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Understanding Headphone Reviews

It's All Greek to Me
As with any expensive electronic product, doing research and reading reviews on headphones is a good way to reduce the risk of buyer's remorse. Physical characteristics such as the build quality, comfort, and accessories are easily described and understood, but when it comes to describing how something sounds - that's a whole other ball game. Understanding the frequency range of sound and how it affects the music is a great running start towards understanding your own preferences and what sound signature of headphone is best for you.
When deciding what headphones are best, we have to start with frequency response.
The Spectrum of Sound
The deep rumbling of a bass guitar. The lively tweeting of a piccolo. Both of these sounds begin as vibrations, carried through the air from the instrument to your ears. As the speed of vibrations is directly correlated to pitch, the low notes on the bass guitar vibrate the air slowly as compared to the higher notes on a piccolo. Measured in Hertz (named after the German scientist who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves), both the bass guitar and the piccolo fall within the audible range of human hearing, approximately 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This spectrum makes up the desirable range of sound for a headphone/IEM/speaker to electronically reproduce.
A headphone is only as good as its parts. Make sure you look beyond the exterior and dive into the engineering of it all.
Instruments on the Frequency Range
Independent Recording Network has created a fantastic, interactive chart ( that breaks out and describes the spectrum. The breakout into each range is somewhat subjective and varies based on who is asked, but this serves as a good general guideline.
Sub bass: <60 Hz
Sub bass is a powerful rumbling that is more felt than heard. Here are the chest thumping vibrations that give songs impact. Sub bass is difficult to hear at low volume levels, but too much of a boost results in a muddy-sounding lower end.
Words to describe this range: Rumble, Thump, Power, Weighty, Muddy
Bass: 60 Hz – 250 Hz
Rhythm driving instruments such as the kick drum, toms, snares and bass guitar can be tweaked in this range. Most mainstream music today heavily uses the 90 Hz-200Hz area to color the lower end. A boost here adds warmth and thickness, but too much of a good thing makes music sound boomy and drowns out the rest of the frequency ranges.
Words to describe this range: Tight, Warm, Slam, Thick, Boomy, Bloated, Thick, Thin
Midrange: 250 Hz – 2,000 Hz
250Hz to 500 Hz is where low order harmonics of most instruments lie. Boosting the lower midrange can make bass and lower-stringed instruments sound clearer, but too much can cause higher frequency instruments to sound muffled. 500 Hz onwards has a significant impact on how human vocals sound. Done correctly, male and female vocals should sound lush. Boosting too aggressively turns music syrupy and/or shouty, whereas a recessed midrange causes vocals and instruments to sound distant and far.
Words to describe this range: Fullness, Hard, Honky, Lush, Tinny, Recessed, Muffled, Syrupy, Shouty
Upper midrange: 2,000 Hz – 6,000 Hz
The attack on percussive and rhythm instruments like cymbals are dependent on this range. A well-executed upper midrange adds clarity and has a positive effect on the sound timbre. Excessive boosting causes glare and sibilance, but not enough and music sounds dull and dark.
Words to describe this range: Clarity, Sibilance, Glare, Bright, Edge, Crunch, Dark, Dull
High frequencies: 6,000 Hz – 20,000 Hz
At this range, harmonics are all that's left. High frequencies done right make songs sound airy and open. Over boosting can make music overly bright and fatigue listeners, not enough makes music sound closed-in and soft.
Words to describe this range: Airy, Open, Definition, Sibilance, Bright, Closed-in, Soft
Words of Caution
It's worth noting that reviews online should be taken with a grain of salt. While we've described the spectrum as well as the words most associated with them in reviews, it's an individual's subjective opinion. People have different tastes - just because a respected reviewer showers a headphone with praise doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it. Similarly, just because people speak scathingly about a headphone doesn't mean it can't be a great product to your ears. In the end, reviews should only be used as an initial guide on your road to finding your perfect (headphone) match.
Other Cool Sites to Check Out
We've only just touched on the frequency range and words you might see in a typical audio review. For more information, visit the websites below. - A dive into understanding headphone measurements, what is desirable, and other helpful graphs. - Offers several interesting headphone tests ranging from frequency response to dynamic range to a bass shaker. - Read up on technical information regarding frequency ranges. - A glossary of audio review terms according to Stereophile.

Image #2 credit: Turntable Lab (
"Understanding Headphone Reviews" was written by community member Daniel Lui (

May 18, 2023
A great guide here. As a hard of hearing music lover, I find that sub-bass and bass ranges are too amplified for me; I have to tame these ranges further down and amplified the higher frequency ranges. My audiogram shows a ski-slope, meaning lower frequencies can be heard readily while mid to high frequencies are not. In terms of headphones without equalizers, I prefer AKG 701 with adjusted equalizer on my computer. Cheers.
May 17, 2023
I got the beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headphones and I was not happy at all when I received them. When I received them the box was already opened and had no seal. In the picture I attached, you can see that the tab was already ripped and there are no seals whatsoever around the box. These were supposed to be a gift for my boyfriend's birthday and now I am unsure that they even work since the box has already been opened. I can't even test them myself because I don't have the right adapter for the stereo jack plug. I paid $250CAD for a brand new headset, not this.

Sep 1, 2021
So, would IEM's claiming 'bone conduction' be Sub Bass as it's more felt? Or would it seep into the Bass level as well? Good little article though. Always good to 'translate the Greek' for folks!
Bedlam-InsideGood question... hope you don't mind the late reply! Bone Conduction drivers can produce a wide range of frequencies from bass to mids and some treble. Since the vibrations are traveling through the solids and liquids in your body, higher frequency notes lose their energy more than lower frequency notes, so they're usually paired with other types of drivers like Balanced Armatures (which are especially good with high notes) and Dynamic Drivers to kind of balance them out. That said, there are some headphones (such as the AfterShokz brand) that only use bone conduction drivers, even though they don't extend enough into the high frequencies enough to technically qualify as "hi res." Regardless of driver type, "too much" bass or bass with a lot of resonance can "seep" and mask details in other frequencies. They all end up vibrating your eardrum and concha in the end!!
Jun 30, 2020
How can "Open" and "Closed-In" both be words to describe high frequencies? They sound mutually exclusive to me... I'm confused.
Apr 20, 2021
Yeah I clearly did not read the article in its entirety and now that I'm looking at it again that makes perfect sense.
Ice_TraeIn your defense, it was a good line of questioning that directly lead to finding the answer!
Jul 12, 2016
Great info! 1. Know what you look for sound wise 2. Find reviewers with similar tastes 3. Don't buy a ticket to the Hype Train. It'll get expensive if you don't know where you want to go. 4. This hobby is about what works for you, don't buy a product because someone else likes it and when you get it you don't, then bash the product (see #1). 5. Ears are different. Numbers and Graphs are exactly those. Many a times I've heard reputable sources surprised by what they hear as opposed to what they see on those graphs. 6. Get out there and listen! It's okay to find YOUR favorite "house sound"! Be Different!
Dec 20, 2021
maikuirockare ears different? yes and no. i think people can be very discerning about sound and use the same vernacular. Especially in the audiophile ranks. If someone said HIFIman's 400i s were very open and detailed throughout the range and very linear, but the bass is pulled back somewhat. id know pretty well their sound. the terms audiophiles use can be very precise and translate very well. By looking at graphs one might feel "objective" or "scientific". But can a freq response graph describe the difference of an open back vs a sealed? open and airy? detailed? im not sure i. But I look for the listening reviews when i evaluate an audio device. then there is the synergism or lack of it in the audio chain. my learning experiences have been with the 400is and also in my room audio setup. at one time i went from loving my thiel 2 2s to a $15000 speaker and went backwards with the sound quality. at that time i didn't trust my ears and sucked it up. i totally agree with
dtdiver117Most people use agreed upon audio vocabulary. The problem is when something is on the verge between sparkling and strident, warm and bloated, and other "close calls" between two descriptions. I like to say, a little difference makes all the difference... and it may be the difference between exciting and too much. Meanwhile, our ears are physically more unique than our fingerprints, and this affects our sensitivity to certain frequencies (seeming louder or quieter, softer or clearer) and resonances. Add to this physical "filter" the fact that our brains are not objective tools of observation. A dummy mic head and precision frequency analyzer may be an objective tool with repeatable results (though those results vary from mic to mic, with each seating of the headphones on the mic, and results can be skewed in favor of illustrating an editor's point, but that's a whole other can of worms!), but our brains are the greatest sound processor and EQ on the planet! Brain burn-in is as real as the placebo effect, and you can be biased to hear something by looking at a graph before listening just as easily. Frequency response graphs are useful for showing one aspect of sound, but they NEVER exactly match what we actually hear.
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