How I Evaluate The Sound Quality of Headphones and Earbuds

Written by Pete Anthony 
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The purpose of this page is to explain, per my reviews, what good sound actually is. Or at least what I think it is. I don’t claim to be fully objective, or “right,” or the “best” by any means – all I know is I have my perspective, which I like to think continues to improve over time as I get more and more experience doing this.

To date I have written reviews for well over 100 pairs of headphones and earbuds, and I’ve read or listened to probably hundreds more reviews from others. I have done my best to fine tune my review process over time with the goal of being as objective and methodical as possible. And being totally objective is not truly possible by the way – audio reviews will always be subjective, and to a significant degree. But, I do try to get as close to objective as I can, at least enough so that I can compare products in a meaningful enough way to decide if something is better or worse than something else. And that’s what’s ultimately important – it doesn’t really matter where exactly a product sits on some theoretical scale of nothing to perfect, rather what matters is that you can choose what to buy, from what is available to you, and be the most happy with your decision.

So, what is “good” sound quality, then?

It seems like there are so many descriptors out there in the review world now that are used to describe sound. Stereophile has literally over 300 adjectives in their audio glossary. And the problem is that, the more descriptors there are, the less meaningful each one becomes and eventually it’s impossible to actually explain what something sounds like in a coherent way, which is already hard enough to do and only so useful. Stereophile’s glossary has a fair amount of circularity in fact, meaning one word is merely defined with another word in the glossary, and sometimes vice versa.

Here is my best attempt to explain what “good” sound quality in headphones or earbuds actually is, and in a reasonably concise and succinct way:

I believe that there are three primarily important factors for objectively good sound, and that any other factors secondarily stem from them. These three factors are: balance, clarity, and accuracy.

What does good balance mean?

I define it as a well tuned frequency response curve. In other words, that the volume of all sounds from low to high is decently even and well blended. This does not necessarily mean the curve needs to be flat/neutral, just that no parts of a song sound weirdly quiet or overly pronounced.

What does good clarity mean?

It means that you can clearly hear and make out each voice, instrument, and any other individual part of a song with decent detail. Good clarity is somewhat a function of good balance, because to hear and make out a sound it obviously first and foremost needs to be loud enough, or it needs to not be completely overpowered by something else.

What does good accuracy mean?

I define it as a more general term for tone or timbre, meaning that the sounds a pair of headphones or earbuds reproduces theoretically replicates the original recording and feels real or natural. For example a cymbal sounds like an actual cymbal as you would hear it with someone playing drums near you.

As I said, I believe any of the popular adjectives that are often used in reviews are ultimately a function of those three things. And don’t get me wrong, I use these adjectives too in my reviews all the time, because sometimes it’s the best way to explain something:

If the mids are too tuned up, headphones tend to sound hollow and boxy (bad balance).

If the bass is too tuned up, headphones tend to sound muddy and bloated (bad balance again).

If the trebles are too tuned down, headphones tend to sound narrow and muffled (bad clarity).

I could come up with many more examples, but I think you get the idea.

If a pair of headphones or earbuds has better balance, clarity, and accuracy than another, I think that just about anyone, if they listen to both, will say: “yea, this one sounds better than that one. And again, that’s what’s ultimately important to the lay consumer who is reading a review – it needs to be concise and succinct enough for them to be able to digest and understand so they can make the best decision.

Pete Anthony has had a lifelong affinity for music, and more recently has become an anti audiophile snob who wants great sound to be accessible and enjoyable by anyone. Without needing to break the bank. Read his full author page here.