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August 2018
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Sonic Qualities That Audiophiles & Audio Critics Look For
In High-End Audio Two-Channel / Stereo Systems
Article By Douglas Brown Of NOVO HIGH END


Sonic Qualities That Audiophiles & Audio Critics Look For In High-End Audio Two-Channel / Stereo Systems


  A semi-profound simile used in two-channel audiophile reviewer circles posits: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Said another way, English is a lousy language for describing how things sound. So how exactly do audio critics "describe" stereo sound? This article will provide some insight into the various sonic qualities that audiophiles want to hear from stereo systems and the various terms that audio reviewers use to describe sonic characteristics.

The frequency spectrum of human hearing covers low bass notes from 20 Hertz up to the highest audible frequencies around 20,000 Hertz (i.e. 20Hz to 20kHz). Audiophiles divide this spectrum into three ranges:

1) Treble sounds or highs;
2) Midrange sounds; and
3) Low frequency sounds within the bass registers.


Instruments that produce high frequency sounds like cymbals or violins are referred to by audiophiles with the term "treble". To audio critics, poorly reproduced sound in the higher registers is loathed more than root canal surgery being done by a nervous dentist with shakier hands than an epileptic in a San Andreas fencing competition.

In general, audio reviewers are like the seven dwarfs: six of them are never Happy. If a stereo system has bright, tinny, hard, brittle, or grainy sound, the result will always be a fatiguing sound that's more painful to listen to than Hilary Clinton after she's inhaled copious amounts of helium.

Stated succinctly, bad treble equals bad sound. If your stereo system makes a splash of cymbals sound like a 1977 Cadillac DeVille crashing through a half-dozen aluminum trash cans at 60mph, odds are, you've got issues within the high frequency registers.

A lot of different things can cause poor treble in stereo systems. Lousy tweeters, cheap cabling, shoddy digital components, starving / polluted A/C power supplies, and overly reflective room acoustics can all result in a myriad of fatiguing noise up in the highs. Overall, two-channel music reproduction systems seek to create natural high frequency sounds with air, openness, extension, and space; just as real instruments do.


The Midrange And Lower Midrange
Sounds within the midrange roughly measure between 800Hz and 3000Hz. Human hearing is extraordinarily sensitive to noises within this frequency range. The sounds we hear each and every day such as human voices, other animals, and rustling leaves on trees all occur within the mid-band.

The midrange is where music lives. Human hearing is far more sensitive to sonic anomalies within the mid-band than in the bass or treble registers. Male and female vocals in the midrange are particularly revealing of how musical and accurate a stereo is. If your favorite singer sounds like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection after a month-long weed bender, it's a safe bet that your audio system isn't accurately reproducing male and/or female voices.

Midrange distortions sound like someone's cupping their hands over their mouth while they're singing or speaking. If your loudspeakers fail to correctly reproduce recorded vocals, they'll stick out as prominently and annoyingly as a rally to make smoking legal again inside coffee shops and shopping malls.

Audio critics use pejorative words like honking, congested, nasal, thick, phlegm-coated, and boxed in to describe lousy midrange sonics. When you buy $100 marine grade' speakers from K-Mart and wire them up with a Wal-Mart lamp cord, you'll hear all of these sonic discolorations. If vocals sound monotonous, tired, or colored, a speaker probably has unnatural peaks and dips within the mid-band.

Midrange drivers are especially prone to amplifying unchecked cabinet vibrations. Solo piano recordings are quite useful for revealing cabinet resonances. If the cabinetry in your speakers is more flexible than Oprah's yoga stretch pants, you'll be losing sound quality in the midrange quite fast.


Sonic Qualities That Audiophiles & Audio Critics Look For In High-End Audio Two-Channel / Stereo Systems


Upper Bass, Mid-Bass, And Low Bass
The word "bass" is often associated with the sternum belting volume levels that urban youth so vaingloriously delight in hearing out of their jacked-up import car stereos. To audio critics, the one note homogenized sound of excessively boomy bass cranked up so freakin' loud that it can stun a badger at 20 paces is decidedly not what we want to hear from any stereo system.

Bass shouldn't sound like a freshly cut air-biscuit echoing around the inside of a porta-potty. Most of the music I listen to needs a copious amount of high quality low end to sound realistic. Audiophiles like to hear bass that's full, round, taut, muscular, incisive, correctly weighted, and tangible. The lower registers should be driven by rhythm, tone, texture, and *feel*; not deafening volume levels.

Audiophiles divide bass frequencies into three ranges: upper bass, mid bass, and lower bass. Audio critics want to hear all of the wondrous instruments within these lower frequency ranges reproduced with correct PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing), timbral accuracy, texture, weight, and a palpable *feel* that moves the soul.

The rhythm of music lives in the lows. Orchestral and symphonic music needs the impact, presence, and slam of articulate bass. The swing and groove of jazz needs eloquent and textured bass. The jungle-boogie rhythms of Latin, Caribbean, and Brazilian music must have good bass. The rampaging thunder, galloping rhythms, and explosive energy of speed metal, doom metal, NWoBHM rock, space rock, stoner rock, and black metal all need bass that's textured, articulate, and layered.

Good bass should move a listener's soul to wanna get up off of her couch, shake her God-given booty, and deliriously swing her hips around the room like a panda bear on roller skates on an five-day caffeine-fueled freak-out.

On the one hand, too much bass that overwhelms the midrange and highs is no good. An excess of bass is described by critics as being boomy, muddy, bloated, congested, loose, slow, and fat. On the other paw, too little extension, weight, texture, and/or presence in the low end is just as bad. Audio reviewers describe a lack of bass as sounding lean, thin, threadbare, over-damped, and/or lacking extension.

Getting the PRaT, dynamics, groove, and energy in the lower registers to sound like live music requires decent speed and articulation. If the bass is slower than a snail and lags behind the midrange and treble, all forms of music will lack rhythm and musical substance.


Stereo systems seek to recreate the three dimensional acoustical spacing of live venues. The term "soundstaging" refers to how well a stereo reconstructs the physical layout of a concert hall, jazz club, or other live stage. The acoustical height, width, and depth recreated by a music playback system can vary greatly. The more realistic the sound of any recreated 3-D music venue is, the better the soundstaging.

Once you've heard recorded music with acoustics that are so lifelike that it transports you to an actual concert hall, you'll immediately understand why audiophiles value soundstaging so much.


Sonic "images" should appear at exact distances within a three-dimensional soundstage. If the instruments have been recorded correctly, a high-end two-channel stereo system should (emphasize that... should) be able to reproduce the individual instruments at exact positions within the soundstage. A drum kit should sound like it's positioned at the back of the stage. The singer should *appear* out front in the center. The bass and guitars should be positioned off to either side of the singer and slightly recessed behind him or her.

Instrumental images shouldn't overlap, blur into one another, or cancel each other out. Audio critics describe stellar imaging as being tight, focused, precisely located, and sharp. Poor imaging is described as being blurred, congested, opaque, confused, murky, overlapping, and/or lacking focus.

Studio recordings rarely achieve lifelike soundstaging or imaging. Audiophile recordings made at live venues or within real acoustical spaces using stereo microphone set-ups and a pure signal path are critical to achieving realistic soundstaging and imaging.

Audio critics also use differences in how well a stereo reproduces the size of instruments to determine how good (or bad) the imaging is. A recorded cello's sonic image signature should have the height, width, and depth of a real cello. If the cello's sizing is too large or too small, then the imaging isn't accurate.


Sonic Qualities That Audiophiles & Audio Critics Look For In High-End Audio Two-Channel / Stereo Systems


Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (PRaT)
If an audio critic refers to your stereo system's PRaT as moving slower than an iceberg, odds are your stereo lacks accurate pace, rhythm, and timing. Live music has a rhythm, ebb, and a flow that's undeniable. The toe-tapping drive of the music is what makes a listener want to physically bop their head and swing their hips around the room in time with the rhythmic beat of the song.

Errors in PRaT are caused by poor source components, lousy amplification, throw-away cabling, polluted A/C power, or room acoustics which suck worse than a 60 year old Hoovermatic. Get the PRaT wrong and the music has no chance of creating excitement or involving a listener.


Dynamics refers to the range of sounds from soft to loud that a stereo system reproduces. Large symphonic orchestras which go from whisper quiet to a full-throttle thunder have a dynamic range of around 100dB (decibels). Metal bands like Venom that play *LOUD* almost all of the time have a much smaller variance in dynamic range of about 10dB.

Different volume levels convey different emotional messages. Just as in the way we communicate, softly whispering or angrily screaming often carries more emotional meaning than any of the actual words spoken.

There are two types of dynamics: macro dynamics; and micro dynamics. Macro dynamics refers to the music's overriding sense of impact and power. When a live 80 piece orchestra reaches a musical crescendo, it delivers a massive wallop of sound. The stronger the visceral sense of the *slam* that a two-channel stereo delivers, the better audio critics consider said system's macro dynamics to be.

Micro dynamics aren't about volume, impact, or slam. They do, however, carry an enormous amount of bearing on how *real* recorded music sounds. The resonance of a delicately braised cymbal's percussive accent is very subtle. It's not meant to shake the foundations of any jazz club. And yet, getting the timbral accuracy, speed, and harmonic textures contained within the dynamic structure of a cymbal's shimmering echo correct is critical towards achieving the sound of live music.

Just being able to play loud or soft doesn't innately mean that a stereo system has good dynamics. Some low-powered SET (Single Ended Triode) tube amplifiers can deliver a goosebump inducing sound quality when playing a single acoustic guitar. Ask that same SET amp to accurately reproduce the scale and building shaking volume of a live Anthrax album and, more than likely, said low-powered amp will be turning purple with exertion. With far too many amplifiers, as the volume increases soundstage width decreases, the size and location of individual instruments compresses, (or even disappears completely), and the whole 3-D soundstage collapses.


Detail / Smoothness
The term "detail" refers to the amount of low level sonic information that 2-channel components, speakers, and cables deliver. So how much detail is correct? This tends to be a personal thing. Generally speaking, though, too much detail makes the overall sonic presentation sound harsh, aggressive, and fatiguing.

As with many aspects of high-end stereo sound, the trick is to find the right balance between: a), the amount of detail produced; and b), how smooth and musical the overall sound is. Only state of the art products are capable of successfully walking along this razor's edge of providing oodles of low-level sonic detail, while concurrently not inducing listening fatigue.

If the resolution is too low, the midrange and treble won't have enough detail to make instruments sound realistic. Much like listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks synced with an 18KHz white noise warble tone, too much detail will quickly cause migraine headaches. To audio critics, excessive detail is like a sadistic form of torture. You'll have an easier time raising sponsorship money for an adult film shoot at Kmart than getting audiophiles to tolerate bright and fatiguing stereo sound.


A two-channel playback system's ability to *gel* and make the highs, mids, and lows all sound like a singular sonic entity is referred to as "coherency". A lot of speakers that mix ribbon tweeters and/or electrostatic panels for the mids and highs with cone woofers for the bass completely fail to sonically gel. Achieving an integrated sound across the spectrum of human hearing that's organic and believable is a lofty goal.


The amount of satisfaction and enjoyment that a stereo system creates is called its "musicality". Do you look forward to spending some quality time with your favorite records? How deeply do you sink into the music? Does your stereo's sound give you goosebumps? Do you feel spiritually refreshed and emotionally recharged after listening to your system? Audio critics delineate how good a stereo is (or isn't) by using the term musicality.

The bottom line is this: Two-channel / stereo playback systems should make you want to listen to more music. Regardless of the type of music you love, listening to music at home should be fun and enjoyable. Trying different source components, pre-amplifiers, pre/power combos, speakers, cables, and tweaks all make audio a fun hobby, but it's the music that matters the most. Try not to lose sight of that.



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