get down to 50Hz before starting to roll off, it’s generally gonna feel like the low end is bangin’. If your jam is D’AngeloVoodoo, you NEED this area in your life.

70Hz-90Hz

What most people think of as bass in their hi-fi system. 100Hz is ground zero for bass. It’s a funny area cause it’s not as much of a feel-it-in-your-body kind of thing as the lower stuff is, but too little and things sound thin and without impact. Too much and it tilts things away from a clear, defined, and balanced sound.

100Hz-250Hz

Another tricky area to get right. This is where a certain amount of warmth lives. It’s also where many rooms start to strongly interact with the speakers to impart their signature on things. A system/room with less around 150-250 can subjectively feel clearer and tighter than a system with an excess. An excess is what I sometimes infer when I read something described as sonically romantic. Maybe romantic is 400Hz? I don’t know.

500Hz

An excess here sounds boxy or another term I’ve heard and used, cardboard, as if cardboard has anything to do with how something sounds. A little dip around there will be subjectively heard as more ‘open.’

600Hz, 700Hz, 800Hz

Too much here sounds kind of wooden, or like the music has a stuffy nose. I’ve had a mix engineer tell me that he put a little more nose on the guitar sound. Too little energy here and the music feels like something is missing, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what. When looking at a frequency response graph, if things around here are not very flat, experience tells me that the pattern of bumps and holes in this particular area will be a large part of what gives a phono cartridge or loudspeaker its perceived character.

1000kHz or 1K

(K = Kilohertz)
Smack dab in the middle of the midrange. This is commonly the frequency that the rest of the area above and below is referenced to. Also used to define a speaker’s efficiency. It’s a bit of a sacred number in music production, meaning it’s almost NEVER cut or boosted, unless your name is Tchad Blake.

1.2K-3.5K

Is nearing the end of the midrange and creeping up on treble. Hi-fi gear that emphasizes or de-emphasizes this area will impart either a forwardness that may become aggressive or conversely have a very relaxed sounding nature. 3K is usually considered the center of where our ears measure as the most sensitive. Screaming infants and screechy car breaks OWN 3K.

4K

The midpoint between middle and treble. 4K is in a class all its own. A slight peak around 4,400Hz can be magic for a sense of presence in the right situation. Less, and things will feel relaxed but may still have a sense of weight and detail.

5K-7K

The treble presence region. It’s definitely treble but there’s no shimmery air-like quality to this area. The crisp bite of a snare drum, or a very present sounding vocal. A little goes a long way.

8K-10K

This is starting to be the end of the clearly audible treble and consists of the meat of the harmonic overtones to almost all acoustic instruments and voice. The attack of a thin guitar pick on a 6 or 12 string acoustic guitar. The overtones in the ping of a ride cymbal on a great jazz recording or pop ballad. Side note: To me, zingy is what too much in the 8-10K area sounds like.

11K or 12K

(…and above)
Is commonly referred to as air by most of the hi-fi folks I know. Emphasizing this area will impart a heightened sense of detail. If the curve upward is of a certain shape and not too excessive, (okay, a little excessive) things will have a silky kind of presence. In music recordings and playback systems, this is very seldom ever like reality but it sure is fun. For a while, at least. I’ve observed that when this area is overly boosted, a lot of audiophiles will describe the sound to have more resolution or more information or a more palpable sense of realism or even just
faster. More power to ‘em. Your dog and pet bat is LOVING that stereo setup. I’ve been known to add a dollop of 25K to something I’m mastering. I can barely hear it, but it seems to make things sound more expensive.

One of the reasons I’ve gone into frequency response (FR) to this extent is because even though it’s not everything, I do feel it is the single biggest determining factor in how we react to a playback system. I know from my job, that altering FR can strongly change how I perceive imaging, tightness, slam, speed, resolution, refinement, and just about any other commonly used hi-fi terms including one I personally abhor: natural.

I think using those kinds of time-honored terms is still a good way to communicate the sound of a system or piece of hi-fi gear. Also, I like to augment those terms with a location in the FR, for what I think is partly responsible for the perception.

Terms I’d Use When Listening and Describing What Effect the System Is Having on My Perception of the Music

Organic

I like to use this word when the sound has an alive-ness that I don’t hear as FR related. Based on my experiences with the sound of magnetic tape recorders and vinyl record cutting lathe systems, I think it has something to do with how damped an electrical and/or mechanical system is. Less complex circuits with less feedback are less damped so they seem to sound more organic to me. The sound a snare drum makes with the top head (skin) au naturale vs. the same snare covered by a thin piece of fabric or other dampening device is very different. There is a great shot of this during a scene with Ringo in the Let It Be movie. Think of the difference in the snare drum sound between “Yellow Submarine” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Un-damped vs. damped.

Organic doesn’t always seem to be related to distortion but it can be. Some very good sounding hi-fi systems with complex crossovers and complex low distortion gain stages CAN sound organic, but in my experience, the opposite is more often the case. I use alive sometimes but not in the more obvious case of a bright sounding or forward-leaning FR system. It can be smooth or even a little rolled off on top but still sound alive and organic to me.

Dynamic

Used by many to the point of being almost meaningless. I prefer to use dynamic along with other words and phrases. Dynamic contrasts: a sense of things either being unrestricted when playing a recording with a wide dynamic range OR the opposite – with a sense of a much smaller swing between all the graduations of quiet and loud, sometimes referred to as compressed sounding. This can be very subtle and hard to recognize, especially if you are on a steady diet of over-compressed and over-limited recordings. You know it when you hear it, but if you haven’t had quality time exposed to a hi-fi system with very unrestricted dynamic contrast ability while playing recordings with a wide dynamic swing, you won’t necessarily miss some of it.

Horn lovers, can I get an amen?

Damping or Damped

This is a more or less a tech term used to indicate how much resonant behavior in a circuit or physical system is allowed to run wild, or brought under some amount of control. It’s fairly easy to understand this for a physical piece of gear like a transducer, but it also applies to an electrical circuit. I’ve found that the amount of damping has a direct correlation with the sound I hear. It’s also not easily nor commonly measured in a lot of gear.

Buttery

An old pro audio term. Smooth and seductive, even soothing. Take a hi-fi system with a very flat or slightly recessed but linear area from 2K-8K, maybe a slight roll-off or alternately a bit of 16K air up top plus a solid bass/mid bass, and it sounds like buttah. Systems with very low distortion or distortion that is not anywhere near the 3K area can also sound buttery but in a little different way. Closely related to smooth.

Liquid

To me, liquid means a subtle sense of the sound being seamless or effortless but not in a dynamic sense. Things just flow. I think it’s harder for a hi-fi system with great dynamic contrast virtues to sound liquid, but I have heard some. And those systems usually cost a small fortune.

Resolution

I use this term when I sense a lot of information from a system yet it’s not even close to sounding bright and airy. 

In my mind, very low amounts of any non-linearity (distortion) and skillfully tuned damping qualities  + very low noise = resolution. Closely related to refined, another term I like and use, especially for products that are very similar or related to each other. I know, kind of BS, but I know what my buds mean if they say the Slothmaster 2000 Mk II phono cartridge is similar but more refined sounding than the Mk I.

Sterile

A sense that something you can’t quite identify is missing. In my mastering studio, every time I’ve done something to remove or simplify a component that cleaned up the sound, it always sounds better to me, so sterile is different from clean. It might be some kind of non-linearity that I have a hard time identifying by ear but simply produce a bland, un-involving sound. One of my favorite terms from back in the day was harmonically threadbare. Antiseptic can be used in place of sterile.

Clean

I consider clean to be a good term. Probably the number one pro audio term for something that sounds good. Freedom from any edginess coupled with low noise, low distortion, and very good dynamic contrast could be called clean. One person’s clean is another person’s sterile. Closely related to dry.

Dry

Is not exactly sterile but somehow lacking in some hard to quantify fun factor. Dynamically related? Overly damped?

Colorful, Coloration, Color

I would almost always use these related terms to describe what I hear when a hi-fi system or piece of gear has a combination of a very non-linear FR combined with distortion components that don’t necessarily sound bad, and in many cases may even strongly enhance the listening experience but are far from accurate. Accurate – another term I’m not crazy about. Whatever. I’ll use it if I have to.

Systems that measure very well can sound great or may even suck, but they almost never sound colorful. I like using colorful, but I wouldn’t say a phono cartridge sounds green or blue. People of Synesthesia, talk amongst yourselves.

Papery

Another pro audio term I’ve heard for a long time. I use papery to describe something that has an almost fragile quality. Something in the system is creating a quality that almost seems to sit on top of the music. And it’s not pretty. But sometimes other great qualities may outshine a slight amount of papery-ness, so you live with it. It’s a transducer thing. Some ribbon microphones, headphones, and speaker systems I’ve heard can exhibit a papery sound.

Hard, Brittle, Glassy

I use these to talk about a relatively subtle sense of unease in the upper mid-range. Excessive sibilance on vocals that occurs in a lower area like 2.5-4K. Less than great sounding cymbals especially crash cymbals, I’m talking to YOU. Made more difficult by a poor recording of such, and will be hard to listen to on a system that leans toward hard

Rupert Neve once told me he blames even a slight amount of crossover distortion in Class A/B amplifiers as the culprit for something sounding this way.

Brittle is when you’re playing something off Sticky Fingers on your system and just as Mick Taylor hits a certain note, you look at the cat and her ear twitches to the sound. Glassy can mean the same thing as hard or brittle. The old school term for this I believe is glare.

3-D

Pretty self-explanatory, when describing imaging. Less defined than saying an image seemed located outside of the speakers, but I still use 3 D when I want to imply a very expansive sense of width AND depth. Height? Maaaaybe.

Analog or Digital

These terms, although very broad, can be meaningful so I sometimes use ’em. For folks that have little or no experience with records or tape, analog is more of an imaginary concept especially since digital is mostly very good these days. I still use analog as a shorthand for a liquid, easy on the ear, somewhat colored, possibly not a high dynamic contrast, sounding hi-fi system. Digital, while not as black and white as it used to be, can still be used to indicate a particular kind of hard, possibly brittle, very dry and possibly over-damped system. Related to warm and cold, but for some reason, I don’t use warm and cold much anymore. 

Terms I Don’t Use Because I’m Tired of Them or Never Liked in the First Place

Natural

W.T.F. does that mean? I know it’s generally used to describe something that is pleasing to listen to or fundamentally good, but I hear it used in the wrong context so often, I’m weary of my friend Natural. I heard some audiophiles describe a version of some music I worked on that I knew for a fact contained more distortion, non-linearity, and coloration compared to a LESS processed and cleaner version of the same recording, as more natural. Okay. I get it. For many of us, color is king. Until it’s not.

Musical

I don’t know. I have used it, but never loved it. It’s kind of what you say when something sounds good but you don’t feel like digging deeper. I do like musicality for some unknown reason.

Bloom

Okay, I kinda liked it back in the day, but it just seems dated to me now. You might love it. Maybe I’ll start using it again? I can be such a fickle SOB.

Phasey

Sorry, but no. Just don’t.

Transparent

I don’t hate on this one (like natural) but I think it’s sometimes a lazy way to talk about something that might be better described in discrete terms as having wide dynamic bandwidth and low coloration and noise, flatter than most in the FR dept., and probably on the more damped side of the scale. I’ll give ‘transparent’ a full pass when it’s used to describe a complete hi-fi system that truly calls so little attention to itself that it’s uh, transparent.

Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (PRaT)

If these terms really speak to you, then great. You have my blessing, seriously. For me, I can’t quite go there. Something to me just feels a little off about these terms. I love the idea of using these terms, cause it would seem useful to ascribe these qualities (or lack of) to a speaker or a turntable so why do I slightly cringe when someone uses these terms? Maybe because these terms all describe what musicians call groove.

But components don’t groove, they just reproduce the groove. If a system has good dynamic contrasts and is well damped with a solid low end, it might seem to groove more than an under-damped, compressed sounding hi-fi system. But if you play James Brown on your phone speakers it will still groove. Mightily.

I’ll have to think about this one some more. 

Final Thoughts

One person’s ‘transparent’ is another person’s ‘sterile’, but if we all heard things the same and liked the same things, that wouldn’t be any fun – now would it? What IS fun is articulating our individual perceptions and preferences by using terms that have a more or less shared meaning when talking or writing about what we love (or hate) about the sound. 

What hi-fi terms do you love and use? What terms do you hate? How do you personally define those terms? What terms do you not fully grasp but use anyway? What adjectives do you use that has meaning to you, but you haven’t heard others use?

I encourage readers to comment to help continue this discussion. And the important thing is to have a good time with our secret code words.

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About the author, Dave McNair

Dave McNair has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile, and for the last 20 years, a multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer. Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with seeing The Beatles live on Ed Sullivan to studying classical guitar from age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music, sound, and tech, lead him to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC. After years of residence in NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston-Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his free time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out hi-fi gear in search of a better sound.