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Article: Let 1,000 Frequency Responses Bloom


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Thanks so much for your work on this one @Josh Mound. I have much to say, even though I also live in a glass house. But, I'm incredibly short on time and will circle back to this when I have a moment to transribe my thoughts coherently.

 

I also want to to be the first to say, you do a fantastic job around here, classing up the place with your writing talent. 

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7 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

Thanks so much for your work on this one @Josh Mound. I have much to say, even though I also live in a glass house. But, I'm incredibly short on time and will circle back to this when I have a moment to transribe my thoughts coherently.

 

I also want to to be the first to say, you do a fantastic job around here, classing up the place with your writing talent. 

 

Thanks, Chris! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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My feelings on this lie somewhere in the middle, I think.

 

I know exactly which reviewer you're quoting because I frequent his fora daily.   And I think he offers incredible value in the services he offers.

 

I think he oversteps a bit WRT his comments on the universality of the Harman Curve, BUT ... I also think the Harman Curve offers a "standard" we can (and should) reference as a baseline for comparisons.  I don't think that any headphone that fails to precisely replicate Harman is automatically valueless, BUT I know I, personally, will not like it if if falls too far from from the curve, because Harman is also MY preference among all the variations I've tried.

 

So, no, people who prefer something else are not necessarily fools (though they may be, or ignorant), BUT I question their judgment when they enthusiastically recommend headphones that are so far from accurate they MUST sound terrible (and they do, the ones I've listened to, at least).  I think headphones which adhere closely to Harman as a baseline generally sound pretty good, and any specific variations may or may not contribute to the special value of that model.

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1 hour ago, jhwalker said:

My feelings on this lie somewhere in the middle, I think.

 

I know exactly which reviewer you're quoting because I frequent his fora daily.   And I think he offers incredible value in the services he offers.

 

I think he oversteps a bit WRT his comments on the universality of the Harman Curve, BUT ... I also think the Harman Curve offers a "standard" we can (and should) reference as a baseline for comparisons.  I don't think that any headphone that fails to precisely replicate Harman is automatically valueless, BUT I know I, personally, will not like it if if falls too far from from the curve, because Harman is also MY preference among all the variations I've tried.

 

So, no, people who prefer something else are not necessarily fools (though they may be, or ignorant), BUT I question their judgment when they enthusiastically recommend headphones that are so far from accurate they MUST sound terrible (and they do, the ones I've listened to, at least).  I think headphones which adhere closely to Harman as a baseline generally sound pretty good, and any specific variations may or may not contribute to the special value of that model.


Thank you for your response.

 

As I mentioned at the end, I don’t have any problem with people enjoying or even touting the Harman Curve. I just don’t want it to become an industry standard. I think the research shows that there are frequency responses that are equally preferred, as well as valid ones that are enjoyed by substantial minorities of listeners, even according to Harman’s research. 
 

While, as I wrote, I like some IEMs and headphones that tend to follow the curve (or a variant of it), I also usually think the sub-bass is a bit too much and the 3-4 kHz peak is too steep. So, the SoundGuys curve, which is basically Harman but with those traits toned down, might be closer to my ideal. 
 

That said, I totally agree that there are some IEMs and headphones that stray way too far from any reasonable ballpark definition of “neutral” for me to enjoy them. Those tend to get negative reviews from me. But I also would never say that those products shouldn’t be allowed to exist.

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Quote

We all need to get behind one standard that is used both in production and playback. Only then we have any hope of hearing what the artist approved (and heard). If we continue this wild west of every designer’s idea being right, we will never get there. With a single standard that is close to what many like, we have a headphone that can be used without EQ. And those that don’t agree, can EQ to what they like.

 

To get to this conclusion, need we assume that we all hear alike?  What if we not only each have different musical tastes, but we actually hear and perceive sounds differently?  If the artist, the recording master and the audience all hear the same way then that "standard" becomes very important.  But what about the 36% that doesn't prefer the Harman curve? Are they "wrong" or do they hear differently?

 

What I like about the data that underlies the music is that we can agree whether or not what was played live matches what was recorded and then played back (making a huge assumption that we can and do measure what matters). A flat frequency response is only one such measurement. 

 

There are live venues I like and others I don't. Is one venue more correct or better than another? Maybe, if 100% of audiences agreed with me, but I know they don't.  This is one of the reason's I have been so pleased with the various choices offered by software like HQ Player, rather than the choices of one DAC designer/engineer.  It allows me to make what I hear in my listening room sound as much as I can make it, sound like what I hear with live instruments and voices.  

 

Doing that is a function not only of the recording, but certainly also of my playback chain, and the audio characteristics of my listening room.  A music studio can really only address the first of these three.  The other two are a function of budget, equipment choices, and room choices and how each of those alters the original AND my particular sensitivities to anomalies (in frequency, in reverb, in wave form, etc.)

 

Thus, to me I don't want some majority view of what sounds best -- I just want my output file to look as identical as possible to the original...

 

Your ears may vary ;-) 

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59 minutes ago, bobfa said:

👏👏 @Josh Mound 👏👏

 


Is there such a thing as 20:20 hearing?

 

 

I have two ears, and their ability to conduct sound to my brain are different, not a lot but different.  I have some persistent tinnitus.  I have allergies that mess up my hearing off and on.    What I want is not some vague target.      

 

The industry spends a lot of time on the “last mile” in an audio playback systems, from AC power to cables, to rooms to speakers.  Who corrects the last 3cm from the air to my brain?

 

How do I learn what others hear or what is “real”?  I do not know what is real ; I only know what I hear.  The concert halls I have been in are all different, the specific location I sit in is different!  Do I really know what that specific violin sounds like?

 

I want systems tools that let me tune to ME!  I would love to learn what is real.

 

 

 

Exactly, all the sense do dull over time but hearing and sight are the big ones. My father (94) had hearing loss at small frequency ranges, at specific regions in the hearing spectrum. My mother (91), on the other hand, basically her hearing is done, even with hearing aids, she is practically deaf.

 

So far, my ears seem to be holding out, but I do try to take care of them - ear plugs at concerts, etc.

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19 hours ago, ecwl said:

I have often wondered if some variations in individual preferences for frequency responses are related to different people preferring to listen at different volumes. In those scenarios, Fletcher-Munson curves/equal loudness contour kicks in. 

 

But I would still prefer to know the frequency responses of most headphones so I can figure out what frequency response curves I enjoy. That way, I don’t have to try all the headphones that deviate too far from my preferences.

 

While I 100% agree with the article, I have often seen people use the arguments in the article to say that speakers in-room measurements (or even room acoustics) don’t matter. I think since most headphones have smooth bass response and most rooms don’t, that is a perspective I can’t buy into. Unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know. So once again, if people don’t measure their rooms, they don’t really know what they’re hearing.


To be clear, I am most definitely *not* anti-measurements. I just bought a few IEC 711 clone couplers to make my IEM reviews’ measurements more comparable to others’, and I’m setting up a SquigLink site. I measure headphones with my EARS unit, and if I could afford a Gras or similar, I’d use it in a heartbeat. I also measure my listening room with an UMIK-1 and REW and treat it based on those measurements. 

 

Indeed, I rarely buy a product (especially a transducer) without seeing measurements first, and I value all of the measurements conducted by reviewers, including the pro-Harman reviewer mentioned in this piece. 
 

So I don’t want anyone to think my skepticism about the accuracy or universality of preference curves for headphones and IEMs is an anti-measurement statement. Far from it. 

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Thanks @Josh Mound for your thoughtful piece. I agree: The reviewer in question's assertive promotion of the Harman Curve as the only correct standard, and his dismissal of alternative preferences, is unethical and misleading. 


As my experience with this hobby has grown, I've found myself increasingly drawn to reviews that compare the item in question with something I already own. For instance, in the realm of headphones, I particularly value reviews that juxtapose the model being discussed with the HD6xx. This preference stems from two reasons: firstly, the HD6xx is widely owned and favored, making it a familiar benchmark for many. Secondly, its affordability means that it's accessible to a broad audience, thereby serving as a universal reference point. From there, it's up to the reviewer to make further comparisons. Similarly, when it comes to IEMs, I see the merit in having a Harman-tuned IEM in one's collection. Given the range of affordable options, this provides a baseline for understanding a particular sound signature, enabling more meaningful comparisons with others' experiences.

 

Furthermore, I believe that frequency response is not the sole determinant of quality. Factors such as detail / clarity, damping / decay, and coherence/imaging—attributes particularly noticeable in the variance between single and multi-driver IEMs—cannot be fully encapsulated by frequency response charts alone.

 

While that reviewer's website can be a source of frustration for me, I find myself consulting it occasionally for its measurements, which can be informative. I'm thankful for the presence of other resources (SBAF, @GoldenOne, Danny Ritchie) in the community that also conduct equipment measurements. The less time I need to spend navigating that particular site, the better!

PS - is there a reason we're not naming the reviewer? I feel like we're talking about Voldemort and the Death Eaters here - he who shall not be named! A fun project could be assigning Harry Potter characters to folks in the Audio Industry =)

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2 hours ago, taipan254 said:

Thanks @Josh Mound for your thoughtful piece. I agree: The reviewer in question's assertive promotion of the Harman Curve as the only correct standard, and his dismissal of alternative preferences, is unethical and misleading. 


As my experience with this hobby has grown, I've found myself increasingly drawn to reviews that compare the item in question with something I already own. For instance, in the realm of headphones, I particularly value reviews that juxtapose the model being discussed with the HD6xx. This preference stems from two reasons: firstly, the HD6xx is widely owned and favored, making it a familiar benchmark for many. Secondly, its affordability means that it's accessible to a broad audience, thereby serving as a universal reference point. From there, it's up to the reviewer to make further comparisons. Similarly, when it comes to IEMs, I see the merit in having a Harman-tuned IEM in one's collection. Given the range of affordable options, this provides a baseline for understanding a particular sound signature, enabling more meaningful comparisons with others' experiences.

 

Furthermore, I believe that frequency response is not the sole determinant of quality. Factors such as detail / clarity, damping / decay, and coherence/imaging—attributes particularly noticeable in the variance between single and multi-driver IEMs—cannot be fully encapsulated by frequency response charts alone.

 

While that reviewer's website can be a source of frustration for me, I find myself consulting it occasionally for its measurements, which can be informative. I'm thankful for the presence of other resources (SBAF, @GoldenOne, Danny Ritchie) in the community that also conduct equipment measurements. The less time I need to spend navigating that particular site, the better!

PS - is there a reason we're not naming the reviewer? I feel like we're talking about Voldemort and the Death Eaters here - he who shall not be named! A fun project could be assigning Harry Potter characters to folks in the Audio Industry =)


I completely agree about common model benchmarks being valuable. I include the HD6XX in almost all of my headphone reviews for that reason.

 

The reason for not naming the reviewer is that I want to talk about the broader issues at stake, rather than get bogged down in personalities. After some thought, it seemed likely that foregrounding the reviewer would simply devolve into a debate about that reviewer, which isn’t what I wanted this article to be about. 

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I agree wholeheartedly, the HD 650 is a universal standard, and it's always useful to see it discussed in a headphone review. Because if the reviewer thinks the HD 650 is wonderful, I need to discount the rest of the review. 🙃 

 

Preferences vary so widely, and so do systems. A system can be symbiotic with any particular headphone, or work against it, even when the specs say everything is compatible. For example, an HD 650 with a Bottlehead Crack makes it almost tolerable.

 

I love my Grado GH4 and Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro (Analytical pads), which I have compared to multi-kilobuck planars and electrostatics, and found nothing to envy. But I have a couple of different headphone systems, and each headphone excels in one situation. Josh thinks Grado and Beyerdynamic are too bright. Chacun a son gout, which is why I think this was a great article. There is no universal truth in audio. 

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On 3/24/2024 at 8:19 PM, mitchco said:

Love your article Josh! Some comments if you will.

 

As @ecwl has pointed out, the equal loudness contour comes into play as folks listen at various sound pressure levels which impacts how much bass and to a certain degree, treble one is perceiving. In other words, tonal balance is affected by how loud or quiet one listens. For those that think the Harman curve is too much bass, it makes me wonder how loud folks are listening...

 

I have yet to see any measurement rig that can measure over the ear headphones beyond 6 to 7 kHz due to the measurement being swamped with internal reflections between the headphone and ear due to the (short) wavelengths involved.

 

Related to the above paragraph, I also wonder how accurate the measurements are wrt headphone positioning on the measurement rig. I don't know about others, but there is "sweet spot" when positioning headphones on ones' head and it takes some maneuvering to hit it precisely. This can have an impact not only tonal response but also soundstage.

 

As a studio mixer, perhaps the requirements are slightly different as we are trying to make tonal eq and level decisions based on what we hear. So if the speakers/room or headphones are not neutral or colored in anyway, then we are making decisions that won't "translate" across a wide range of speakers and headphones.

 

Relative to the above, I chose a different approach to measuring and eq'ing headphones. As one can see by looking at the individual headphones measurements, it is most certainly the Wild West when it comes to headphone frequency response. There have been headphones I have measured, that costs thousands of dollars but the frequency response is so bad, they can't even be eq'd. I would call them "broken" yet I have seen others verify my measurements and but seem to enjoy the sound. Sometimes one has to realize that statistically, 4% of the population have "tin ears." I wonder how many audio reviewers this applies to...

 

Here are a couple of convolution filters I developed for the AKG K371 and Sennheiser HD560S, both popular inexpensive headphones, but I would argue sound more "neutral" with the convolution filters. What I mean by neutral is that no one frequency or range of frequencies sound less of more than any other range of frequencies. Please be sure to level match if comparing to no filter ;-) Enjoy!

 

Keep up the great writings Josh!

 

Sennheiser_HD560S_neutral_filterset.zip AKG_K371_neutral_filterset.zip

 

The point about volume and equal-loudness contours is a good one. At least in this Harman study, the average playback level was set to 78 dB (b-weighted). I don't know how the level in the Harman study was measured or what that means in the context of dynamic music (especially since they were using dynamic songs like Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree" as material). But based on my attempts, that seems low.

 

I fired up "Cousin Dupree," put in my Moondropo Kato IEMs, brought the volume to a "normal" (for me) listening level, and measuriung it with both my 711 coupler and Dayton USB-C mini-microphone. I calibrated the former with an external calibrator, and the latter is calibrated by Dayton. On both, I was in the mid-to-upper 80s. When I lowered the level to 78 dB, it seemed too soft for "normal" listening, and I don't have any hearing loss (at least in the range tested by audiologists and the Etymotic home test system).

 

Now, this could all be chalked up to my measurement process and the study's being totally incompatable. (Indeed, that seems more likely than them using "my" 78 dB.) But I'd love to actually hear how loud the music is in their IEM and headphone tests.

 

EDIT: See below. I made a dumb mistake. The Harman study’s listening level seems great to me.

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I was brought here by the discussion of your article on Audio Unleashed, though I've read and enjoyed many of your BVO articles. I largely agree with them and won't recapitulate their claims other than to say that the Harman curve is science, and is the best science that we have at the moment. That's not to say that there is no room for improvement.

 

It gets hard to maintain the anonymity of the reviewer you are primarily criticizing, especially when you intersperse it with statements from another reviewer who is known to make far-reaching and categorical claims. So I'll just call the main reviewer you criticize A.

 

I think you make some valid points, and I think A comes across as high-handed at times. But I generally agree with him and also think you're a little uncharitable in your interpretations of what he's saying. In at least one case I completely disagree with your characterization here: 'He argues that those consumers’ preferences have “no value” because they “don’t have critical listening abilities” and “will buy anything that... looks nice.”'

 

He doesn't say that. When he says the argument has no value, he's responding to a particular person who argues that the Harman Curve is not scientifically validated because models that do not follow the Harman Curve are nonetheless successful (post #169). He's not saying that the consumer FR preferences have "no value." Elsewhere, he points out that other highly valued people have different FR preferences and that is fine (#593).

 

More generally, I think you do A and his website a disservice in characterizing his hurly-burly responses in forum posts as the end-all be-all of A's opinions of what headphones should sound like. He's defending his commentary and recommendations from critics. But A's broader ethos in his reviews and his overall website is that you can take his subjective impressions and opinions on how things ought to be with a grain of salt. The measurements always take center stage in A's reviews. Even when he points out that his subjective experience differs from what would typically be imputed from his measurements, he usually caveats that that's just anecdotal and you can take it or leave it. The overwhelming value in A and his reviews is his presentation of the data coupled with reasonably clear explanations of how the data should be interpreted. Whether or not he ultimately recommends a product is largely beside the point.

 

I also think there's a missing piece to this subject that warrant more consideration. The first is that hi-fi equipment generally should deliver flat response to our ears. Why is this the case? It's tautological. Hi-fi means high fidelity, the point is accurate recreation of the source. Engineers and producers want to provide a particular sound, but the only way to do that is with a consistent curve. For regular speakers, the most sensible curve is...flat. While an individual may want to tweak the sound to their preferences, this can only be accurately reproduced if the individual knows where the baseline is.

 

This works for speakers, but there's a complication with headphones and IEMs, because flat response from the transducer doesn't sound anything like flat to the user, due to the extent that intimate speaker placement bypasses the effects of room and ear shape. Everybody's ears are different, so some kind of preference-based research is necessary to find the curve that most closely approximates the flat curve that speakers in a typical room are supposed to recreate, for the most people. That's what the Harman purports to do, and I agree with the Audio Unleashed folks that it seems to do its job very well.

 

Where I probably agree with you more than A is that it's fine to have different headphones that don't adhere to Harman. EQ currently relies on exigencies that are not always available. It's particularly limited on iPhones and consoles, which account for many millions of listening hours. But really, they should make up the minority of available headphones and should be marketed to people who know how their preferences differ from Harman. A standard curve has plenty of value that goes beyond the individual listener, helping to prevent the "circle of confusion" problems that plague audio production.

 

One thing I'd like to hear more about is the effect on FR and technicalities such as soundstage and imaging. There appears to be tradeoffs, where certain dips in midrange and emphasis in treble can enhance that experience while sounding less flat. Subjectively I get more soundstage from my 6XXs by changing the FR profile to match the HD800S, though for me the tradeoff is not worth it.

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1 hour ago, shuppatsu said:

For regular speakers, the most sensible curve is...flat. While an individual may want to tweak the sound to their preferences, this can only be accurately reproduced if the individual knows where the baseline is.

 

This works for speakers, but there's a complication with headphones and IEMs, because flat response from the transducer doesn't sound anything like flat to the user

The Harman curve was originally conceived for loudspeakers, and is definitely not flat. It slopes gradually from low to high frequencies.

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9 minutes ago, audiobomber said:

The Harmon curve was originally conceived for loudspeakers, and is definitely not flat. It slopes gradually from low to high frequencies.

No. Specifically, check out page 60: "The measured frequency responses of the headphone targets correlate to and confirm listeners' descriptions of their sound quality.... The highest rated target curve in this study soon became known in the audio industry as the Harman target curve...."

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1 hour ago, shuppatsu said:

No. Specifically, check out page 60: "The measured frequency responses of the headphone targets correlate to and confirm listeners' descriptions of their sound quality.... The highest rated target curve in this study soon became known in the audio industry as the Harman target curve...."

I believe the Harman Curve was based on the work of Floyd Toole at Canada's NRC, before he joined Harman.

average-steady-state-room-curve-using-very-highly-rated-loudspeakers-as-a-guide.jpg

 

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25 minutes ago, audiobomber said:

I believe the Harman Curve was based on the work of Floyd Toole at Canada's NRC, before he joined Harman.

I'm confident that the Harman curve has always referred specifically to headphones, not loudspeakers. I'm less confident in what I had to say about how loudspeakers should be flat. It's complicated and my understanding is limited. Note that the room curve is different than the idealized anechoic on-axis curve, which is flat. When I wrote my response to Josh I was thinking we wanted it flat post-room rather than the unattainable anechoic. So there's something for me to chew on there.

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