How to listen to music analytically to test the quality of headphones, speakers and other sound equipment

For most of us, listening to music intimately is essentially a passive activity. We get carried away. It relaxes us. It helps us avoid our daily activities. However, when we decide to approach it to test the quality of headphones, speakers or any other sound equipment, we predispose ourselves to adopt an active attitude.

Staying alert to try to identify the characteristics of the device we are testing is a successful strategy, but it is also important to be guided by a methodology that helps us draw the most objective conclusions possible from an activity that is eminently subjective.

This is the starting point that we propose

The purpose of this article is to propose a procedure that can be helpful when you need to buy some loudspeakers, headphones or another sound reproduction element and you have the opportunity to try it before you get it.

It is not always possible to test a component before buying it, but when the opportunity arises it is worth taking advantage of it to make sure that that element really offers us what we are looking for.

The method we propose is the one we use when we analyze audio devices But we haven’t invented it at all. In fact, it is what a good part of sound professionals and audiophiles use to identify the quality of a sound equipment, and also, although this objective is more complex, what role a certain component plays within it.

A mediocre recording will represent an obstacle that will prevent the team we are testing from giving ourselves the best of themselves.

Before getting into flour it is important that we secure our starting point well. Our first tip is that when you judge carry out your own tests seleccionéis songs that have a shot sound of the highest possible quality.

A mediocre recording will represent an obstacle that will prevent the team we are testing from giving us their best, but an outstanding recording will allow you to express yourself and help us assess your potential. In the last section of the article we will propose several musical cuts that have a very remarkable sound take.

Here’s our next tip. If your purpose is to compare the performance of various components, the ideal is to carry out the tests blindly, without knowing which one is playing at any given moment, and matching the sound pressure level of all of them.

To carry out the blind tests you will need the help of another person, and to equalize the sound pressure level and prevent the one that sounds loudest from inviting us to conclude, perhaps wrongly, that it sounds better, we will have to use a sound level meter.

We are aware that it is not always possible to have the help of another person, and also that most music fans do not have a sound level meter, but if circumstances allow us to set up the tests in this way, it is worth executing them. so that we can draw a conclusion as reliable as possible.

Our last two tips are much more affordable, but equally important: close your eyes during the audition and write down everything you perceive.

Closing our eyes allows us to inhibit visual stimuli and concentrate on auditory stimuli, and taking notes is also a highly recommended practice, especially if we are going to test various components, because our auditory memory is fragile. If we don’t, we risk assigning to an element the attributes we have identified in a different one.

Follow the tune: the Ivor Tiefenbrun method

This procedure was devised by the founder of Linn, a veteran Scottish company specializing in the development of high-quality hi-fi components. What he proposes is that we try to focus all our attention on a single instrument and follow its melody, leaving all the others in the background.

A good stereo must be able to restore each instrument with precision, clearly separating it from all the others, so it should allow us to achieve this without overexerting ourselves. Of course, this method is not equally effective with all musical genres. It is very affordable with small orchestral formations, and more complicated with large orchestral masses and with modern music that expressly introduces distortion.

A good stereo must be able to restore each instrument with precision, clearly separating it from all the others.

In any case, if the sound of the music we are listening to is of good quality, this method works very well. If we are testing well-executed headphones or loudspeakers, we will be able to focus our attention on any instrument in a very natural way.

But, if the component we are analyzing is not up to par, the instruments will appear intermingled and it will be difficult for us to identify one of them with precision and follow its melody throughout the musical cut.

How to identify the attributes that give away the quality of an audio component

In addition to the method proposed by Ivor Tiefenbrun, when we test a sound device we strive to identify the attributes that most clearly reflect its quality. Our intention is that this procedure is as affordable as possible, so we are going to suggest only those parameters that are easy to discern.

The sound scene

If the sound take of the song we are listening to is good, the loudspeakers or headphones we are testing should be able to place each instrument in its proper place. In the physical location it occupied on the stage where the recording was carried out, thus recreating a virtual sound scene with horizontal, vertical and depth amplitude.

If we close our eyes the loudspeakers, or the headphones, should disappear completely. We should be able to locate the singer’s voice in front of us, in the center. We should also perceive the instruments that are to his right, to his left, and behind him. In no case should we identify that the sound emerges from the physical location of our speakers. Each instrument must be part of a large and continuous sound scene.

The transients

A simple and intuitive way to define transients requires identifying them as loud, short-lived sounds that many audio components fail to reproduce properly. In fact, even if they are present in the recording, it is possible that they are masked and we cannot hear them correctly.

There are many instruments rich in transients, but one of the easiest to identify are castanets. Good quality equipment should have no problem reproducing them accurately and credibly, but mediocre loudspeakers or headphones may not be able to recreate them well, especially if they coexist with a large orchestral mass.

The level of detail

Identifying the level of detail that the audio component we are testing is capable of recreating is simple as long as, yes, the sound intake is up to the task.

test the quality of headphones, music to check the quality of headphones, headphones, listening to music
Listing to music

If the recording has managed to collect a high level of micro-detail in some of them, we will be able to hear the breathing of the musicians who play the wind instruments (especially the flute), or even the touch of the guitarists’ fingers when strumming the strings. . Some recordings by Paco de Lucía allow us to appreciate this last characteristic very clearly if the loudspeakers are capable of restoring this musical information.

If the distortion exceeds a certain threshold, it will cause us acoustic fatigue

One of the challenges faced by audio components, especially headphones, loudspeakers, and amplifiers, is distortion. It usually occurs when we increase the sound pressure level above a certain threshold, and it can ruin our experience due to acoustic fatigue.

If we turn up the volume to a realistic sound pressure level, and after a few minutes we notice discomfort in the ears or mental dullness, it is likely that the performance of the component we are testing is being compromised by the distortion.

Here you have some songs to check the quality of headphones

These are some of the musical songs to check the quality of the sound equipment that we analyze. As you can see, in addition to indicating the title of the cut and its interpreter, we specify the format in which we usually reproduce it:

  • ‘Stir it up’, by Bob Marley (FLAC 24 bit and 96 kHz)
  • ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’, by Susan Wong (FLAC 24 bits and 96 kHz)
  • ‘Redbud tree’, by Mark Knopfler (FLAC 24 bit and 96 kHz)
  • ‘Autumn in Seattle’, by Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio (PCM 16 bit 44.1 kHz)
  • ‘Spanish Harlem’, by Rebecca Pidgeon (PCM 16 bits and 44.1 kHz)
  • ‘You’ve got a friend’, by Susan Wong (FLAC 24 bits and 96 kHz)
  • ‘Wasted time’ by Eagles (PCM 16 bit 44.1 kHz)
  • ‘Vivaldi – Flute concerto in D’, Chesky Records (PCM 16 bit 44.1 kHz)
  • ‘Stimela’ by Hugh Masekela (PCM 16 bit 44.1 kHz)
  • ‘Lush life’, by Billy Strayhorn (FLAC 24 bit and 96 kHz)
  • ‘Afro blue’, by Mongo Santamaria (FLAC 24 bits and 96 kHz)
  • ‘April in Paris’, by Duke / Harburg (FLAC 24 bits and 96 kHz)
  • ‘No sanctuary here’, by Chris Jones (FLAC 24 bits and 44.1 kHz)
  • ‘Under the boardwalk’ by Mighty Echoes (PCM 16 bit 44.1 kHz)

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