How Do You Evaluate Sound Quality?

How do you evaluate sound quality?


What is great sound quality to you? Is it defined by a set of measurements or by how it makes you feel? Or both? When you sit in front of a hi-fi system to listen to music, at some point you decide if the sound appeals to you and you usually form some kind of critique, or judgement about it.

Have you ever stopped to consider what are your criteria for great sound? Do you have a process that you use to decide if a particular sonic presentation is enjoyable, or is it more of an organic thing, depending on your mood and the circumstances?

A few years ago, I had an idea of what I wanted to experience from my system and it dawned on me a few days after I had attended a live concert and was telling people at work what a wonderful experience it was.

Remember the feeling you get at a live concert? That electrifying buzz of being fully present in the moment, your senses heightened, feeling the music with your body, fully absorbed with goose bumps all over… It feels like you’re part of something incredibly special and meaningful. You have a connection with all these strangers around you and a sense of euphoria.

The interesting aspect is how that euphoric feeling stays with you for days after the event and if you met someone years later who tells you they were at that concert, it almost always ignites enthusiastic conversation, a sharing of recollections and a sense of connection with that person.

I realised that I wanted a similar feeling from my hi-fi system. Realising that it won’t be exactly like a real concert, I wanted to have that euphoric feeling after a listening session. If possible, I wanted that feeling to last a few days…I wanted to feel nurtured by the experience.

If you want to build a music system that can give you that ultimate-level enjoyment, it’s a good idea to develop a practical way that you can evaluate & compare sound quality. When I’m evaluating if a particular sound works for me, I use a process of three steps. Once I get step 1 right, I move to step 2 and so forth. If I can achieve all 3 steps, I know I’m going to get great sound.

Here’s my sound quality checklist:

Step 1 – Fundamentals

1. Imaging and Soundstage

When you close your eyes and listen to a recording, do you feel that the sound is coming from the points in the room where your speakers are located? Or do you perceive that there is an area with width, height and depth similar to a theatre stage from which all the sound seems to emanate?

Is the system creating a realistic 3-dimensional sound space and is it positioning individual elements (instruments, singers) within that space? When you close your eyes, can you point to the location of the singer and musicians in the projected soundstage?

2. Frequency extension

Can you hear the high frequency elements clearly or are they rolled off? (Eg. cymbals)

Does the mid-bass feel balanced & well integrated with the mid and high frequencies?

Does the lower bass extend low enough so that you can feel it within the context of the music or is it rolled off?

Does the lower-bass sound woolly, loose, slow with lots of overhang or does it sound tight, fast, well integrated & tuneful?

3. PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing)

Does the music express its percussive, propulsive elements well? This includes drums, bass guitar and other structural aspects that are guiding the rhythm of the music. A good indicator is if your reaction has locked on the beat & rhythm of the music or if your focus has gone predominantly to the melody. Ideally, both are expressed in equal measure.

4. Tone & Timbre

Can you tell the distinct difference between sounds which have the same/similar pitch and loudness? Can you discern between the different strings in a guitar strum or two different trumpets playing at once?

Is the attack and decay of each note balanced and realistic?

Is the leading edge & trailing edge definition adequate to identify the note without being too defined which adds an artificial character to the presentation?

Does the human voice have a natural vibrato (periodic changes in the pitch of the tone)? Does it have a natural richness or is it dry?

5. Perceived location

Do you feel that you are in the first row, 10 rows back or 50 rows back? Do you like that?

Do you feel that all the details of the recording are present? Are the detail well presented, or are they over/under-emphasised?

Is there a good balance of information (analytical) and musical flow (musicality)?

Step 2 – Realism & Believability

Does it feel like the artist is appearing in front of you or like you been transported to the venue? Which do you prefer?

When you listen, does your mind relax, surrender to the music and accept it? Or does your mind go to different elements in the music that stand out or draw attention to themselves?

Does it feel like a real person singing with a real voice, throat and chest?

After listening for a while, have you gotten into the music completely, or are you acutely aware that you are listening to a hi-fi system, a facsimile of a musical event?

Step 3 – Emotion & Engagement

Is the intention of the artist being conveyed? What is the emotion of the music & is it obvious?

Is your body unconsciously reacting to the music, moving & engaging with it? Are you finding that you are unconsciously smiling, singing along or tapping your foot?

Has your mind disengaged from your previous thoughts or from the ‘here and now’ and gone on a journey with the music?

Are memories being re-kindled or emotions being triggered?

Putting all that aside for a moment, remember that you don’t always need a great sound to engage emotionally. Remember when you used to stick the old audio cassette in the car stereo years ago and sing along like there was no tomorrow? Or that broken transistor radio that somehow played music through the static? The sound quality was non-existent but it didn’t matter one bit!

That’s because the enjoyment of music transcends sound quality – it’s all in our mind. However, if you’re not always experiencing that ‘inner bliss’ state of mind where you can connect to a song in your head, having a great music system really helps you to play & explore music whenever you want in an immersive, meaningful way.

This is where having a way to evaluate sound quality really helps. I’m sure that you have your own method that works for you. Please feel free to email us and share your ideas, observations and the aspects that are important to you. Enjoy!