Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound? Part 1

Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound? Part 1

Just as listening to bad music is no fun, it’s no fun listening to bad audio, so knowing what to listen for when auditioning a component is important.

“Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?” is a series dedicated to recognizing aspects of good and bad sound reproduction.

Once you’ve settled on what features you want your new component to have — Bluetooth? Streaming? Portability? — you’ll want to make sure that the sound of your gear will enhance your listening enjoyment, not detract from it.

With that in mind, and with the proviso that good sound starts at the recording, here are some things to listen for when judging a piece of equipment:

Separation of sounds: Can you make out the individual sounds in the mix — the instruments, the vocals, the studio effects? Or does it mostly all sound smooshed together and samey from track to track? A piece of gear should be revealing enough to allow you to hear the different elements that the artist, producer, and studio engineers put on the recording for you to hear.

Having instruments and voices sound like themselves: This one is about timbre and tone and the ability of a component to recreate what something sounds like in real life. Does the equipment you’re listening to make an acoustic guitar sound less like a guitar and more like a banjo? A piano like a toy xylophone? Or Barry White like Michael Jackson? If any of the former, then the gear talking to you isn’t telling you the truth.

Gershman Audio Speakers
Gershman Audio Speakers

Audio that sounds rich: You want music with weight. Presence. Warmth. A pulsating rhythm and a capacity to deliver a rainbow of ear- and mind-pleasing musical stimuli. Dull, thin, slow, tinny or any other overriding quality of sound that keeps reminding you that you’re listening to a machine rather than music is doing a bad job.

Distortion: Even small amounts of mechanically induced distortion will eventually wear out your patience and blunt your music-listening fun. Simply put, distortion is pollution. It is toxic and will fill you with regret about your life decisions. Telltale signs of distortion include the sound of instruments or voices breaking up, turning shrill, or making you not want to listen to your music as much as you should.

There are other aspects of sound quality to listen for when it comes to finding a good piece of gear but those listed above offer a good starting point. Another good trick to identifying sound you can live with is by living with it. If over a couple of weeks (or however long the return policy is good for) the component has shown itself able to engage you in the music, encourages you to continue listening, and opens your ears, imagination and soul to all kinds of music you may otherwise never had paid attention to, then rest assured that it’s doing exactly what it should.

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