Differences in preference, tuning, a little bit on my ‘bias’, and how to interpret reviews.
In my upcoming review series I will be judging iems on the following categories: bass, midrange, treble, tonality, separation, resolution, imaging, and soundstage. Many of these categories are interrelated. For instance, tonality depends on the balance within the signature, while separation depends on resolution, soundstage dimensions, but also treble for instance. I’m judging based on these categories because I personally find them the most important to provide a complete picture of an iem’s performance; they are the key blocks to build a sound so to speak. Whether or not you actively judge them as a listener, they will determine how you experience the music. For instance, precisely determining resolution requires some experience, but for every listener a higher resolution will sound more natural, more precise. But at the same time, it’s also important to acknowledge that not everybody enjoys the music the same way, and more specifically, as I do. For instance, the fact that I personally value separation and resolution does not mean that holds for every listener.
Therefore, I’d like to discuss what I consider two different philosophies in tuning and listening, as well as my personal views and preference on the matter, and why this is important for the reader. After this I will discuss interesting constructs like ‘naturalness’, ‘reference’, or what can be considered truly neutral. I hope everybody understands I’m not presenting this as fact; this is just one way of seeing it, and there is no right and wrong.
“Music lovers vs. Audiophile”
It’s common knowledge for manufacturers that the average listener will prefer a V-shaped signature. This is primarily because bass determines the energy and rhythm of music, and its presence (or absence) is one of the easiest discernible aspects within a presentation. Treble on the other hand plays an important role for clarity and detail retrieval. An enhanced treble usually leads to the perception of finer detail, as well as a brighter upper midrange that brings instruments more to the foreground. While the midrange is arguably one of the most important components of the music, it is ironically also more vague to decipher, resulting in relatively less prominence when it comes to common priorities. The next aspect we all grow to love when we first stumble upon the world of high-end audio, is soundstage width. A wide soundstage opens up the music, and makes it easier to discern the key features of a musical presentation, e.g. the center vocal flanked by guitars on either side. In sum, bass, treble and a wide soundstage tend to be the priorities of the general music listening population; what I would call a ‘music lovers’ approach. Naturally, this is also reflected in the tuning choice of manufacturers.
When you move higher in to the world of high-end audio, an accurate or faithful representation of the music becomes more important. The focus shifts from the more apparent elements of the music, to abstracter components that determine the realism: resolution, transparency, and tonal accuracy or naturalness. Higher resolution is a different way of reproducing detail in the music than a brighter signature, because it not only creates a more natural sound through realism, but allows for an accurate timbre. To understand this relationship between price and signature, we also have to take a look at the target market. Consumers using cheap equipment might use this for sports activities or commuting to work. Increasing resolution and transparency is a costly procedure. The people that can afford the most expensive equipment (especially when it comes to the more expensive speaker systems) will more often than not be successful, middle-aged businessmen that listen to jazz and classical music; genres that rely heavily on the accurate reproduction of instrument’s timbre. An example would be the world’s most expensive headphone dac/amp system that I demoed at Canjam, the $155K MSB system connected to a Stax headphone; a highly transparent and accurate system that brings the best out of classical music, but won’t necessarily be the best suited for pop or rock music.
When it comes to soundstage, depth becomes more important than width. If you listen to a classical symphony or generally more complex piece, the collection of instruments can easily number 15 or more. To understand why depth is important, try to imagine a roster where every instrument takes up 1 square. Now if your stage has a 8 X 2 dimension (a very wide stage), the center instruments (or vocal) and primary instruments on the flanks will be easily discernible. But the second and third row of instruments will get cramped in space, and obscured by the first row, which usually consist of the larger and more prominent instruments (like guitars in a band). So, if you instead have a 5 X 5 stage (a box-shaped stage), the first row of instruments will be positioned closer, but the less prominent instruments or finer detail will have more space, opening up the complete picture. At the same time, we can see that despite the stage appearing smaller due to reduced width (8 vs 5), there is actually more space with the deeper stage (16 vs 25 in this example). The depth simply multiplies the initial space of the width, and this can be quite directly related to an iem’s stage and accordingly, its separation. In addition, while the role of height is less prominent, it does have a role in making the layering more effortless by making the stage more spacious. To make matters even more complex, if you would create an exceptionally large stage (in this example, 8 X 8 X 8) but the average note size would not increase accordingly, it would be more difficult to follow the complete presentation; the combination of all the different elements. So don’t get me wrong, I love a wide stage as much as the next person. But a perfect stage is hard to determine, and goes beyond width. In sum, a focus on resolution, separation resulting from stage dimensions, and tonal accuracy (timbre) can be considered an ‘audiophile’ tuning philosophy.
How I judge, and each individual listener should interpret
The reason I mention this is not just for an entertaining read, but because it is important to understand that how I judge iems will not directly be related to how everyone hears music. In the end, every listener hears music differently of course. So if you give 10 people the same 10 iems to rank, you’ll most likely get 10 different lists back. If you take away the scores of resolution, imaging and tonality, you’ll probably get a very different list that might suit one group better. A basshead might prioritize the scores of bass and soundstage dimensions for instance, while listeners of classical might value separation and tonality. So while I would argue that the technical characteristics are objective traits that I try to score as accurately as possible, in a way, you could say that the combined score is actually ‘my bias’ as a listener, and won’t necessarily be the reader’s.
My preference for music and signatures
With respect to the shootout, I occasionally get asked what type of signature I prefer when it comes to iems. This is a very logical and important question, since it has a fundamental effect on how you hear and judge iems. Naturally, this is also strongly related to what I previously wrote about the ‘music lover vs audiophile’ views of tuning and listening to music, which understandably might seem like a semi-disguised bias against the ‘music lover’ approach, in favor of a more ‘refined’ audiophile approach. But this actually isn’t the case. I listen to roughly to 35% rock in all forms (experimental, contemporary, blues, alternative, etc.; but not metal), 35% easy listening (vocals, oldies, singer/songwriter) and 30% electronic music (minimal, melodious EDM, trance, hardcore; but nothing too dark/alternative) as well as pop music and some occasional R&B and hip hop.
The reason that I mention this, is that the distinction between rock and easy listening vs. electronic music and pop makes me very flexible when it comes to preference. I prefer a full-bodied, midcentric tuning for instrument-based music. But I equally enjoy a bright V-shaped signature for synthetic music like electronic or pop music. For this reason I can enjoy a controlled and delicate bass presentation, while I also value a punchy, enhanced bass. Similarly I don’t necessarily mind if a midrange is leaner, or an upper midrange either tonally accurate or brighter. For electronic music for instance I always use cables that artificially brighten the upper midrange to make melodies ‘pop’. At the same time, I don’t really listen to jazz or classical music myself, only to analyse signatures. So the score of ‘tonality’ is actually not so important to me for my own preference, but I include it because I acknowledge its general importance beyond my own bias. An example would be the NT6pro, commonly known as a bright iem. Accordingly, its tone is not very accurate, but I enjoy it very much.
Due to my choice of music, I don’t have a preference for a certain signature. I also don’t follow the ‘audiophile’ or ‘music lover’ philosophies; rather, my taste is a hybrid of both depending on the music. In a way I feel this is a blessing, as it allows me to enjoy a wide range of iems, daps and cables – if it doesn’t work for one type of music, it will almost always work for the other. But at the same time, I am self-conscious that if I were to only listen to one of the genres, I probably would be more selective with certain equipment. It’s up to the reader to be aware of their preference. For this reason, the content of the review will be more important than the scoring.
Finally, I would also like to mention that I don’t categorize iems this way; every TOTL iem always consists of a mixture of different aspects that can be viewed in one way or the other. This just relates to how different people listen to iems, and that each choice of tuning always has an advantage as well as disadvantage – something I see in almost every iem.