Audiolingo can be very confusing. People can mean different things when they talk about musicality and the same goes for many more audiophile words to describe how a component sounds.
Terms like analytical, musical, fast, warm etc, what do they mean? Or, more to the point, what do I mean by them?
People can mean different things even though they use the same vocabulaire when describing the sound of a given component. This is because audiolingo, the terms with which we metaphorically describe what we hear, much like how people describe wine, is relatively relative. Okay, that doesn’t help you one bit. I know. But still, like in the wine business, if you grow accustomed to the lingo and talk with many people about it, you wind up using more or less the same terms.
In this article I want to present you with a list that contains the terms that I use most in my reviews to describe the sound of components. My lingo stems from a compilation of everything I heard or read over a very long period. As such, I feel that it is pretty universal, but nevertheless I sometimes receive mails from people who like a more sharply delineated explanation of what I mean exactly by certain terms. So here is the list.
The ability to finely resolve even minute details; reproducing exactly what’s on the recording. As such, accuracy needn’t be the same as musicality. In its most extreme form, accuracy can lead to what I call clinicality, in which it is all technically very good, but somehow the emotion is missing.
Originally and factually this refers to the absence of any digital processing, ie the recording is usually made on tape and playback is usually from LP. Lately, I’ve also used the term to describe digital gear as coming close to the analogue ideal. Basically this refers mostly to the treble which, in digital, can lack air, be dry and grainy. If the highs are extended, airy, fluid and finely resolved, I feel that the recording is closer to what good analogue is capable of. Of course there are other factors as well to make for an analogue feel besides the treble, such as a rich tonality and the ability to portray both dynamic, fast-transient behaviour and still have excellent fluidity and long decays at the same time. This is usually very difficult for digital. Digital can be fast and dynamic or it can be smooth and relaxing but being both simultaneously is much more difficult to achieve. The term Analogue is often likened to another often misused term: Tube-like. Both can be used to refer to a warm, smooth, thick and relaxed sound but analog nor tube need sound like these stereotypical descriptors.
The opposite of tame; the sound really barks at you in an unrestrained manner. It leaps from the speakers and grabs you by the throat and sounds angry while doing it. Some people like this kind of sound and find it more exiting and this kind of exaggeration can actually work better with (hard) rock than a super-clean sound would.
The property of equipment to make even tiny differences in software or cables audible, need not be negative but can also be used in a negative way, see Clinical
Related to dynamics, edyness, agression and transients. Having lots of attack means that the sound is dynamic and transients are very sharply delineated and/or tight. Having lots of attack can also lead to a perceived dry or “digital” sound.
A term that I avoid to use. It is used to indicate that a recording of piece of equipment is better than stock mass-produced components due to extra attention to various steps of production. Usually for components this means that they are tweaked and/or use higher grade materials and components.
Like when you are in a high tech infermary: it is all very clean and technically trustworthy but not very cozy. Clinical is like an increased kind of analytical.
It is the equivalent of a sauce with lots of butter in it, or the richness in milk chocolate. In other words, it indicates that the sound is rich and anything but dry. Having a heavy dose of creamyness often also implies that the sound may be less than ultra-dynamic.
The extended finer reverb, echoes and wooshes that follow the initial transients. In digital, there is a tendency to cut off decaying notes too early. Analog is typically much better at this although you could also accuse tape of adding extra decay and or ambiance due to hysteresis and other artefacts. But in my opinion you can better have too much than too little.
Lively, the opposite of dull. Officially it is used to describe the difference between the softest sound and the loudest one. The larger the difference, the greater the dynamics. But many people don’t perceive it like this. For example, when a CD is produced with a lot of compression it sounds very loud and dynamic while in fact the dynamic range is greatly reduced because all the sounds are played back within a couple of dB’s.
Indicates that the sound has extra sharpness and is not rounded or pleasant. It can also give the impression of attack, which can actually work to produce a more impressive sound with some kinds of music.
This term is used to indicate that the sound is pleasant, enjoyable and speaks to the heart and/or makes the foot tap. It is not neccesarily, but can be, technically very accurate. I prefer to use this term to the term “Musical”.
The opposite of fuzzy. It refers to the images inside the soundstage being sharply delineated. You can clearly see the various instruments and singers in their relative positions in the soundstage.
Fluidity is analogous to water. It runs freely and this is how you can project it onto sound: free flowing, ie not strict, dry or over-controlled. Fluidity is often likened to analog or tube sound.
The opposite of focused. it refers to the soundstage being somewhat cloudy, individual instruments and singers are overlapping and/or indistinct. Fuzzy is not the same as liquid although it can appears as such at first.
Usually applies to tweeters sounding as if they’re made from glass: edgy, hard or metallic. Interestingly, diamond tweeters usually do not sound glassy at all, so this is an interesting metaphor.
Indicates that the sound is somewhat square, edgy or shouty, not relaxed or rounded. It can also give the impression of extra dynamics at the expense of fine datail, but depending on circumstances and taste need not be unpleasant.
This is a difficult one as it can be interpreted in various ways and it is a term that I try not to use. It is used to indicate that the sound is pleasant, enjoyable and speaks to the heart and/or makes the foot tap. It is not neccesarily, but can be, technically very accurate. A term that I prefer to use to describe this is Emotional Appeal.
This stands for Pace Rhythm And Timing. Oft-used by English reviewers but more and more by me, as well. What it means is that the piece of equipment in question is capable of injecting a “I cannot sit stil and must move my feet” kind if feeling. Roughly speaking it refers to speed and dynamics. PRAT only refers to the rhythm aspect of sound, not to other audiophile aspects. As such a component with excellent PRAT as well as lots of Emotional Appeal can still fail to resolve fine detail or image precisely.
The opposite of coarse or edgy. Imagine digital as having steps. The more steps, the higher the resolution is. It is also more refined. But there is more to this term. It also points to a certain well-behaved, more gentle manner of musical portrayal. Refinement ties in with a higher (perceived) resolution but also ties in with gentler decays, as opposed to abrupt start-stop behavior. Refinement is what classic Jeff Rowland and Spectral gear have in abundance but classic Bryston gear not so much. An electrostatic speaker is usually highly refined, a PA speaker usually not at all. An overly refined component may not have the best attack or dynamics, and in extreme cases can lack some emotional appeal, although by this time we would end up at the term “Restrained”.
Used to indicate a lack of transient attack or sharpness, or, put more accurately, a lack of dynamic expression. A dynamically restrained sounding component may still have good transient sharpness but less of a sense of attack and the final peaks of transients can seem to be topped off, as if a limiter is used. A sense of restraint can also occur when a component does not have good PRAT, sounding like a metronome, unable to slow down and speed up as the music requires.
Refers to the transients, ie the initial start of any sound. When they are sharp, the sound is perceived as quick and dynamic; when they are rounded, the music is more relaxed/laidback and often perceived less dynamic.
Not neccesarily very dynamic but it can still be. Smooth means that there are no hard edges, the sound is ear-friendly and free-flowing, reminiscent of stereotypical (but wrongly used) analog or (even more wrongly used) typical tube sound.
The phantom “image” between and surrounding the speakers. It is an illusion created in our brain that makes us hear the recorded or created space in which the musicians all have their own place from left to right and from front to back.
Difficult to describe but easy to hear, although I’ve never read about it in other magazines. I use the term to indicate that the sound does not come across as being real but rather like it was synthesized. It is best explained using a cheap Sony CD player and a Wadia CD player in a comparison. The Sony may have excellent detail retrieval as well as sounding open and uncoloured, yet to me it sounds artificial compared to the Wadia which sounds much more sonorous, solid and physical, in a word more real. It is important to note that this term may lose some of its meaning when used with speakers that some character of their own, which is typically true of many cabinet speakers. Contrary to the dipole speakers that I use, such speakers inject their own character into the sound, covering up the synthetic aspect of the component.
This term can be used to refer to a warm, smooth, thick and relaxed sound but it is important to note that tubes can sound lightning fast and very dynamic too, they certainly need not always sound typically rich. Much depends on the tube type, the implementation and the output transformers, or lack thereof.
The peaks of sounds. When a sound starts, it builds up from silence into its peak. The quicker this happens, the sharper the transient and the more dynamic and lively the music is perceived. You can also have overly sharp transients, this can result in dryness and less fluidity. The other opposite is that transients are rounded off.
The opposite of cold: enveloping, easy, smooth, cosy, often at the exclusion of clinicality and potentially also displaying less resolution, but not necessarily.