Understanding Sound Signatures
Audiophiles describe the sound of specific headphones with only a few words. You probably heard the terminology “warm”, “natural”, or “V-Shaped”. These words essentially describe a modified frequency response, where a specific group of frequencies has more or less power than the others. The result is called sound coloration or signature.
In this article, you’ll find out what those words mean and what to expect from your listening experience. We also picked a few famous headphone brands and described their sound signatures.
- What is Sound Signature?
- Types of Sound Signatures
- What Kind of Sound Signature People Like the Most?
- Sound Signatures by Famous Brands
What is Sound Signature?
If you have listened to at least a couple of different headphones in your life, you probably noticed each of them sounded different.
Some of them are very bassy, some relaxed and easy to listen to, and some have piercing highs. That is because all those headphones are tuned to colorize the audio output in different ways. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing since specific signatures make certain genres of music sound better.
A sound signature is achieved by carefully tuning the drivers to amplify or subdue specific frequencies. Or make the headphone’s housing from different materials, such as metal, plastic, or wood, that could affect the overall coloration.
A signature can also be a personal thing. Maybe you like a little more bass or highs in your music. Or you simply can’t stand bright sounding headphones since your ears are too sensitive to treble.
Types of Sound Signatures
Headphones can be tuned in different ways. Some tunings are preferred by professionals working in the studio, while others are much more beloved amongst the general public. To better understand what audiophiles are saying in their headphone reviews, let’s see what types of signatures exist.
Flat – Neutral – Balanced – Natural
The idea of having a flat/neutral sounding headphone is to have all frequencies in their intended range. The result is a flat sound without any coloration. Everything sounds the way it came from the music studio.
Professionals in the audio industry heavily rely on neutral headphones to achieve perfect masters of recording. If the songs that come from the studios were mastered with non-neutral equipment, the result would be inconsistencies when listening with other headphones.
A neutral sound signature is also liked among audiophiles because it provides musical experience closest to the original. However, many people find flat sounding headphones dull.
That is where a balanced or natural-sounding headphones come into place. There is a small difference between the neutral and balanced, but it’s so small that you can place them in the same category.
Balanced sound is essentially a slightly adjusted neutral signature, with a little more bass and treble presence. This helps tremendously when trying to achieve a more pleasing listening experience. It brings out the natural resonance of the elements in the mix (instruments, vocals), which makes it more pleasing to listen to. In comparison, a neutral signature sounds a bit drier and less exciting.
Extra Bass – Bassy
The name tells it all. Bass is the star of the show here, pumping insane amounts of it. This sound signature is most popular among bassheads: users, who like bassy headphones.
While this kind of signature works excellent with electronic music and hip hop, it tends to overshadow the rest of the mix, hiding lots of details beneath the meaty low-end.
This is what happens if you elevate the bass and treble while reducing midrange. The frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz as a straight line represents a neutral sound. V-shaped means that this straight line turns into a “V”.
What you end up with is a punchy low-end, with sparkly highs. Everything sounds louder, making for a very energetic listening. That is why this V-shaped sound signature is the most popular with the general public. It’s the safest way to tune your headphones.
However, this tuning can have its disadvantages. If done poorly, it can affect detail retrieval, producing a muddy, uncontrolled sound. Some headphones are also tuned to resemble U-shape, where the midrange isn’t as recessed compared to V-shape.
Bright sound involves higher frequencies to be boosted, giving you a sense of clarity and air. People tend to associate this signature with sibilance, but that is not entirely true. While the problematic frequencies lye within the treble region, those can still be subdued to reduce the hissing “s” in the singer’s voice or loud cymbal crashes.
That way, you can still listen to your bright sounding headphones without painful interruptions. This signature is great for users who are seeking micro details in audio tracks. They’re suitable for both music and professional work, where it’s crucial to know if your recording sounds ok.
This is the opposite of bright. Dark headphones lack the emphasis in the treble, which brings the bass and mids upfront.
Not that the dark-sounding headphones aren’t detailed. The most famous dark headphone is the Sennheiser HD 650, and these are considered a must-have under $500 for any serious audiophile.
It’s just that those fine details are not so in your face as with bright headphones.
Analytical – Clinical
On some web forums, people use these two words to describe a signature, which is a mix of both flat and bright sound. The result is a very revealing presentation, with tons of details coming through the mix.
Although this sounds great in theory, it can be frustrating in practice. Analytical headphones tend to be less forgiving towards the poorly recorded tracks, exposing the flaws you otherwise can’t hear. It can be devastating to find out your favorite song sounding awful, so people usually stay away from headphones like that.
When you try to polish the harsh frequency peaks to avoid sibilance, that’s what makes the sound smooth. Headphones can also be bright and smooth at the same time. If the tuning is done correctly, you can still experience most of the micro details in the mids and highs without annoying harshness. Although for the optimal resolution, you still have to opt for something less smooth and more bright or analytical.
It’s the result of bass emphasis, giving your overall audio output a distinctive “warmth”. This is the type of signature you can actually feel. A headphone with a warm sound can be very soothing and easy to listen to. However, too much warmth can result in bass bleed, where low-end start hiding all the details in the midrange and treble.
Jazz sounds wonderful with warm-sounding equipment. Again, it boosts the relaxing nature of the genre, making you keep listening.
What Kind of Sound Signature People Like the Most?
There wouldn’t be so many sound signatures if people wouldn’t have different preferences. Some want more details, while others want more punch, or just to be relaxed. It depends on your preference.
However, as we mentioned, the V-Shaped sound signature is the safest pick for manufacturers to tune their headphones. It’s the most energetic from the bunch, forcing people to start shaking their heads and dance. Neutral sounding headphones can also be enjoyable to listen too, but they’re more suitable for sitting in your chair and hearing all the nuances in the music, rather than blasting your ears off at the party.
What is Harman Curve?
We are going into scientific water here since the Harman Curve exists because of psychoacoustics, a study of how people react to sound signatures. Have you ever questioned yourself why we don’t have some sort of universally appealing signature? Why does every speaker sound different?
In 2010, Sean Olive (Harman International) and his colleagues were trying the solve the same mystery of what tuning sounds the best to the human ear. They tested hundreds of headphones on hundreds of listeners from all around the globe. In the end, they come up with the Harman Curve.
In general, Harman Curve is very similar to the previously mentioned balanced sound signature, where you tweak the response a bit to come out as more natural. Audiophile ear will notice a boost in bass and treble, which might make you think this curve can’t be that accurate. But in reality, the experience resembles listening to music in a room full of speakers.
Sound Signatures by Famous Brands
When you think of headphones, at least a few famous brands pop up in your head. Well, most brands can be associated with a specific sound signature. Therefore, when you’re buying your next pair, try to remember what kind of sound signatures you can expect from a particular brand.
It depends on what price range their headphones are, but in general, their sound leans toward boosted high-end and upper midrange. Their bright presentation works great for vocals and small details, making them perfect for studio monitoring.
Their open-back series (ATH-AD700X and above) also exhibits incredible midrange and high frequency clarity, while also portraying massive soundstage. That’s why they’re popular among gamers.
However, their lower-priced models tend to have an emphasis on bass, giving them more fun, punchy sound. The prime example of that are the insanely popular ATH-M40x/M50x.
JBL likes their headphone to sound full. That means the bass adds extra thickness to everything inside the mix, from instruments to vocals, giving you a more pleasing listening experience.
Sometimes, they can overdo their tuning, which results in a bit too warm, almost dark sound that lacks detail. Nevertheless, their products are usually enjoyable to listen to, especially if you’re in a party mood.
This German company is known for its studio-grade headphones, which tend to be a bit V-shaped, but in a tasteful way. Their cans reveal lots of details up on top, but they can also be slightly less forgiving toward poorly recorded tracks. That is why sibilance can be an issue. Still, when listening to proper sources, the sound quality on these can be fantastic.
For the majority of AKG’s history, their headphones were the first pick by many music studios. You can also see them used on radio stations and podcasts. And for a good reason. Their signature leans toward flat, natural response, which is excellent if you want to mix your recording correctly. Their K-series (K240, K701) is the most famous when it comes to studio work.
Many of their products also exhibit above average soundstage, which makes them suitable for classical music and jazz.
Another German company that has a diverse line-up of headphones. Starting with their cheaper products, those like to have a more full, bassy sound. A good example are the Momentums and HD series below the 600 mark (for example, Sennheiser HD 559), which are geared towards the general consumer. Low-end on these can be extremely deep and punchy, making the overall sound very warm.
Mid-tier headphones are slightly different. Insane bass is replaced by a more neutral and controlled one, with the midrange staying full and detailed. Treble usually takes a step back, making for a slightly darker sound. The audio community calls this the “Sennheiser veil”. Most popular model: HD 600/650.
Their most expensive models are incredibly huge and almost space-like in design. They can easily reach price tags of $1000 and above. With that, you get an impressive clarity, picking up the small details you never heard before. The step-up in soundstage is also noticeable, offering an amazing experience if you like classical genres.
This brand hardly needs an introduction. They make one of the most popular headphones on the market, with a huge following behind them. What made them so popular (besides the massive campaigns and endorsements among famous people) is their signature sound.
Basically all their headphones come with a severe V-Shaped sound signature, with booming bass and sparkly treble. In the past few years, they made some improvements regarding bass quality, making it more controlled and detailed. However, the quantity remains the same, so you always feel like you’re having a disco inside your ears.
Sony is a much more diverse company since they make everything from analytical headphones, expensive audiophile stuff, and consumer-friendly ANC cans. Starting from the lower-tier models, this is where you will find mostly Extra Bass headphones. They perform just the way the name suggests.
Going over $100 mark you can see much more balanced headphones coming up, with the most popular one being the WF-1000 and WH-1000 series, although these are still somewhat bassy.
Their audiophile headphones are much brighter and analytical, making them a required taste. Those products are also very expensive, so you don’t hear much about them.
They have always strived to bring the most balanced audio experience possible, even if that involved doing some audio trickery with DSP (digital signal processing).
To get the specific audio ouput from the speaker you need to carefully design the housing and pick the right materials for the interior. But Bose is known for making products that sound far better than they look. That is why some audiophiles hate their products, but in reality, there is nothing wrong with them.
Can Headphone Amplifier Affect the Sound Signature?
In general, headphone amplifiers shouldn’t change your headphone’s characteristics. As the name suggests, they are only meant to amplify the sound without adding coloration to it. However, some users say that amps with vacuum tubes sound a bit warm and smooth, maybe even dark.
When deciding which amplifier to buy, you mostly need to make sure you buy the one that will sufficiently drive your headphones. Many consumer headphones can be easily driven by a mobile phone, whereas audiophile-grade ones can have higher impedance, needing extra juice.
It’s not that you can’t drive them to insane loudness with your phone, it’s the way headphones are controlled. Your headphone can sound a bit off or even harsh when driven from a poor amp. Therefore, more powerful amps will make your headphones sound tighter, more focused, and more detailed.
Can Media Have a Specific Sound Signature?
Yes, it can. That was the main reason why many hated CD’s when they came out. Compared to vinyl, CD packs better clarity and dynamics, but it sounds a bit too unnatural to some. On the other hand, vinyls are almost always a bit warmer and more natural. Therefore it comes down to personal preference.