Understanding Sound Signatures (Headphone Guide)

Sound Signatures

Sound Signatures Unveiled

What is a Sound Signature?

Sound signatures describe the characteristics of a device’s sound. The sound signature refers to how headphones drivers are tuned to amplify or reduce certain frequencies. Some headphones might have a louder bass while others might have better mid-range frequencies.  A wider range of sound signatures makes headphones appealing because they can be used for different types of music.

Why Sound Signatures are Important?

It’s unlikely that sound signatures are something you don’t know about when shopping for headphones.

So it’s easy for a pair “bad-sounding” headphones and to blame poor manufacturing to call it quits. In reality, it is often the sound profile and not the device that are bad. It is therefore important to be able to identify the distinct ‘colors’ of each sound signature in order to have the best possible listening experience.

Understanding sound frequencies is essential before you can grasp sound signatures.

How Sound Frequency Works

The sound we hear compresses the air molecules around us, causing them to vibrate. These vibrations produce a chain reaction of waves which allows sound to travel through the atmosphere, creating what is known as “soundwaves”.

Once the sound wave has reached our ears, our complex auditory systems analyze it using five characteristics: amplitude time period velocity wavelength frequency and velocity.

Frequency influences pitch and is an important factor in music perception. For more information, please visit our discussion on sound and mechanisms of the human hearing.

What is Hertz?

Hertz is the measurement of sound wave frequencies. It refers to how many waves are generated in one second. A sound that produces 20 soundwaves/second is called 20 hertz (Hz).

Packing tightly together produces more waves at higher frequencies. A phone’s shrill ringing can be measured at 2000 Hz or 2 KHz. This means that 2000 waves are being produced per second. Lower frequencies create smaller waves, but they are also more evenly spaced.

Typical Hertz Ranges

People younger than 20 can typically hear frequencies as high as 20 kHz in healthy ears. These frequencies can be divided into three categories:

  • Bass (20-250Hz), also known as “Lows,” is the lowest frequency of the audio spectrum. Bass is an important component of a music track. It adds power and ambiance to the mix.
  • Mids (250-2kHz),: This is the frequency range that includes vocals and other instruments. This range will contain the bulk of what you hear in a track.
  • Treble (22 kHz-20kHz), also known as “Highs”, is the higher frequency sound. These include instruments such as piccolos, flutes, and cymbals that add clarity to music tracks.

What is the Frequency Response Range?

First, let’s understand the frequency range of IEMs to better understand their sound signatures. The effective human listening frequency range is 20Hz to 20kHz. Almost every IEM follows this. It is possible to break this down into three parts for understanding the sound: lows (mids), highs (highs).

The range of 20Hz to 200Hz is the lowest, while the 200Hz-to-4kHz and 4kHz are considered high frequencies. The sub-bass segment and the mid-bass segments form the lower end. Sub-bass refers the frequencies between 20Hz-60Hz, while mid-bass refers the frequencies from 60Hz-200Hz.

200Hz to 500Hz are the lower midrange frequencies. 500Hz-2kHz is considered the mid-range segment. 2kHz-4kHz is the upper middle range frequency. The lower-treble frequency region is called the low-treble, while the higher frequencies (around 4kHz to 10kHz) are known as the ultra-high frequencies.

What are the Different Types of Sound Signatures?

Seven sound signatures are total. Due to the wide range of sounds available, we have included examples and clarity about the various sound signatures.

V-Shape Sound Signature

V-shape refers to a frequency response where the Bass(lower end) and Treble(high-frequencies) are elevated and the midrange is presented in a recessed manner. If an audio device has a forward bass response or treble response, and midrange instruments, such as vocals, sound distant or behind the bass and/or the treble, it has a V shape sound signature.

V-shape sound signatures are usually enjoyable to listen too. They have a strong bass response, which adds power to the music. Additionally, the treble response is elevated, which gives the audio output a sense of energy and detailed instruments. You will notice a recessed midrange response which can make the vocals seem distant to the listener and may lack intimacy.

Ideal For: Music listeners who appreciate a balanced sound.

Preferred Music: Rock, Pop and some Bollywood are the top genres.


U-Shape Sound Signature

In line, you can hear an improved version the V-shape sound. This has an enhanced bass and treble response. However, the midrange isn’t as recessed than V-Shape profiles. This makes the vocals and the acoustic instruments a little more forward, which results in a more balanced audio experience for the listener.

U-Shape is a reference-level sound response. It allows users to hear clear bass, precise midrange, and detailed highs with this tuning. This tuning gives vocals and acoustic instrument a better sound body.

Ideal for: Musicians, sound engineers, audiophiles and all music lovers who enjoy picking out different music tracks.

Preferred Music: Jazz, Rock and Classical are the best genres.


Flat or Neutral Sound Signature

Flat sound profiles can be described as audio gear where all frequencies are tuned to the same frequency. The Flat sound profile does not emphasize any one frequency region, such as bass, midrange or treble. All frequencies sound the same. This sound signature gives the audio recordings their truest response.

This sound signature allows you to hear the sound in its natural form. Or, one could say that the sound is exactly as the original recording artist intended. These tunings are great for listening to music and making music. Flat sound signature is not for everyone as it doesn’t move any particular frequency forward or down.

Ideal for: For music professionals, sound engineers and Hi-Fi enthusiasts.

Preferred Music: Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock, Folk.


Warm Sound Signature

Warm signature is an audio sound that has a punchy, high-quality bass response. It also features a smooth midrange and treble area. Warm sounding audio equipment delivers a powerful punch in the lower range.

This is why audio gears such a Cello and Bass Guitars have better details. This signature increases the tonal mass in the lower-end and sometimes even the midrange. While a warm-sounding gear may be more pleasant to the ear and comfortable to use, it can also compromise some high-frequency details.

Ideal for: Music listeners who enjoy music that is more subtle and easier on the ears.

Preferred Music: Jazz, Blues, R&B and some Rock are the most popular genres.


Dark Sound Signature

Dark signature is a type of warm sound profile, with an elevated lower-end and rolled off the top treble. This is because the treble response of the gear is very smoothened out and rolled. The bass region of the Dark sound tuning is thicker that the Warm tuning. Midrange vocals are smooth and velvety. Treble sounds a little more muted here. These gears are ideal for those with sensitive ears.

Ideal for: Best choice for those who appreciate a more deep and richer sound with less detail.

Preferred Music: Jazz, Blues, R&B, HipHop.


An Analytical or Bright Sound Signature

Bright, or analytical signature, refers to the tuning that has a predominantly neutral bass and midrange response with a high treble response. This allows instruments such as electric guitars, violins and other stringed instruments to shine with more energy.

Bright tuning provides more detail in the high-frequency area while maintaining a smooth lower end and middle range. These sound profiles are preferred by many audiophiles who enjoy listening to every nuance in the high frequencies.

Ideal for: Sound engineers, audiophiles and music professionals who love to analyze music.

Preferred Music: Classical, Rock, Jazz, Folk.


Harman-Tuned Signature Sound Signature

Scientists from Harman International developed this tuning curve in 2012, which is quite different to our regular tuning curves. Harman Tuning Curve describes the closest representation of a high quality speaker or headphones sound in an optimally treated room.

Audiophiles love this frequency tuning as it gives them the most natural sound they can achieve. This frequency tuning has a slightly higher pitch at the lower frequencies than a flat tune.

Ideal for: Music lovers who love to switch between various music genres.

Preferred Music: Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock, Folk, Pop.


What Sound Signature Do You Prefer?

People would not have different tastes in sound signatures. Some prefer more details while others like more punch or a more relaxed experience. It all depends on your preferences.

We mentioned that the V-Shaped sound profile is the best choice for manufacturers to tune their headphones. It is the most energetic, causing people to shake their heads and dance. Although neutral sounding headphones are still enjoyable to listen, they are best for listening at home and not in a noisy environment like a club.

How can You Find Your Ideal Sound Signature?

This may take some time. This will take some time for everyone.

The Gears with V-shape profiles are great for people who love to hear fun and engaging sounds. The elevated bass response and treble response is a perfect complement to fast genres like EDM, Hip-Hop and many more. If you are looking for a balanced profile, then a U-shape profile (or Harman profile) might be the best choice.

Warm signatures will appeal to people who like a strong bass that soothes their soul. If someone has sensitive ears to treble, then Dark IEMs may be more suitable. Your own experiences with multiple gears will help you decide on the sound signature that is best for you.