Despite our best efforts to describe what we hear, something will be lost in translation because we all hear differently. Furthermore, each of us can listen to the same recording at different times and, from session to session, hear different aspects of it. It may be useful, nonetheless, to identify sound characteristics in evaluating an audio system or component.
A term frequently used among audiophiles is hi-fi or high fidelity. Is the sound produced by an audio component an exact replica of the sound heard by the recording engineer? Perhaps only the recording engineer could answer that question. Another popular discussion among audiophiles is whether the equipment sounds “musical” or “hifi-ish”. “Hifi-ish” prioritizes sound quality over holistic enjoyment of a piece of music. Of course, the quality of the sound may get in the way of the holistic experience. A listener may disengage from a veiled recording played through poorly designed equipment. Overly bright sounds may be fatiguing. Hence, the characteristics discussed below straddle the “musical” and “hifi-ish”.
- Sound Stage — Spatial information is crucial for listeners to imagine a live performance through the recording. Most concerts are amplified in some fashion. What a concert goer hears is not necessarily the performers themselves but loudspeakers controlled by the sound engineer. Ideally, the recording microphones would be placed where the engineer thinks the best sound is in the venue. An audio system with a good sound stage enables listeners to close their eyes and be transported to that sweet spot.
- Timbre Accuracy — Our brain can decode subtle differences in instruments (Stan Getz’s tenor saxophone versus Scott Hamilton’s) and in voices (Frank Sinatra versus Frank Sinatra Jr. even though their voices are quite similar). A good audio system reproduces accurately not only frequencies but also complex harmonic structures. It conveys nuances in a realistic way, from the caressing pressure of the bow on a string instrument to the huskiness of a baritone.
- PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing) — An audio system with PRaT makes listeners want to move with the music.
- Clarity — Sound stage, timbre, and PRAT cannot be experienced with a muddled sound. Clarity enables listeners to enjoy a musical piece as a whole or to focus on the piece-parts.
- Balance — With a balanced audio system, no individual part in a musical piece sticks out in an unnatural way. A soloist would be prominently featured; the supporting cast of performers would come into focus or recede at the right times.
Reviews of audio components often mention characteristics such as treble extension, deep and tight bass performance, or mid-range purity. These frequency-related qualities often reflect the listener’s preferences for certain sounds. That is why there is no such thing as the “absolute sound!”