Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Sound Review Process a Look into How and Why

The Sound Review Process 

I am at heart a lover of music, I started my journey into the Audiophile hobby to bring me closer to the quality of music I've come to enjoy over the years. As an aspiring musician my self, I've always appreciated the story or the message that can be told with music. Though often times the juicy details of that story are lost, either during the mixing and mastering process or during play back. So I began to seek out how I could get the full picture as it were, I began to wonder how I could pull all of the little details out of my music. Allowing me to really listen to the story my favorite musician were telling! 

Thus, when I'm auditioning a headphone I use music and cinema to help me judge the sound characteristic of the headphone it self. 

I have nine songs that I use for comparative reference, with each of them being of a different genre and offering a unique look into what ever I'm hardware I'm listening with. I also enjoy clips from, the original Ghost in the Shell OVA, Pacific Rim, Master and Commander The Far Side of the World along with Mad Max: Fury Road.

As of recently, I've also started to accumulate my self with a new headphone by listening through David Chesky's The Ultimate Demonstration Disc. 

Music for Headphones





The Zephyrtine - A Ballet Story [ Fundacao Orquestra Estudio, Rui Massena] 
#09 Dance of the Zephyrtines
  • I'm listening for the tonal balance of the mids with this track- starting with the quality of the mids on the Brass horns in the introduction as well as the attack and decay of those beautiful horns.  I'm listening for a full and snappy sound.
  • Additionally, there are some very odd little details in this track,  almost like the sound of... a page turning placed through the intro and middle of the track. Hence, when auditioning headphones I'm listening for the strange micro details that are in this track... as they don't quite fit in and tend to stand out on well detailed headphones. 
  • Finally, I'm listening for a well layered tonal presentation. This classical piece has many layers to it, from the drums, to the wood winds, the brass horns and every chiming bells! A tonally balanced and well layered headphone is able to present this rather busy piece, without shifting the focus to one single instrument.  While retaining the snap and solidity of each instrument as they move through their dynamic shifts. 

Kind of Blue (2015 Mobile Sound Fidelity Labs Re-release) [Miles Davis] #01 So What
  •  Staring with the intro, I'm listening to micro details. There is a very faint sound of a gong being struck, it's in the intro as well as a second time during the end of the song. There are other... interesting sounds in this song as well, 
  • I love this track for bass detail, texture and speed as well. The upright double bass provides a great sense of attack with a very unique decay pattern, in addition to note changes as he moves up and down the neck. 
  • I'm also listening to the quality of the drums, the Brass horn and bass lines are very dominating in this track, a the high hats can some what mask the attack of the drums on headphones or systems lacking in tonal clarity. The drummer does an excellent job building energy in the track with a well mannered high hat beat and his drum line, which is played at an irregular tempo. I particularly like the aggressive drum roll that's set about 3/4 way into the song for gauging weight.
  • I feel this is an excellent song for judging the overall layering ability and tactility of a headphone. The track is extremely well recorded, and very tactile. There is an amazing story being told within this song, and each of the little mirco details adds to that. From the extra weight of a drum note, to the quicker strides of the bassist, to masterful brass horns. 

Igor Levit: Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski #01 Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations 
  • Again there is a lot of mirco detail in this track as well, the sound of some one shuffling in the back ground throughout the entire track, in addition to the breaths the pianist takes in from time to time
  • In addition, I'm listening to the attack and decay on each of note, as well as the overall body as well as the overall tone of the Piano
  • Finally, I'm listening for overall frequency response of a headphone, as the pianist shifts from the upper bass/ lower mids to the central mids I'm listening for a consistent weight and fullness within the sound.






Collected [Shadow Child] #07 The Verdict (Part 2) (Edit)
  • I usually don't eq... but for this track I make an exception. This one is ALLLL ABOUT THE BASS. So I EQ a -5 shelf starting at 156 hrz, so I can really focus in on the bass. 
  • This tracks features very deeep heavy bass synth, Generally, I just slowly increase the volume an see how well the drivers handle the bass. I can go up to about 90dbs before my ears start to bother me... a lot. I usually don't even make it that high... Non the less, with this track I am 100% listening for distortion, excessive decay and roll off. This track nails in some pretty heavy stuff right around 35ish hrz, in particular the very end of the track has a nice 20hrz thump... like a final breathe 
  • The bass track on this is also very textured... Shadow Child has a very nice sub bass wobble he uses a few times in the track. It's a very distinct shift from a low to an even lower hrz synth tone, so I'm also listening for overall speed and decay. Many headphones will... distort with this wobble and either miss it entirely or render it as a single beat... or soften it overall. I'm listening for a very sturdy low end, as well as good sense of grip to the bass. 
... And Justice for All - [Metallica] #05 The Shortest Straw

  • I love this track for testing the overall balance of a headphone as well as tactility. The track as a whole is very hard and mixed rather narrowly. 
  • The double bass track on the drums along with the heavy guitars riffs really allow me to gauge the how much attack and decay a headphone has within it's presentation. A headphone without the right balance of the two, will either sound overly aggressive and very metallic or will present this song in a warm soupy mess.
  • Additionally, the narrow mix can be challenging for some warmer headphones to render clearly. For me a clear and accurate render has both the vocals and the guitars within the same plane of distance with neither one out shadowing the other, additionally the high hats sit slightly above the guitars and vocals with the bass drum at the rear. This mix also has the bass guitar buried very deeply, so for me I'm also listening for that bass line. Any mid distortion, or smeared sound staging will mask over this already subdued bass line. 
Migration - [Dai Quing Tana & Haya Band] #04 Gayatri 
  • Sadly, I've never understood a word of what she is saying, that said I love this track for vocals! The lack of... linguistic understanding here really helps me focus in on the sound of the vocals for each headphone. Her voice in particular is unique, she has a lot of low mid body in addition to a slight upper mid/ low treble peaks in her voice. Right around 4 and 7k hrz Hence, I love to really listen to her voice, I'm listening in particular for the soft low body tactility in her voice as well as the touch of airiness. 
  • I'm also listening for a clean bass to mid shift, her voice has a nice peak around 240hrz with an acoustic guitar playing behind her in the same range, but dipping a little lower with a melodic riff starting with a low note around 120. As the song progresses, the addition of a drum adds to this very rich low mid and bass section.  For me, a well tuned headphone will render both the body of the lower bass notes on the guitar and drums in addition to the lower mids in both her voice and the guitar. 
  • As for the highs, I'm listening for the touch of sparkle in the high hats in addition to the crisp sounds of the guitar strings as they are strummed. As well as the texture of the bow as it's drawn across the viola in the latter half of the song. So all of these little details in the upper mids and treble allow me to gauge the top end extension, speed and clarity.  


Lingua Franca - [T.R.A.M] #01 Seven Ways Till Sunday
  • Balance, track features a strong and diverse range of elements. Female Vocals, a powerful bass riff, some amazing percussion and trumpets. 
  • This track is my favorite for judging the overall mid balance and speed of a headphone. The track has a heavy focus in the mids. The crunch of the guitars, the sweetness of the solo, the warmth of the brass and the serenade of the vocals. There's a lot to process and with a sluggish or sucked our mid range the track loses it magic. 
  • A touch of micro detail presents it self a few times during playback, especially in the outro. I'm listening for not only those details, but how they play into the mix. Whether or not they presented tactfully in the background or forced down my throat. 


Jazz In the New Harmonic - [David Chesky] #08 Transcendental Tripping 
  • Sound stage, this track is by far wonderful for it's very 3D sound stage. It was recorded binauraly and thus has a fantastically realistic sound stage presentation! Hence, the 3D nature of this recording is excellent for testing how well a headphone can reproduce what the binaural head heard! 
  • I also like this track for testing dynamics, as there are a few subtle dynamic shifts as the track progresses that are sometimes missed on slower headphones. 
  • This track also features a very breathy brass performance, as such I'm listening for those extra breaths the saxophonist and trumpet player take during the track. 






Beginning of The New Legend - [Ark Storm] #06 Evolution 
  • Well... it's a bass solo so this track is dedicated to bass and low mids as well as tactility! This track is one of my favorites for how incredibly tactile it is! Any excessive decay what so ever, removes... the sheer sense of speed that Isuma demonstrates with both his fretting and fingering. Their bassist Isuma Takita does a fantastic job in this track, his fretting is very quick and solid. For me this tracks demonstrates how well controlled the bass is, as there are many over lapping bass notes and a lot of texture as he's playing. 
  • There are also many extra details layered within as well, the sound of the strings hitting the fret board, the squeal as he moves up and down the neck. For my the plethora of details in this track are outstanding to listen to, with a headphone transparent enough to render them. 
  • In addition, the shift from the lowest notes around 45-50 hrz to some of the higher ones around 450hrz, give me a clear picture of well well the headphone transitions from bass to mids.


I enjoy these songs out of a few different sources, I use my NFB10ES2 Kernel Streaming out of FooBar2000 in addition to listening with my Hifiman HM601 and HM 901 Line Out into my Headmp PicoPower. While my Audio GD NFB10ES 2  and HM 901 to PicoPower chain are incredibly transparent, my HM 601 is a very warm source and amp, and most entry level Digital Audio Players and cellular playback devices tend to also be very warm as well. So listening with my HM 601 as my only source and amp, gives me a chance to see how headphones will work for users who source and amp with Cellular devices, or entry level digital audio players exclusively.

I use my Hifiman HE 4 as a absolute reference for open backs, it's sourced and amped from FooBar 2000 running Kernel Streaming into my Audio GD NFB10ES2 balanced Solid State Dac/Amp exclusively. I always use a balanced cable with my HE 4 as well. I also have a 40 band Frequency display I monitor, in addition to a L/R DB meter, wave form and spectograph, that I monitor when I'm listening. It gives me objective data to compare to my subjective impressions.

For closed backs I'm happy to announce that I've gotten a ZMF Eikon in Cherry as my Closed Back reference, I run it out of my Audio GD NFB10ES2 Line out into my Project Ember II with a Sylvania 6SN7W Chrome Dome Short Bottle, for me the ZMF has beauty and detail in the mids from my Hybrid Tube and it's wood housing, in addition to amazing clarity in the bass and resolve in the top end. It's a more detailed and balanced closed back, capturing the best both of my older Mid Range closed backs. 

Here's a picture of my Music Player along with some of the objective readings it has on display. 

To my ears, the HE 4 offers a completely transparent look into music. It has incredibly low distortion and decay with the sound, and the presentation is extremely tactile, it really gives me the feeling of being there with the music! Thus, when I'm listening to a new headphone I will compare the changes to the sound in that headphone to my reference. 

When comparing the HE 4 to other headphones, I always Volume Match each with a SPL Meter and a 1000 hrz Test tone, my Audio GD NFB10ES2 has a push button volume display, so each of the steps are literally numbered. Allowing me to dial the volume very specifically and meticulously. 

Cinematic Viewing



For testing 3D placement and imaging within a soundscape I enjoy viewing clips from the original Ghost in the Shell OVA. In both fast paced action and slower dialogue scenes, the Ghost in the Shell OVA does an excellent job of presenting sound in correspondence with the visual location of characters, from the sounds of an approaching helicopter from behind a shot, to a characters voice trailing off as they exit a scene. 


I love Pacific Rim, the opening scene starts with a raspy male monologue and transitions into a thunderous monster roar, as it plays out the sound of gunfire, and explosions is soon met with an upbeat battle anthem. Being a mecha monster movie, each movement is accompanied by the deep rumble of their weight, with a clear distinction of what is mechanical, electrical and organic. The scene continues, with the pounding sounds of the ocean and the deep throaty cries of the monster. Overall, that opening scene gives me an excellent look into full spectrum response, transients and overall clarity. 



Cannon fire, the thunderous roar of gunpowder driving iron balls through the air, A deep creaking as the waves gently toss and turn the crew, men scurrying across the bow accompanied by foot steps, each a different weight, a different pace. Master and Commander builds suspense right from the start, with a dynamic detailed soundscape, amidst a fog covered battle, This movie unlike the others, presents an incredibly dynamic listening experience. From the quiet lull of foot steps, distant voices, to the  sudden screams of battle, Master and Commander grants me the opportunity to test the speed of a headphone as it shifts from quite to loud almost abruptly, in addition to it's ability to layer micro-details amidst a strong bass presentation. 



The ending scene of Mad Max Fury Road, offers a wide range of vocal performances, cast amidst the screams of hot engines and gun fire. A plethora of mirco-detail accompanies a well defined sound stage, as the camera pans across different angles. From Nux spitting fuel into the engine and the sounds of his guzzolene can gently placed on the hood of the War Rig. All accompanied by a tense orchestral background piece. My final cinematic clip tests the full experience, 3D sound stage, full spectrum response, the speed of transients and the overall ability to layer mirco details, amidst all the action. 


For Amps/Dacs/Daps


 My review process is similar for amplifiers, digital audio converters and digital audio players. I make use of both my HE 4 and my Modded W1000X. My HE 4 is a very hard to drive headphone, more so than a 600 ohm dynamic thus I use it to give me a real world gauge of power on hand. Often times an amp will drive it "loud enough" but not well enough, or not with a quality that is enjoyable to listen to. 
Like wise my W1000X , though unlike the HE 4 it is very picky and prone to pulling out any noise or distortion. I find it to be very transparent, but it's also easily influenced by it's source and amplification. In contrast to the HE 4, it responds badly to high power but low quality amps, the two together allow me to test the flexibility of an amp, in both high and low power demands. As well as the overall tonal balance of an amplifier.

For gauging Sound Stage, Dynamics, Imaging I use

David Cheskys Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc 
  • I primarily use the test tracks for sound stage, such as # 16 Four Surround Sound Voices, #20 Drum and Bell Walk Around the Mic and #24/26/28 for gauging sound stage 
  •  #53 & #55 for speficially testing bass roll off, the tones from 25-20 are pretty freaking cool! The feel like a dragon breathing on your neck! Though these do require some careful usage, as it is unnatural and strenuous on a driver to play these low bass tones continuously. I'm listening for any oddities or distortion.  [Ofc the HE 4 handles everything from 300-20 perfectly with it's very linear response in that range] 

I also enjoy using Igor Levit: Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski #01 Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations  for mid range purity tone, timbre and mirco detail. There are also some very fine comb details present in this track.



Kind of Blue (2015 Mobile Sound Fidelity Labs Re-release) [Miles Davis] #01 So What
  •  Staring with the intro, I'm listening to micro details. There is a very faint sound of a gong being struck, it's in the intro as well as a second time during the end of the song. There are other... interesting sounds in this song as well, 
  • I love this track for bass detail, texture and speed as well. The upright double bass provides a great sense of attack with a very unique decay pattern, in addition to note changes as he moves up and down the neck. 
  • I'm also listening to the quality of the drums, the Brass horn and bass lines are very dominating in this track, a the high hats can some what mask the attack of the drums on headphones or systems lacking in tonal clarity. The drummer does an excellent job building energy in the track with a well mannered high hat beat and his drum line, which is played at and irregular tempo. I particularly like the aggressive drum roll that's set about 3/4 way into the song for gauging weight.
  • I feel this is an excellent song for judging the overall layering ability and tactility of a headphone. The track is extremely well recorded, and very tactile. There is an amazing story being told within this song, an each of the little mirco details adds to that. From the extra weight of a drum note, to the quicker strides of the bassist, to masterful brass horns. 
I love this track so much, I use it some what exclusively with dac/amps/daps. As I know it very well, almost second by second. Additionally I ensure volume matching when comparing devices.
The Chesky Test Tracks are also excellent for judging very specific sound characteristics, though in my opinion, any Amplifer, DAC or DAP should be sonically transparent,  the biggest improvement you'll get as you upgrade is in Sound Stage, Dynamics, Imaging and Mirco Detail.

Those 4 elements are masterfully present naturally in Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and presented some what more focused within David Chesky's Demonstration Disc, hence the two albums give me a clear look into what changes are introduced by the different pieces of equipment.


Non the less, this hobby is one of my favorites! Stemming from my long love affair with music! Both as a listener and musician my self.  Please feel free to ask my any questions! An be on the look out for updates to this method, I'm always improving it and I'm hoping to have some measuring equipment soon, to be able to provide my own Objective data!



2 comments:

  1. Fantastic list - thank you! This is exactly what I was looking for, specific notation on what to listen for in test tracks. I am auditioning the notorious k812 and cannot hear the treble issues, so far at least. This will give me some pointers on what to really listen for so I am going to use your testing track rotation to help make my decision. Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh wow hey thanks I'm happy you enjoyed it! I'm happy I could be of assistance!

    ReplyDelete