What does flat sound like?
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bigshot

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I had a unique opportunity yesterday. A friend of mine who designs speaker systems invited me over to spend the day listening to his rig. His theory is that if you achieve a perfectly flat response, just about any kind of music you throw at a system will sound good.

I've done some work trying to achieve flat response with my system, but not to the degree he's done. He's spent the last several months perfecting the response of this particular rig, which includes horn loaded bass speakers capable of reproducing cleanly all the way down to 20 hz. He's carefully matched components on his speakers to make sure they cover the whole spectrum of sound evenly. He has an octave equalizer that he uses to fine tune frequencies one by one as he sweeps through them using a tone generator. This ensures that what you hear out of the speakers is *exactly* what is burned into the CD.

We spent all day listening to a wide variety of CDs and SACDs. I was amazed at what I heard, because it isn't what one might expect... The bass was massive, rolling out of the huge horn with perfect definition from the lowest frequencies all the up to the upper bass. It struck me how different this is from most good stereos I hear... They'll have a big, muddy low-low, but there will be a gap between that and the low mids. With a bass guitar, this can make the bass sound rumbly, but without definition. On this balanced system, it was continuous all the way through, so the pluck of the bass was connected to the low thump. The bass was LARGE... much larger than I've ever heard without turning up the bass and switching loudness on, but it was so clear and defined, all of the other frequencies cut through cleanly. If I tried to push my bass up that high it would put up a thick wall of sound that would drown everything else.

The midrange was WAY back from where one would normally hear it. At times, it sounded like the mids were too low, but then the instrumentation would change and there would be plenty of mids again. I've had a theory that the proper amount of bass or treble is the position where the sound in those frequencies can "lay back" and then enter again, rather than being a continuous rumble or hiss. I never applied this theory to mids, because I assumed most engineers would always keep the mids up front in the mix. This isn't true. Over and over again, I heard passages that had the mids weaving in and out around the bass and treble. It really changed my opinion of how mids should sound.

The high end was crisp and clear, but not overly loud... just loud enough to cut through... not so much that at high volumes the high mids and low highs make you flinch. It was a much more subtle effect than most midrange systems. (I've heard these kinds of controlled highs on top end home stereo gear though...)

While we were listening, my friend said, "Let me show you something..." He got up and turned up the volume to a VERY high volume. I could feel the bass hitting the floorboards of the house as hard as someone hitting them with a baseball bat. The sound was coming at me in gusts of air being pumped out of the horns of the speakers. I opened my mouth to talk, and even yelling, I could barely hear myself. He left it at that volume for a couple of minutes and then he ramped it back all the way to zero. He smiled at me and spoke very quietly, "Your ears don't hurt." Amazingly enough, they didn't! I had just experienced a sound bigger and louder than anything else I'd ever heard, but there was no ringing or pain. While the sound was blasting me, I didn't even flinch.

My friend explained that when you go to big arena concerts, the equalization for the room is all over the map. Some frequencies are swallowed up while others have huge spikes. When they turn up the volume to fill the hall, they use the overall sound level to judge how loud to go. Dips in key parts of the spectrum might fool the engineer into boosting the overall volume to compensate. But if there's a huge spike in the sound in a tight frequency that isn't easy to hear, an overall 70 db might be pushing that one frequency into the audience at much higher volumes... say 120 or 140 db. You might not notice the spike, but it digs into your ear and causes the ringing, pain and hearing loss. However, if the sound is balanced, you can raise the overall level MUCH higher without any problem, because what you hear is what you get.

Another interesting thing was to listen to electronic music with continuous tones that go low and then up high. He played songs that I was familiar with that had sweeps like this, and I had always heard them with diminishing and growing volume swells along with the sweeps. On his system there was no swell at all. The sweep was perfectly even. What I assumed was some sort of expressive dimuendo and crescendo combined with portamento was actually dead zones in the frequency response of my speakers!

Well, I got home and immediately started twiddling with the EQ on my system to get it closer to that sound. I'm going back for the 4th to do some more listening (and hot dogs too!)

See ya
Steve
 
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bigshot

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I forgot to tie all this into headphones, which was what I wanted to talk about!

Two things... what headphones match the sound signature I've described here? And could the fatigue level of cans relate to my friend's theory about relative volume and spikes in the frequency response curve?

See ya
Steve
 
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donunus

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Nice post... First of all, There are two ways of using the word flat when describing sound. One is the when you say the sound is flat and the other is the frequency response being flat. They are different. "Flat" sound means lacking dynamics, rhythm, sounding dull and unexciting. "Flat frequency response" however means the sound should be neutral meaning exactly what you are talking about.

First I have to comment that even if two different systems have the same frequency response measurements, they don't neccesarily sound the same and one might sound more "natural" than the other(This is why the adjectives "natural" and "neutral" are different in meaning even though a neutral frequency response is supposed to sound natural). The reason why two different systems with the same response sound different is because of the design of the speakers themselves. A horn will typically have a faster and more dynamic sound than a normal dynamic driver design making the presentation already different even though all frequencies are the same amplitude with both designs. There are many other factors like the spacing of the drivers within a cabinet, cabinet colorations and many more that change the coherence, transparency and many other aspects of the sound. You said your friends system is setup to be flat and you are trying to mimic the sound of his setup on your system using an eq... You might get good results but it is not likely to sound the same due to the different sound delay characteristics of your room and your speakers design if different from his speakers. Another thing is... you said he is using an octave eq. Thats around 10 to 12 band i think. A different eq like a 1/3 octave or 1/2 octave equalizer will also allow different levels of precision in taming dips and peaks in the sound spectrum.

Finally... In relation to your question on how all this will relate to headphones. The concept is the same as speakers but maybe a little less complicated for headphones in that they don't have room reflections to deal with and that the distance and angle from the sound to the ear is similar in all headphones. More similar than listening to different speakers from different distances at least. Headphones with the same exact frequency response will probably sound more similar in general to each other than speakers with the same responses but then again measuring the headphones response is again, a whole other ballgame. Just like Headrooms frequency response graphs are so different from stereoplays for the same exact headphone.

Personally, I do not like using eq for higher quality headphones because they are designed the way they are for a reason and they will most likely be the same sound coming from the manufacturer (not factoring source components) to the listener since there are no room factors to deal with. The disadvantages in using eq outweigh the advantages unless the headphones you have don't satisfy you at all.
 
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seeberg

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I'm not sure exactly what headphone out there has the best flatness(completely lacking of color), but the amp I believe to be regarded as the flattest is the Benchmark DAC-1, which Remilard owns. You might want to PM him to ask what he thinks.
,
Abe
 
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Andrea

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Quote:

Originally Posted by bigshot
Two things... what headphones match the sound signature I've described here? And could the fatigue level of cans relate to my friend's theory about relative volume and spikes in the frequency response curve?

See ya
Steve



Hm, you're leading me to think that "flat" must sound like Sennheiser


Sorry, I couldn't keep it in, and sorry for answering in a fanboy-like fashion instead of staying serious
 
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donunus

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Oh by the way, I dont think there are any headphones available with superflat response regardless of price. Not to cd player measurement standards anyway. With one headphone comes different compromises compared to others.
Try listening to the characteristics of some good cans like the alessandro ms2, the sony sa5000, the senheisser hd650, ultimate ears ue10pro and look at their measurement graphs to see if you will still care about the graphs or you will learn to understand why they measure that way. You can try to eq each one of them to sound exactly like each other... that would be a fun thing to do but you will probably end up with each of them set up with no eq used at all even though they all sound different.
 
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donunus

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I've read somewhere in headfi that the $4000 sony r10s are very natural sounding and that the sound doesn't feel like they are coming from drivers instead coming from thin air. Damn that description sounds good. Some people still didn't like it too much though cause it did not have enough bass for their tastes... A common thing for headphones since the skin effect(physical feeling of the air being pushed by large drivers in a room) is plainly not there.

But then again, I've never seen the measurements of the r10 or have heard it myself since i'm a lonely audiophile living in a small town in the Philippine Islands where no such high quality stuff exists in stores
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by Andrea
Hm, you're leading me to think that "flat" must sound like Sennheiser



hehehehe
 
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Something to keep in mind too, master recordings in popular music are mixed to sell CD's. The average person, unlike us or other audiophiles in general, are listening to music on car radios, boom boxes or other more inferior gear (Bose). Mixes are made to sound "good" on these mediums, so CD's sell. That's why some recordings can absolutely suck on a nice system, shame really. There's exceptions of course and it may well be that different genres don't follow this scheme. So while setting up speakers flat may seem like the ideal solution, getting them to plain sound good will probably be more rewarding
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by Xanadu777
Something to keep in mind too, master recordings in popular music are mixed to sell CD's. The average person, unlike us or other audiophiles in general, are listening to music on car radios, boom boxes or other more inferior gear (Bose). Mixes are made to sound "good" on these mediums, so CD's sell. That's why some recordings can absolutely suck on a nice system, shame really. There's exceptions of course and it may well be that different genres don't follow this scheme. So while setting up speakers flat may seem like the ideal solution, getting them to plain sound good will probably be more rewarding



EXACTLY! Thats one thing i forgot to mention in my long replies. The sound will supposedly be what the producer intended if you have a flat response but they mix for the masses sometimes and some albums just don't sound good on a neutral system. Besides, we are not even sure if their monitor speakers for mixing and mastering have flat responses


This is just one of the reasons why i don't like using eq. eqing for specific songs is time taken away from the concentration in listening to the music. This makes our audiophile disease take away from purely enjoying the music.
 
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Andrea

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Quote:

Originally Posted by donunus
EXACTLY! Thats one thing i forgot to mention in my long replies. The sound will supposedly be what the producer intended if you have a flat response but they mix for the masses sometimes and some albums just don't sound good on a neutral system. Besides, we are not even sure if their monitor speakers for mixing and mastering have flat responses



I think that the issue exists, but is strictly related to the sort of music you're listening to. In other words, you get what you deserve !!
 
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My (long-winded) take on this is that good cans have dips and spikes engineered in the FR so that they sound flat to the ears.
Similarly, good canalphones have to compensate for the fact that the (inserted) canalphone itself alters the resonant frequency of the ear canal and need engineering to compensate for this.
I have also observed that a mechanicallly engineered FR curve sounds very different to a similar curve derived from electronic EQ.
Electronic EQs can introduce phase distortion & smear & a heavy boost reduces headroom.
Headphones have a big advantage over speakers because they eliminate the room effect and typically provide a point-source image.

Over the years I have owned (amongst conventional speakers) Tannoy Little Red SRM12s,Ardens and currently use 637 Profiles as my main speakers - the point being that the dual-concentric horn-loaded tweeter design gives as-near-as-dammit a single point-source (reduced phase distortion), and despite (to some peoples ears) a prominent midrange/lack of "smoothness" they are non-fatiguing (and very Musical
)to listen to at high volume for a period of time.

WRT the "Arena" scenario, if an over-enthusiastic soundman canes the levels into clipping then those squared-off waves will be packed with upper-order harmonics, which = energy which will hurt in no time.

Personally I never ever EQ when listening, unless changing interconnects or taking the loudspeaker grills off at the weekend counts as EQing..
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by allenf
My (long-winded) take on this is that good cans have dips and spikes engineered in the FR so that they sound flat to the ears.
Similarly, good canalphones have to compensate for the fact that the (inserted) canalphone itself alters the resonant frequency of the ear canal and need engineering to compensate for this.



True, but the only problem here that keeps me skeptical is how accurate are the manufacturers take on where to put the dips and peaks for these simulations?

Without hearing the headphone, its hard to guess how it will sound by looking at the graphs with the big dips and peaks to simulate accuracy. I'm sure there are ideal Frequency responses for all headphone designs but where are they posted? Who is the authority of these curves? I would like to read more about this myself.
 
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Andrea

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I wouldn't assume that headphone designers commonly have all that control on the dips/peaks of response of their creatures... I think there's a good degree of pure chance in their (mis-)achievements.
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by donunus
True, but the only problem here that keeps me skeptical is how accurate are the manufacturers take on where to put the dips and peaks for these simulations?

Without hearing the headphone, its hard to guess how it will sound by looking at the graphs with the big dips and peaks to simulate accuracy. I'm sure there are ideal Frequency responses for all headphone designs but where are they posted? Who is the authority of these curves? I would like to read more about this myself.



That's what we are here for!

In the end we have to trust someone in the design train to be an authority - which is why my job sucks and their's doesn't..
 
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