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Headphones

Here we go again: What does good sound sound like?

The Audiophiliac muses about his favorite subject.

I make my living writing about sound, and even after all these years describing sound with words still isn't easy. Not that I'm complaining -- I love the challenge of nailing down the ephemeral aspects of sound, because when I get it just right I have some hope that my readers will start to notice the difference between so-so and great sound.

One night last week as I was listening to my Zu Druid V speakers, I got hung up on the sound of the drums and percussion on the Culture Club album, I came up with the term "jolt factor." The dynamic transients were especially visceral, closer to, but still a long way from the sound of real drums. Still, the Druid Vs do "jolt factor" better than a lot of my favorite speakers of late, like the Magnepan .7 or Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR , which squash dynamics more than the Druids do.

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Audioengine A5+ speakers Barry Goyette/Audioengine

So when you're comparing one speaker (or headphone) against another, listen for that: does the music's energy or dynamics seem greater on one speaker or headphone than another? That's what the jolt factor is all about. A lot of speakers and headphones might be the same or nearly the same, but some will be noticeably more alive than others. Of course when you do these comparisons, it's important to play the music at the same volume.

When the reaction to sound by the listener is physical, that's a really good sign. When you have to start dancing or moving about, even if it's just tapping your foot or bobbing your head, that counts for a lot. The opposite is also true -- if the music is just lying there, then the sound is not happening.

I find it's best sometimes to listen in total darkness, so it's just me and the music. I listen for the singer's breaths, their phrasing, and I'll start to connect in a deeper way with them. Try it.

Another thing I look for is separation -- not just stereo separation, but I'll ask myself, "are the sounds of each instrument and vocal distinct, and clearly separated in the mix?" When they're muddled together, the sound is lacking.

If the music doesn't, at times, keep you up late at night so you can't help yourself -- and you just keep playing one more tune -- you have great sound. That's probably the best measure of sound quality, but if you're bored by music you love, then the sound is at fault. You're due for a gear upgrade.

I've noted many times when reviewing something and I'm not enjoying my favorite music as much as I usually do, then I remember, "Oh right! It's these crap headphones or speakers!" Take it from me, sound quality absolutely affects the way we perceive music. That's not to imply that only the most expensive gear sounds great -- not at all. I've raved about the cheap stuff countless times over the last eight years on this blog. I still love my Sony MDR-7506 headphones!