4 WAYS TO JUDGE THE SOUND QUALITY OF SPEAKERS
If you don’t think of yourself as a “critical listener” but you love good home theatre sound, you’ll enjoy this simple framework for judging speaker sound quality.
Even if you’re experienced, you might appreciate the perspective!
What follows is a simple 4-part system used to explain sound quality to clients on the sales floor, and it’s a great way to discover what kind of sound is best for you.
Each area of focus will have two different qualities to consider. It’s not a “one or the other” proposition either: You can have a combination of these qualities, although they tend to have trade offs.
This system isn’t perfect for audiophile levels of judgement, but it’s very handy for most people who need something practical.
- What Determines Good Bass?
- How Do You Judge A Speaker’s Highs?
- Do All Speakers Have “3D” Sound?
- What Makes Sound Quality Emotional?
- 4 Ways To Judge Sound: Cheat Sheet
What Determines Good Bass?
In the mainstream audio world, bass seems to be the number one most popular frequency of sound. Maybe that’s because cheap audio equipment usually has zero bass (like free speakers that come built into the TV, or earphones that come with your Samsung mobile).
The thing is, most people don’t realise that more bass doesn’t equal better bass.
If you’ve ever heard a Honda Accord whiz by on the street with the ridiculous boom-boom-rattle of an aftermarket car subwoofer… then you have an idea on what I mean by this!
What you want from your bass response is depth and presence, yes. But you also want tightness.
Good bass can be broken down to extension and tightness.
Bass extension means: How low does a system go?
The cheap speakers I mentioned before have an extension problem. They aren’t able to produce the lower frequencies in music and movies, so you get no bass.
When you start looking at better speakers, you start hearing lower sounds. The bass frequencies below 100 Hz are impressive — that’s when you start to FEEL the sound as much as hear it.
Bass tightness on the other hand means: How boomy is this bass?
The Honda Accord I told you about had a huge subwoofer putting out some seriously low bass. But the acoustics of the system, the tightness of the sub’s speaker driver, and the quality of the audio signal all influence the boominess.
If you haven’t guessed, boomy bass is not great. Some may enjoy it because they just love bass so much, but for 99% of people the sound is much better when it’s accurate. Boomy bass drowns out all the other frequencies of sound AND it doesn’t deliver the bass track that’s actually in the song or film.
To this day I think one of the most impressive and enjoyable sounds a system can create is a super-deep, super-tight, accurate bass response!
How Do You Judge A Speaker’s Highs?
The “little brother” of big bass, that doesn’t get nearly as much attention is what most people call “highs” (i.e. high frequencies).
The actual frequency here is arbitrary, but from first-hand experience most people are referring to upper vocals, cymbals, and high-pitched movie sounds.
The way a sound system handles this area is something worth paying attention to. If it’s not handled well, you can get a flat sound that seems to come from a tin can. Or worse: You can get a “fatiguing” sound that wears your ears out!
Good highs can be broken down into presence and smoothness.
High frequency presence means: Is this system playing highs at all?
Presence is the equivalent of “extension” from the bass section above. A system tends to either extend upward and include that upper “spark,” or it doesn’t even try and lacks it entirely.
Smoothness means: Are these highs hurting my ears?
The term sibilance in audio describes a kind of harsh, “bright edge” that comes through when a system is trying to produce “s” sounds from a vocalist. When the recording isn’t great, the receiver is struggling, or the speaker can’t create smooth highs, you get a really harsh sound from these.
The other time it’s really obvious is with percussion cymbals. If the rest of the volume doesn’t hurt your ears but the cymbals do, the system may be lacking smoothness.
When you hear a high frequency response that’s present and smooth, you’ll think of words like “clarity” and “detail.”
When it comes to home theatre, presence is critical if you want to understand the dialog in your movies — especially at lower volumes. That’s why one of the features of the Jensen sound is to make sure high-frequency presence is preserved, while keeping a non-fatiguing smoothness that allows you to listen for long periods.
Do All Speakers Have “3D” Sound?
The next quality of speaker sound worth looking at is “soundstage.”
Soundstage takes advantage of the brain’s ability to place sounds based on how loud they are for each ear. The most basic version of this is the “stereo image.” Right and left audio tracks are sent to right and left speakers to create the illusion of placement for each sound they create.
(This is one key to the unique Perfect Centre Speaker technology you’ll find in the Jensen ELITE-303 in-wall speakers. You get left, right AND centre channel audio from only two speakers — saving you the space and cost of getting a centre speaker.)
Beyond stereo, a soundstage becomes a room filling surround sound experience — where the same phenomenon is used to create sounds all over the room in 5.1, 7.1 Atmos and up.
Good soundstage can be broken down into separation and detail.
Soundstage separation means: How clear is the position of a sound?
When a soundstage is lacking, you get vague sound placement. You might be able to tell a sound is on the right or left… but in general it’s kind of blended together.
On the flip side, when you have really good separation you can tell two different sounds apart… on the same side!
This gives you a whole spectrum of “panning” across the room, where footsteps could go from one end to the other. Or maybe a drummer and guitarist could be heard from two different locations on the right.
Soundstage detail is slightly different: How “3D” is each individual sound?
Even though audio image defines where each sound comes from in the room, you also have a sense of image for each sound on it’s own. This is a form of “detail” in the audio quality.
If you hear both guitar and singing from one spot in the middle of the room… but the guitar and the singing sound very much like separate objects… then you’re experiencing this quality of soundstage.
It comes down to the responsiveness of the system and the quality of the recording. In movies this will be much less noticeable because the audio tracks don’t get as much attention as they do in music. But it’s still something to consider when judging sound.
I recommend looking for an “80%” level of detail here, because super-detailed sound can be a bit cold (more on this in the next section). It’s similar to the high-frequency discussion above except it applies to all frequency bands.
So I’d recommend an emotional sound that’s warm but still keeps a good level of detail.
Soundstage is one of the prized qualities of the Jensen line. The dedication to detail is first and foremost to deliver a really great surround sound separation. Adding that to the in-built form factor — which gives you a little more space from each speaker — and your whole room becomes an immersive cinema.
What Makes Sound Quality Emotional?
This is the most subjective and personal part of sound quality…
When you’re listening to music or watching movies, the emotional “main event” is in the way the content makes YOU feel.
If you’ve ever listened to a favorite song after a hard breakup… or you felt inspired to start a business after watching The Wolf Of Wall Street… then you know the connection you make is what matter most.
The sound quality itself doesn’t create this effect… but it seriously enhances it!
Good emotion can be broken down into warmth and realism.
Warmth in sound comes from “harmonics,” which are different tones that compliment each other. Think about the sound of a single guitar string versus a chord of the same note… the chord FEELS more alive and emotional.
But it’s more than just chords. Harmonics exist when the acoustics of a room get involved (in a tasteful way), like how a live recording feels different to a studio one.
They even exist within the performance of the system itself — usually associated with “analog” equipment — which is why turntables and old school recordings are so popular. They just FEEL exciting and they make you want to get up and dance.
Mid-range heavy audio can give a sense of warmth as well. That could be one reason the guitar is the most popular instrument — it’s mid ranged sound delivers a lot of emotion.
Warmth sure sounds great, doesn’t it?
But… what about “realism?”
Realism is more associated with clean, tidy sound. Instead of a live recording with fuzzy edges and slight reverb, realism comes from a dead quiet studio room with only the sound of the performers.
It’s punchy and fast, crystal clear and reveals details like lips separating and feet scooting.
Realism is a good measure of emotional quality because it’s stoic and polite. In extreme cases it’s analytical. In a sense, it brings an intellectual kind of emotion to the table. Less fiery and more introspective.
Again the content and recording really matter. But the equipment can add or take away from the realism.
While one side of this coin may feel more appealing to you than the other, I recommend balancing these two sound types as best you can.
The detail and separation of realism is really enjoyable and it allows you to experience your music and movies as they truly are. But warmth?
This is another quality we’ve brought to the Jensen range. To stay true to a rich, explosive sound that brings movies to life, we made sure our speakers add a delightful warmth. But in line with keeping the voices audible at low levels, detail and clarity were must haves — so realism is part of the experience as well.
4 Ways To Judge Sound: Cheat Sheet
Thanks for reading! If you have any other questions, contact us here.
To learn more, check out these related articles…
5 Reasons To Go In-wall Or In-ceiling For Your Next Home Theatre
7.1 Vs 5.1.2: Is Atmos Thriving Or Diving?
How To Play Music Through All Surround Sound Speakers