Audio Speak

The Non-Audiophile's Guide to Audiophile Talk

These popular terms and definitions for describing the sound of various audio components will serve any new audiophile, hi-fi enthusiast, or Sound Apprentice well. Sourced from places like Head-Fi, Stereophile magazine, and Audioreview.com (seemingly now defunct), these terms pop up often in audio reviews and conversations.

The Sound

Accuracy: The degree to which the output signal from a component or system is perceived as replicating the sonic qualities of its input signal.
Aggressive: Reproduced sound that is excessively forward and bright.
Airy: Pertaining to treble which sounds light, delicate, open, and seemingly unrestricted in upper extension.
Alive: A quality of sound reproduction which gives an impression that the performers are present, in person, in the listening room.
Ambiance: The feeling or mood evoked by an environment. The perceived impression of an acoustical space, such as the performing hall in which a recording was made.
Analytical: Very detailed, almost to the point of excess.
Articulation: Clarity and intelligibility; reproduction of inner detail in complex sounds.
Attack: The ability of a system to reproduce the buildup of sound when an instrument is bowed, blown, struck, or plucked.
Attack transient: The initial energy pulse of a percussive sound, such as from a piano string, triangle, or drum head.
Balance, balanced: The subjective relationship between the relative loudness of the upper and lower halves of the audio spectrum; "tonal balance."
Bass: The range of frequencies below 160Hz, characterized by low pitch.
Binaural: Literally hearing with "two ears," refers to a recording/playback system which presents the listener's ears with the acoustic waveforms they would have received at the original event. Check out Headphone Sessions for an example.
Bloated: When describing sound in general: overly rich and warm.
Bloom: A quality of expansive richness and warmth, like the live body sound of a cello.
Body: Robustness in reproduced sound.
Boomy: Pronounced exaggeration of the mid-bass.
Bright: The degree to which reproduced sound has a hard, crisp edge to it. Brightness relates to the energy content in the 4kHz-8kHz band. It is not related to output in the extreme-high-frequency range.
Center stage: That part of the soundstage that is midway between the loudspeakers.
Chesty: A pronounced thickness or heaviness from reproduced male voice, due to excessive energy in the upper bass or lower midrange.
Chocolatey: Like "syrupy," but darker and more full-bodied.
Clean: Free from audible distortion.
Clinical: Sound that is pristinely clean but wholly uninvolving.
Closed-in: Lacking in openness, delicacy, air, and fine detail.
Coarse: A large-grained texturing of reproduced sound; very gritty.
Coherent: Sound that blends well together, meaning you can’t hear the tweeter versus the woofer of a speaker, for instance.
Cold or cool: Moderately deficient in body and warmth; having somewhat excessive upper-range output and weak lower-range output. Less 'musical' sounding, sometimes too analytical and without emotion.
Coloration: An audible "signature" of a particular component or sound system.
Congested: Smeared, confused, muddy, and flat. Totally devoid of transparency.
Control: The sound is tight, detailed, and focused.
Crisp: Sharply focused and detailed.
Damping: The amount of control an amplifier seems to impose on a woofer. Underdamping causes loose, heavy bass; overdamping yields very tight but lean bass.
Dark: A warm, mellow, excessively rich quality in reproduced sound.
Dead: Dull and lifeless.
Decay: The reverb or fadeout of a musical sound.
Deep bass: Frequencies below 40Hz, like sub-bass.
Definition: That quality of sound reproduction which enables the listener to distinguish between and follow individual voices or instruments in a large performing group.
Delicacy: The reproduction of very subtle, very faint details of musical sound, such as fingertip-friction sounds on guitar strings.
Depth: The illusion of acoustical distance, giving the impression of listening through the loudspeakers into the original performance space.
Detail: The subtlest, most delicate parts of the original sound, which are usually the first things lost by imperfect components.
Dip: A narrow depression within the frequency-response curve.
Dirty: Sound reproduction which is fuzzy, cruddy, or spiky.
Dished: Describes a frequency response that is depressed through the entire middle range. The sound has too much bass and treble; may also be called U-shaped.
Distortion: 1) Any unintentional or undesirable change in an audio signal. 2) An overlay of spurious roughness, fuzziness, harshness, or stridency in reproduced sound.
Dry: Sound that is very fine-grained, lacking in reverberation, and lean or overdamped.
Dull: Sound that is lifeless, muffled, veiled or soft.
Dynamic: Giving an impression of wide dynamic range; punchy and energized.
Dynamic range: The range of acceptable or possible volumes of sound in the course of a piece of music or a performance. The ratio between the loudest and the quietest passages. In components, the ratio between its no-signal noise and the loudest distortion-free peak.
Ease: Sound that seems effortless and free from strain.
Echo, echoey: The repetition of a sound in your listening space due to reflection of the original sound from a room boundary.
Effortless: Sound that is free-flowing, with no hints of congestion.
Etched: Very crisp and sharply outlined; excessively focused.
Euphonic: Pleasing to the ear, generally referring to an exaggerated richness over accuracy.
Extension: The usable limits of a component's frequency range.
Fast: Giving an impression of extremely rapid reaction time, which allows a reproducing system to "keep up with" the signal fed to it.
Fat: The sonic effect of a moderate exaggeration of the mid- and upper-bass ranges.
Flat: 1) Having a subjectively uniform frequency response, free from humps and dips, resulting in the impression that all reproduced sound sources are the same distance from the listener.
Focus: The quality of being clearly defined, with sharply outlined phantom images.
Forward, forwardness: The impression that sound sources are closer than they were recorded. Usually the result of a humped midrange.
Fuzz, fuzziness: A coarse but soft-edged texturing of reproduced sound.
Glare: An unpleasant quality of hardness or brightness, due to excessive low- or mid-treble energy.
Glassy: Very bright.
Golden: A euphonic coloration characterized by roundness, richness, sweetness, and liquidity.
Grainy/Gritty: A moderate texturing of reproduced sound. The sonic equivalent of grain in a photograph.
Hard: Tending toward steeliness, but not quite shrill.
Harsh: Gratingly unpleasant to the ear. A very coarse texturing of the sound, characterized by a sharp-edged, spiky roughness.
Haze, haziness: A moderate smearing of detail and focus. The audible equivalent of viewing something through a gauzy veil or a dirty window.
Heft: Pertains to bass which has weight, solidity, and visceral power.
Height: The usually inadvertent production of vertical directional cues, which make some instruments sound as if they are above or below the other performers.
HF - High frequency.
Highs: 1,300Hz and above – cymbals, high notes, etc.
High-end: Can refer to sound that closely approaches the real thing, or to audio equipment whose performance is near the top of the quality and price scale.
High fidelity: 1) A kind of sound-reproducing system whose realism of reproduction is judged to be better than average. 2) The pursuit of perfection in sound reproduction, as a hobby or a religion.
High-frequency range: 1) The audio range above 1,300Hz. 2) The usable upper limit of that range.
Hot: Very tipped-up high frequencies.
Hum: A continuous 60Hz or 120Hz noise, usually caused by transformer noise or the leakage of the household AC supply into the signal path.
Hump: A broad frequency-response peak.
Humped: Sound that is forward, soft, and lean. Caused by a broad midrange rise with rolled-off lower and upper ranges.
Imaging: The measure of a system's ability to float stable and specific phantom images, reproducing the original sizes and locations of the instruments across the soundstage.
Impact: A quality of force from a deep, strong bass attack, which produces a brief sensation of visceral pressure.
Impulse: An abrupt, extremely brief burst of signal energy; a transient.
Impulse noise: Transient noise, such as surface-noise ticks and pops.
Inaudible: A sonic imperfection which is either too subtle to be consciously perceived or is actually nonexistent.
Infrasonic: Bass below the range of audible frequencies. The infrasonic range from 15-20Hz can be felt if strongly reproduced.
Intolerable: Unarguably and unforgivably unlistenable.
Involving: The degree to which a reproduction draws the listener in to the musical performance and evokes an emotional response to it.
Laid-back: Recessed, distant-sounding, having exaggerated depth, usually because of a dished midrange.
Layering: The reproduction of depth and receding distance, which audibly places the rows of performers one behind the other.
Lean: Very slightly bass-shy. The effect of a very slight bass rolloff below around 500Hz. Not quite "cool."
LF: Low frequency.
Lifeless: Sound that is dull, unfocused, unconvincing, and uninvolving.
Light: Lean and tipped-up.
Liquid: Smooth, texture-less sound.
Listening fatigue: Physical and psychological discomfort, which can induce headaches and nervous tension.
Localization: In stereo reproduction, the placement of phantom images in specific lateral positions across the soundstage.
Loose: Pertains to bass which is ill-defined and poorly controlled.
Lows: 20-160Hz – drums, low piano notes, bass guitar, etc.
Low bass: The range from 20-40Hz; sub bass.
Low-level detail: The subtlest elements of musical sound, which include the delicate details of instrumental sounds and the final tail of reverberation decay.
Lumpy: Reproduced sound characterized by a number of audible response discontinuities through the frequency bands where some seem to predominate, while others sound weak.
Lush: Rich-sounding.
Meter man: A person who believes that measurements tell all you need to know about a component's performance.
MF: Middle frequency(ies), the all-important midrange.
Mid-bass: The range of frequencies from 40-80Hz.
Mids/Midrange: The range of frequencies from 160-1,300Hz. Vocals, snare drum strike, guitar, etc.
Muddy: Ill-defined, congested.
Muffled: Very dull-sounding; having no apparent high frequencies at all.
Musical, musicality: A personal judgment as to the degree to which reproduced sound resembles live music.
Muted: Dark, lifeless, closed-in.
Mystic: An audiophile who attributes all currently unmeasurable sonic differences to forces beyond human understanding.
Nasal: Reproduced sound having the quality of a person speaking with his/her nose blocked.
Natural: Real, realism. No part of the audio spectrum sticks out above the rest; no coloration.
Near-field: Pertains to the range of listening distances in which the sounds reaching the ears are predominantly direct.
Neutral: Free from coloration.
Noise: Any spurious background sounds, usually of a random or indeterminate pitch: hiss, crackles, ticks, pops, whooshes.
Opaque: Lacking detail and transparency.
Open: Exhibiting qualities of delicacy, air, and fine detail. Giving an impression of having no upper-frequency limit.
Out-of-phase: In a two-channel system, one channel being in opposite polarity to the second, most commonly due to having one speaker hooked up with the red (positive) lead to the red (positive) terminal, the other with the red lead to the black (negative terminal). As well as a "phasey" sound, the result will be a reduction in low frequencies.
Overblown: Bloated. Excessively fat and rich.
Overdamped: Pertaining to the audible effects of excessive woofer damping.
Pace: The apparent tempo of a musical performance, which can be different from its actual beats-per-minute tempo. Pace is affected by phrasing in performance and speed in reproduction.
Palpable: Describes reproduction that is so realistic you feel you could reach out and touch the instruments or singers.
Perceptible: At or above the threshold of audibility of a trained listener.
Perspective: The soundstage depth information that is conveyed by layering.
Phantom image: The recreation by a stereo system of an apparent sound source at a location other than that of either loudspeaker, as if a musician is standing within the room.
Picket-fencing (Also called vertical-venetian-blind effect.): A tendency for stereo channel balance to vacillate from left to right as the listener moves laterally with respect to the loudspeakers.
Pinched: 1) Very cold coloration. 2) Pertaining to soundstaging: Laterally compressed and lacking in spaciousness.
Pinpoint imaging: Stereo imaging that is precise, stable, and focused.
Plastery: A hard-sounding reverberation having the characteristic of bare, plaster-walled rooms.
Polite: Laid-back.
Pop: Used to describe lively sound characteristics. Also, a midrange pulse characterized by a very sharp attack followed by a short "o" or "aw" vowel sound, as heard when dropping the needle on vinyl.
PRaT: Acronym for Pace, Rhythm, and Timing.
Presence: A quality of realism and aliveness.
Quality: The degree to which the reproduction of sound is judged to approach the goal of perfection.
Realism: A subjective assessment of the degree to which the sound from an audio system approaches that of live music.
Recessed: Very laid-back or pushed back by more prominent frequencies.
Reflected sound: A sound which reaches the ears after being reflected from at least one boundary surface, like bouncing off a wall.
Reference-quality: Being of little to no coloration; you are hearing the source, not the components.
Revealing: Pertaining to a loudspeaker or a system as a whole: Outstandingly detailed and focused; analytical.
Roll off: A frequency response which falls gradually above or below a certain frequency limit.
Rough: A quality of moderate grittiness.
Rounded: The shearing-off of sharp attack transients, due to poor transient response or restricted HF range.
Screechy: The ultimate stridency, akin to chalk on a blackboard or a razor blade being scraped across a windowpane.
Seamless: Having no perceptible discontinuities throughout the audio range.
Shrill: Strident, steely.
Sibilance: A coloration that resembles or exaggerates the vocal S-sound.
Silky: Pertains to treble performance that is velvety-smooth, delicate, and open.
Silvery: Sound that is slightly hard or steely, but clean.
Sizzly: Emphasis of the frequency range above about 8kHz, which adds sibilance to all sounds, particularly those of cymbals and vocal esses.
Slam: The British term for impact.
Slow: Sound reproduction which gives the impression that the system is lagging behind the electrical signals being fed to it.
Sluggish: Very slow.
Smearing: Severe lack of detail and focus.
Smooth: Sound reproduction having no irritating qualities; free from high-frequency peaks, easy and relaxing to listen to. Effortless.
Snap: A quality of sound reproduction giving an impression of great speed and detail.
Soft: Very closed-in, markedly deficient at the extreme high end.
Solid-state sound: That combination of sonic attributes common to most solid-state amplifying devices.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL): A logarithmic measure of the effective sound pressure of a sound, measured in decibels (dB).
Soundstaging, soundstage presentation: The accuracy with which a reproducing system conveys audible information about the size, shape, and acoustical characteristics of the original recording space and the placement of the performers within it.
Soundstage shift: Apparent lateral movement of the soundstage when listening from either side of the sweet spot.
Spacious: Presenting a broad panorama of ambiance, which may be wider than the distance between the loudspeakers.
Speed: The apparent rapidity with which a reproducing system responds to steep wavefronts and overall musical pace.
Spiky: Pertains to a coarse texturing of sound characterized by the presence of many rapidly recurring sharp clicks.
Spitty: An edgy "ts" coloration which exaggerates musical overtones and sibilants as well as LP surface noise.
Steely: Shrill.
Stereo imaging: The production of stable, specific phantom images of correct localization and width.
Sterile: Pristinely clean, but uninvolving.
Strained: Showing signs of audible distress during loud passages, as though the system is verging on overload.
Strident: Unpleasantly shrill, piercing.
Sub-bass: The deepest bass notes, below 60Hz.
Subjectivist: A person who has found that measurements don't tell the whole story about reproduced sound.
Subtle: Barely perceptible on a very good system.
Sweet: Having a smooth, softly delicate high end.
Sweet spot: That listening seat from which the best soundstage presentation is heard.
Syrupy: Excessively sweet and rich, like maple syrup.
Tempo: The actual number of beats per minute in a musical performance.
Texture, textured: A perceptible pattern in reproduced sound that gives the impression that the sound is composed of discrete particles.
Thick: Sodden or heavy bass.
Thin: Very deficient in bass.
Tight: Bass reproduction that is well controlled and not slow. Stereo imaging that is specific, stable, and of the correct width.
Timbre: The recognizable characteristic sound of a musical instrument.
Timing: The apparent instrumental synchronicity of a performance, which is affected by system speed.
Tipped-up: Having a rising high-frequency response.
Tizzy: A "zz" or "ff" coloration of the sound of cymbals and vocal sibilants, caused by a rising frequency response above 10kHz.
Tonality: In music, the quality of an instrument's tone, often related to the key in which the music is written. In audio, mistakenly used in place of "tonal quality."
Tonal quality: The accuracy (correctness) with which reproduced sound replicates the timbres of the original instruments.
Transparency, transparent: A quality of sound reproduction that gives the impression of listening through the system to the original sounds or recording, rather than to the equipment. Sound that is free from veiling, texturing, or any other quality which tends to obscure the signal or add coloration.
Treble: The frequency range above 1,300kHz.
Tubey: Audible qualities typical of components that use tubes for amplification.
Uninvolving: Ho-hum sound that evokes boredom and indifference.
Upper bass: The range of frequencies from 80-160Hz.
Upper highs: The range of frequencies from 10-20kHz.
Upper mids: The range of frequencies from 650-1,300Hz.
Veiled: Pertaining to a deficiency of detail and focus, due to moderate amounts of distortion, treble-range restriction, or attack rounding.
Visceral: Producing a bodily sensation of pressure or concussion.
Warm: The same as dark, but less tilted.
Weight: The feeling of solidity and foundation contributed to music by extended, natural bass reproduction.
Width: The apparent lateral spread of a stereo image.
Wiry: Having an edgy or distorted high end, similar to the "tish" of brushed cymbals, but coloring all sounds reproduced by the system.
Withdrawn: Very laid-back.
Woolly: Pertains to loose, ill-defined bass.
Zippy: A slight top-octave emphasis.

The Components and Elements

Amplifier: Takes the low volume from the pre-amp and increases the power to drive the speakers.
Solid State Amplifier: Doesn't use tubes to amplify the signal; a clean, cold sound.
Tube Amplifier: Uses tubes to amplify the audio signal; a warmer sound.
Integrated Amplifier: Both the amplifier and pre-amp in one unit.
DAC: Digital to Analog Converter.
DAP/PMP: Digital Audio Player/Portable Music Player; iPod, HiFiMAN, Astell&Kern, etc.
Pre-Amplifier: Has an input selector and volume control.
Phono Stage: Takes the very low signal from a cartridge and amplifies it.
Interconnect: Connecting cables (pre-amplifier to amplifier, CD Player to pre-amp, etc.).
Tweeter: Produces the high frequency sounds in a speaker.
Super Tweeter: Produces super high frequencies. Supposed to help soundstage/imaging.
Full Range Driver: Combines the mids and lows into one driver. Sometimes even the highs.
High Sensitivity Speakers: Speakers that can be driven effectively off a low-powered amplifier.
Home Theater in a Box: Typically an amplifier, DVD/Blu-ray player, and speakers, all in one box.
Crossover: Divides the 20Hz-20kHz audio signal and sends it to the tweeters and woofers.
Ported Box: A speaker cabinet with a hole that lets out lower frequencies.
Closed Box: A speaker cabinet with no holes.
Active Monitor: A reference-quality bookshelf speaker and amplifier combined into one.
Passive Monitor: A reference-quality bookshelf speaker with no amplifier.
Floorstanding Speaker: A speaker that can go right on the floor and be at ear level.
Bookshelf or Stand Mount Speaker: A speaker meant to be placed on a stand or shelf.
2-Way Speaker: A speaker with 1 crossover point. Easier to produce a coherent image.
3-Way Speaker: A speaker with 2 crossover points.
Music Server / Media Server: A digital storage deceive for digital music files.
Receiver: Like an integrated amplifier, but does video processing as well.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL): A logarithmic measure of the effective sound pressure of a sound, measured in decibels (dB).
Subwoofer: Produces the very low frequencies.
Watts: The power rating of the amplifier.
Woofer: Produces the mid- to low-range frequencies.

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