How to tell if you have good music (sound signature is the key)

We listen to music/sound on our phones, in-ear/headphones, from the TV or soundbar and speakers. Here is how to tell if you have good music and how we judge sound quality using a defined sound signature.

Most people simply say, “That sound is good/terrible.” That is a terrible way to describe sound. It is like calling food nice or ‘tastes like chicken’ when it’s a complex mix of you salty, sweet, bitter, sour, soft, hard, mushy, etc. Avoid any reviews that simply talk about their favourite tracks. Sound is a science.

There is a little background you need to know first.

Human hearing (frequency range) is allegedly 20Hz (bass) to 20kHz (treble). Most humans lose hearing as they grow older or suffer from occupational deafness. It is not deafness but the inability to hear the entire frequency range. Most can hear from about 150Hz to 8kHz. The range is:

Deep-bass
20-50Hz
You most often feel it more in your body than you hear in your ears – that room-shaking rumble. A very good sub-woofer handles this.
Mid-bass
50-100Hz
The most critical bass where you get all the musically important bass. An average sub-woofer usually handles this.
Upper-bass
100-200Hz
Most small sound devices, like portable Bluetooth speakers and earphones, start here but lack the ‘oomph’ that mid-bass adds.
Mid
(low, mid, high)
200Hz to 4Khz
Where the action is. It covers the human voice (1-4khz), where our ears are most sensitive even as we age. This is the critical area for clear dialogue.
Low/mid-treble
4-10kHz
This defines sound character – without it, sound can seem dull. But too strong and sounds can be harsh.
High-treble
10-20kHz
Most cannot hear this, but it is vital to add a sense of sound direction and a feeling of “air”, a reality as though the music were really there

There are seven distinct sound signatures and, of course, variations on these.

  1. Balanced: (bass boosted, mid recessed, treble boosted) also called V-shaped and the default on many devices – despised by audiophiles
  2. Bass: (bass boosted, mid/treble recessed) – for bass music but can sound boomy or muddy compared to warm and sweet
  3. Warm and Sweet (bass/mid boosted, treble recessed) – the nirvana for most music and movies
  4. Mid: (bass recessed, mid boosted, treble recessed) – for clear voice
  5. Bright Vocal (bass recessed, mid/treble boosted) – for vocal tracks and string instruments, but can make them harsh
  6. Analytical: (bass/mid recessed; treble boosted) – crisp but not pleasant for most music
  7. Neutral: The audiophile standard is a flat (good) response that neither adds nor subtracts from the original music! The only issue here is garbage-in, garbage out – the better the music quality, the better it sounds.

How to test maximum volume?

If you have a decent quality Android smartphone with stereo mics (usually limited to 90dB), download Sound meter. It is not pro-grade as we use, but it will indicate approximate maximum sound levels. Most Android phones have an 80dB limiter on the speaker, 3.5mm, and Bluetooth.

How we test a speaker’s native capability

We use a white noise generator to push the speaker to its limits. We record that in a frequency response graph. You can try this at home if you have a better, quality Android smartphone with at least dual microphones. Download Advanced Spectrum Analyzer PRO (simple to use) and play the white noise generator below using maximum volume settings. If the graph is ‘choppy’ in parts, the speaker is not very good at that frequency.

good sound
This is the Apple HomePod mini and it has no low/mid/high-bass, uncontrolled mids and almost no treble. But you need to understand that it is a small speaker and not really intended for hi-fi but clear voice from 1-4kHz.

But the human ear is the final test in how to tell if you have good music

Assuming you know what sounds good (top you) and what does not (that can be a big assumption), find these three tracks off Spotify (YouTube versions below – not the best fidelity).

The Blues Brothers Peter Gunn Theme has magnificent trumpets over a deep-bass, backbeat – Just the facts, ma’am. Great for testing deep-and-mid-bass and vocals. ! I could listen to Blues Brother Jazz all day long on a good speaker.

Beachboys is predominately vocals and guitar. If it sounds ‘tinny’ or ‘harsh’, it means the speaker cannot handle mid-high treble.

Manhattan Transfer is one of the great modern Jazz (1970s) bands using a mix of high range synthesized music and vocal and instrumental. It also has one of the most expansive sound stages with terrific left and right directionality. See if you get the ‘shivers’ – that’s excellent mid-upper treble.

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