Sound Quality in Headphones Explained
Headphone sound quality is usually a measurement of accuracy and enjoyability.
There is no absolute reference for sound quality. It’s entirely a matter of personal taste.
The accuracy of sound quality can be measured by people or tools. But the most objective and accurate audio quality results always come from using tools. This is the most objective way of measuring it.
Enjoyability, on the other hand, is totally subjective. Every person has their own preference for what good sound quality is.
When it comes to headphones a lot of people like deep, strong bass but most audiophiles usually prefer more accurate, natural sound.
If listening to headphones, earphones, or speakers, you alone decide if something sounds high quality to you.
- Subjective Categories of Sound Quality/Sound Signatures
- How is the Accuracy of Sound Quality Measured?
- Do kbps (kilobits per second) Matter for Sound Quality?
- Is Music Format Important for Sound Quality?
- Is Frequency Range of Headphones Important for Audio Quality?
- What’s Good Impedance for Headphones? Or Why are My Headphones So Quiet?
Subjective Categories of Sound Quality/Sound Signatures
There are many different categories of audio quality that people like.
The 3 most common are:
- Bass-heavy, strong emphasis on lower range to get strong, deep bass
- V-shaped, emphasis on bass and treble to give a more lively and dynamic sound
- Flat, balanced and neutral sounding with all frequencies being equal
Here’s a spreadsheet of other common types of sound signatures and how they sound.
Names of Sound Signatures – Spreadsheet
|Sound Signature Name||Bass (low freq.)||Mids (middle freq.)||Treble (high freq.)|
|Mid-Focused||Neutral /Recessed||Enhanced||Neutral /Recessed|
|Bright||Recessed /Neutral||Neutral /Recessed||Enhanced|
This spreadsheet might help you understand the audiophile language and what to expect from the sound quality.
How is the Accuracy of Sound Quality Measured?
There are many tools and methods to objectively measure the quality of the sound and the most common are:
- Frequency Range
- Signal-to-Noise Ratio SNR
- Spurious-free Dynamic Range SFDR
- Distortion Ratio SINAD
- % THD – percent of Total Harmonic Distortion
We’re not going into details here but you can check the links above for a more in-depth explanation.
Audiophiles and other audio enthusiasts can determine how specific headphones or speakers will sound with the help of this data. For an average user, this is usually not important as it’s too technical.
Do kbps (kilobits per second) Matter for Sound Quality?
Yes, the higher the kbps the higher the sound quality. This is the case for all formats and streaming music. For example, when using Spotify you have the option of changing the sound quality. On mobile from Normal 96kbps, High 160kbps and Extreme 320kbps.
You’ll enjoy High-Res Audio’s 9,126kbps a lot more than CD’s 1,411kbps or MP3’s 320kbps but higher bit rates aren’t yet available for streaming. You can read more about the comparison here.
If you have high-quality headphones you will be able to hear the difference in kbps.
Is Music Format Important for Sound Quality?
Yes, the format your music is in is very important. If you’re lossy formats you’re losing sound quality. Try to use lossless audio format for the best experience.
If you care about saving bandwidth the most, MP3 is still the go-to choice while only losing the parts of sound most people can’t hear.
But if you care about sound quality more, use FLAC as it’s most efficient while not losing any sound quality. Keep in mind, you need good headphones to be able to hear the difference.
Most common audio formats:
- MP3 – lossy compressed, the go-to format for “good enough” sound quality
- AAC – lossy compressed, newer and more efficient than MP3
- WMA – lossy compressed, competition to MP3, similar to AAC
- WAV – usually uncompressed
- FLAC – lossless compressed, the go-to format for all audiophile who like high sound quality
- ALAC – lossless compressed, Apple alternative to FLAC, a bit less efficient but supported by Apple products
Lossy formats damage the sound quality to maximize disk space savings.
Lossless formats save some disk space but don’t take away from the sound quality.
Is Frequency Range of Headphones Important for Audio Quality?
Since most headphones are made to roughly fit into the human hearing bandwidth of 20Hz to 20kHz (20,000Hz) checking the range is not very important.
Unless you can spot the difference which means you’re probably an audiophile yourself with many high-end headphones and great hearing. For an average user it’s not really important.
Most people can differentiate between groups of low frequency, middle frequency, and high frequency and not more than that.
Frequency response or how those ranges are represented is more important since this defines the sound signature.
What’s Good Impedance for Headphones? Or Why are My Headphones So Quiet?
If your headphones are too quiet even at max volume you probably need more power. It’s important to pick headphones with lower impedance (16Ω or 32Ω are most common) when you’ll be using them with your smartphone or laptop.
For higher impedance, represented by Ohm at 1kHz, you need more power. An amplifier is needed to drive higher impedance headphones properly.
Impedance alone doesn’t affect sound quality directly but it does affect loudness. Lower powered smartphones won’t make higher Ohm headphones loud enough which can be quite annoying.