Top Ten Audio Terms

Words You Need to Know

There’s a bag full of trick words and popular jargon used by audiophiles, people in the industry, and audio journalists. Some of these words come across as hi-tech lingo, but in the real world they are common terms which simply have special meanings to a’philes. I’ve compiled a list of the Top Ten in order of usage to help you get a better understanding of their meaning. (Ranking was determined by an informal survey of professional reviews and forum posts to compile the list. A’philes gravitate towards certain words, especially upgrade and burn-in, while pros go for the more vague terms, such as detail and accuracy, yet it’s interesting to see how pro language has weaseled its way into common use.)

The list—

  1. upgrade
  2. coherence
  3. burn-in/break-in
  4. detail
  5. musical
  6. accuracy
  7. macro/micro dynamics
  8. pace, rhythm & timing
  9. synergy
  10. timbre

Upgrade is far and away the number one overused word in the a’phile lexicon. Serious hobbyists are always looking for the next upgrade whether or not they actually have any idea what needs improvement, where their system’s weakness lies, or how much there is to gain. In light of this, upgrade simply means : to buy something more expensive. Don’t be bamboozled by advertising, price, or the latest new & improved! If the word upgrade pops up in your head, stop! Ask yourself the three most important questions, why? why? and why?

A trailing second place goes to coherence. This usually refers to the time synchrony and/or absolute phase relationship between frequencies. Time & phase incoherence has been proven by multiple studies to be inaudible in all but the most extreme cases, i.e., more than 1440° of phase shift. You gotta try really hard to get phase that far out-a-whack. If the relative phase is correct, it is, by definition, coherent. It’s possible to go on and on for pages and pages about the specifics on this subject, about how speaker manufacturers who claim to be time & phase coherent are only marginally more, and in the process sacrifice more important parameters just so they can make the specious claim of time & phase coherent, but there’s no reason to waste time on it. If you want to know more, there’s plenty of info available at your library or on the internet.

The next three terms are closely bunched together in the frequency of their misuse and meaninglessness. Burn-in/break-in is possibly one of the funniest. Shoes break-in, mechanical devices with tight tolerances break-in as the parts wear down and loosen up. As these parts continue to break down they gradually become too worn and may finally fail. Electronics do not break-in, they’re not mechanical. They do not burn-in either. They might burn up or burn out, but not in. Vacuum tubes do change gradually over time until they burn out or no longer function within specified tolerances. But why would you want to use up the up-to-specification lifespan of something by burning it in? Wires and solid state electronics do not burn-in. Capacitors have lifespans, yet their properties are relatively stable until nearing their end when they clearly fail to function up to spec. Speaker drivers are mechanical and are subject to loosening up slightly, but this process has been shown to happen within minutes or seconds, not hours or days or weeks. And in addition to this, the properties of a cone driver in an enclosure will be dominated by the compliance of the air inside the enclosure which overrides any minor changes in the driver’s own mechanical compliance. A’philes ramble on and on about how sonics improve (only improve, never get worse) with burn-in/break-in over hundreds of hours, but never, not once have any of them ever taken any measurements to validate their claims. If these changes are so audible, they are also so measurable.

Musical. This is another hilarious term when used to describe audio equipment. Lifeless electronic or mechanical materials cannot in any way be musical. Musical is a property of musicians and the music they play. The electro/mechanical reproduction of sound has nothing to do with musicality. If the term means anything it only means, it sounds like live, real, acoustic music. And that is just a lack of distortion. Although, sometimes it’s used to describe resonances (another form of distortion) that lends a kind of smoothness or euphonic quality to the sound which makes music more, as some like to put it, “musical.” How is someone using the word? Who cares. Either way the term musical ends up in the netherlands of ambiguity.

Detail (alternately revealing or resolving) seems like a perfectly valid description of getting all the information contained in the recording down to the lowest level background noises, such as musicians rustling, breathing, and faint noises from outside the studio or concert hall. This is a real attribute of low resonance/low noise floor systems, and more importantly, quiet listening rooms. The problem with the term is that it’s overused, difficult to quantify, and subject to extraneous, highly variable conditions of both objective and subjective origins. Revealing usually reveals nothing. We should be hearing everything, every detail, every nuance in every recording, if not, something is obscuring, muddling, blurring, or masking information. But this isn’t how the word is used most of the time. Most often, revealing is used to describe treble “detail,” which is typically either too much treble, a non linear treble response, and/or high levels of harmonic distortion in the upper registers. Revealing usually reveals distortion.

Accuracy. Everyone wants accurate sound reproduction. It can only mean one thing. Low distortion, and not just harmonic distortion, all types of distortion including linear, non-linear, bandwidth, resonance, and the frequently overlooked intermodulation. Often this term will be used in conjunction with time/phase coherence. Mostly, it’s not clear how it’s being used. It’s a good term but it’s too indefinite and covers too many variables to have any meaning.

Macro/micro dynamics. This is the la-di-da way to talk about the reproduction of dynamics. However, it’s a questionable usage of the prefixes macro and micro. Macro means large scale, micro means small scale. What are large and small scale dynamics? Great big or little tiny variations in volume? Nope, in this case micro is referring to very short duration dynamic event. This is called a transient. It’s misleading to use these prefixes in this context. Dynamics are measured in amplitude, not time.

Pace, rhythm and timing (a.k.a. PRaT), and fast/speed, are going to be lumped together since they are all related. These terms have to top the list of most fuzzy, hazy, nebulous words used for audio. Music has pace (tempo), rhythm (beat, syncopation), and timing (synchrony). Here is another example of conflating musical terms with audio terms. Electronics cannot have or alter the pace, rhythm or timing of music, except when a tape deck or turntable are running at the wrong speed, and even then all these properties are altered to the same degree relative to each other. Fast or speed sometimes refers to response time, but if something isn’t fast enough it won’t be able to produce the frequencies demanded of it—you won’t hear it. If a driver produces a 20 kHz frequency, the highest, fastest audible by humans, it’s as fast as it needs to be and faster can’t be heard. “Slow bass” has to do with being underdamped, having a high Q and resonance or ringing. It has nothing to do with speed.

Synergy is a powerful word. By definition it’s when the combined effect is greater than the sum of the separate effects of the parts. Another way to say it is, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It could also be seen a force multiplier, not merely the summation of forces, but the multiplication of forces. A mathematical analogy would be, 2+2+2=8 (or 2^3). When there is a truly synergistic effect, you’ll know it. It’s highly unexpected and rare. But the term is usually used as a synonym for compatible or compensatory. Compatibility isn’t remotely close to synergy. And if the flaws of one component compensates for flaws of another, well, that’s just stupid—now you have two weak links in the system.

Timbre, “timbral” [sic], and tonal are terms used to describe the unique sound of various instruments. The timbre of an instrument or voice is characterized partly by its harmonic structure, i.e., the pattern and amplitude of the harmonics produced. Accurate tonal quality or timbre is obtained if, and only if, the frequency response is flat and harmonic distortion is negligible. When timbre is right, the harmonics are right, the tonal quality is accurate, the system is linear—it’s all the same. Hmm, it’s interesting how the subject keeps coming back to the same three parameters—a) frequency/linear response, b) harmonic/intermodulation distortion, c) resonance/Q.

Bonus term : Signature, usually prefaced with sonic, as in sonic signature. All this means is the unique character of sound produced by a particular item. Well, if the sound of a component has a unique character, you can bet there are distortions, most commonly, linear deviations that will give it its special sound or sonic signature. Next most common cause of a signature sound is resonance. Either way, it’s distortion, again. Signature has been scratched and replaced. As per a previous post, the bonus term that you should stick in your brain is grain or any of its derivations. See [Granular Thought Modes].

The Top Ten audiophile words are sorely abused, misused, and useless. Save yourself the embarrassment. Remember the Top Ten Audio Terms You Need to Know and Never Use.

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