My Sound Review Process- How I Describe and Evaluate 2014-2017

The Sound Review Process 2014-2017

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!

My Theory on "Sound signatures"
I have a suspicion that the different presentations from the different manufacturers have to do with the languages spoken an the culture
Different languages put different emphasis on different verbal frequencies, and even the structure of the vocal cords at the people themselves changes what frequencies maybe more emphasized than others and so as a child growing up listening to the language to the sound how your people speak it mold your perception of what is natural of what sounds natural
And I'm not saying that one sound signature is better than the other because it's more familiar to me and because it's closer to the language I speak

Rather I find beauty in the different presentations and I enjoy them all equally for different reasons

Though really to simplify things, I will be expressing my thoughts on the overall performance of both transient and dynamics response in units of AHM, or Ahh Moments. 

For me when I hear those improvements... my first though is "ahh that's new! I never noticed that" and really it's an increase in AHMs that's driven me to keep upgrading my system over the years! Discovering new Ahh Moments is why I continue to pursue this hobby and helping you have as many of your own Ahh Moments as you can within your price range, is what drives me to create content!!

Thus, when I'm auditioning a headphone I use music and cinema to help me judge the sound characteristic of the headphone it self. As well as figure out how many AHMs are possible with a given headphone, amp or Dac. 

I have ten 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.

Used Terminology Defined

Timbre - unique sound amd texture of individual instruments, what allows us to distinguish two different instruments playing notes of the same frequency. More in depth definitions are  hosted here. 

Clarity (relating to frequency)- a lack of haze or fuzziness relating to frequency domain, a headphone with over emphasized lows/mids/highs that audibly overshadow the rest of the audible frequency lacks clarity

Clarity (relating to time) - the presence of reverb and or excessive ringing, think slow decay/sustain/release, a lack of focus, or a blur. A lack of clarity relating to time will soften and silence transients

Resolve - overall clarity and the presentation of detail
  • Micro Detail- pertains to the instruments themselves including transients
  • Macro Detail - ambient sounds, like foot steps
  • Noise (Pertaining to DAC's an Amps)- perception of a black or silent background, a such as a lack of hiss 

Transients- very short sudden sounds interweaving with the audible attack, decay, sustain,vibrato and release of an instrument, these five elements are interconnected an in more natural music are strongly related to how the instrument is played,
  • Attack - rise from silence to the peak or highest audible point
  • Decay - fall from the peak to either a state of sustain or point of release
  • Sustain - a continuation of audible energy
  • Vibrato - a rapid, slight variation in the pitch, often evident in both the sustain of an instrument and it's release
  • Release - the fall to silence
Dynamics - quick and effortless increases or decreases in volume, some may further specify this down to micro and macro
  • Micro - smaller gradual changes in intensity, either increasing or decreasing 
  • Macro - larger sudden changes in intensity, either increase or decreasing 
When I speak of the Lows/Mids/Highs I'm listening for 
  • Timbre of instruments that are dominate in the specified frequency range 
  • Clarity in the presentation of the specified range
  • Resolve of micro-detail for instruments within the specified range
When I speak of "speed" how fast or slow piece of equipment sounds, I'm referring to the combined presentation of transients and overall clarity. Gear that is too fast, often sound very thin as it may have a quicker than natural decay and present an over emphasized attack. While extremely tactile and exciting it's not "pure" is respect to fidelity, very fast equipment is good for listening to other gear but not so much your music. Equipment that is too slow can be enjoyable but often exaggerate decay and soften attack, slower sounding headphones will be very forgiving of the gear and overall quality of your music but will also be lacking the presentation of some transients. In my opinion balance is ideal, not to fast nor to slow sounding, a balanced presentation results in a very natural sound. 

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 mid-range with this track- starting with the timbre of the Brass horns in the introduction as well as the transients of those beautiful horns. 
  • 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 both the larger obscure macro detail, like page turns and the like, as well as the more innate micro details, or details pertaining to the sound of the instruments them selves, in addition to how the presentation of 
  • 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 headphone is able to present this rather busy piece, with real clarity not 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 macro 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 total resolve and speed of a headphone. 

Igor Levit: Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski #01 Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations 
  • Again there is a lot of 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 midrange purity 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 as well as any ringing.

Precious Fathers [Alluvial Fan] #01 Swells

  • From start to finish Swells is a stress test for micro dynamics, the track starts out at very low levels, shifting from left to right and gradually grows louder and quieter. After each peak the sound gradually get's quieter only to rise to a sudden peak again. 
  • As the band shifts from quite to loud over and over again while the passage they play is the same, the individuality of their playing styles is still present.  The track leaves a lot of transients information to be resolved as well. Ultimately more resolving headphones will bring all of the detail and shifts in energy to light, making this a stunning track to listen to. On a less resolving headphone the track can be rather boring and monotonous or dull and uninviting. 

Big Baby  [D.R,A.M] #09 Outta Sight/Dark Lavender Interlude

  • I enjoy this Hip Hop track for it's deep well textured sub bass, the low end is prominent for this track pushes a lot of emphasis on the low end.This gives me an audible window into how severe roll off in the lows is for a headphone, as well as how clean/quick the response is. 
  • In addition to the powerful sub bass, D.R.A.M features a variety of voices layered into this track, headphones with too much mid range emphasis or a lack of clarity often muddle these literal sub texts, a well resolved and tonally balanced headphone will resolve not only his voice but the others buried just under neath it. The more resolving the mid-range of the headphone the easier it is to understand the sub tracks and the more individual texture of each vocalist is present.
  • Finally, the synthetic high hats serve as a good measure of how much if any top end glare is present. Headphones that have too much emphasis up top create an unpleasant audible glare, especially with synth drums. 

... 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 overall transient response. An uneven transient response, will either sound overly aggressive and very metallic or will present this song in a warm soupy mess. Balance keeps the aggressive edge alive alongside the warm creamy sound of the Electric Guitars.
  • 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. A lack of clarity 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 timbre of her 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 low from the body tactility in her voice as well as the touch of airiness from her throat and lips.
  • I'm also listening for a clean low to mid shift, her voice has a nice peak around 260hrz 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 without smearing or overpowering the other elements.
  • 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.  

Hell Freezes Over - [Eagles] #06 Hotel California 
  • Starting with mid range timbre and purity, I'm listening for both the sound of the strings as well as the unique transients of each instrument. A slight echo, the overlay of harmonics in both the strummed guitar and arpeggios.  
  • A big bass drum permeates the intro, the tone shifts a little each time it's hit. A touch of vibrato is present in the release following each hit, I'm listening for not only the heavy weight of this massive drum but also the vibrato and unique sound of each strike. 
  • Finally the track as a whole is very dynamic and very well imaged. I'm listening for where and how the audience is staged, how large is the image presented? The instruments are panned out in front of me, when I close my eye's can I envision my self there in the crowd, if so where am I. Where are the musicians, where is the man shouting, how far away is the woman whistling, can I feel the applause of the crowd at the end. Headphones are only a pale imitation of what speakers can do, but even so how close to can I get. 

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!

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