A Layman’s Guide To Audio Terminology

Bryn De Kocks | May 30, 2024 8:38 am

Audio reviews and best lists can be extremely useful for helping you compare and evaluate the performance of a speaker. However, if you’re not already an ‘audio person,’ some of the terminology used in these discussions can be confusing. Bright, muddy, and warm are all terms used to describe how a speaker sounds, but they can become more frustrating than helpful for the layperson. This guide will help you understand this terminology, allowing you to make educated decisions and understand what’s being discussed, no matter where you read it.

Sound Quality Terms

The following terms relate to how a speaker sounds.

Airy

Used to describe an open sound where most of the emphasis is towards the upper frequencies, without much bass and limited midrange.

Balanced / Neutral

Describes a sound that has the equal presence of lows, mids, and highs without a particular frequency band being emphasized. Audiophiles and those who want an accurate reference sound often seek this.

Boomy

A boomy sound implies a strong bass, typically in the lower or midrange bass frequencies. It often describes speakers with a strong bass emphasis that isn’t balanced with the midrange and treble.

Bright

Brightness refers to how the upper frequencies sound. Speakers with a bright sound tend to seem more lively. A bright sound can also affect some female vocals and high-frequency instruments, making them clearer and more present.

Clear

A clear sound lacks sonic flaws, such as separation issues and distortion. It is a positive trait that implies a well-engineered design.

Crisp

Like ‘clear,’ a crisp sound implies a lack of distortion where frequencies, particularly upper frequencies, come across as defined and detailed.

Deep

Describes the low-bass range extension. Bass can be separated into low, middle, and upper bass. A deep-sounding speaker can produce low-end bass that creates a feeling of depth.

Detailed

Refers to the nuance of frequencies the speaker reproduces. A detailed sound is one where the listener can hear the subtle details of each instrument.

Distortion

Distortion refers to a negative sound that lacks clarity. Distortion can have various causes, but the result is a speaker that doesn’t accurately reproduce the sound of the production.

Elevated

This term describes the emphasized presence of a particular frequency or frequency band. For example, a speaker with elevated bass will have its bass frequencies emphasized.

Harsh

Harshness refers to an unpleasant sound that is typically caused by distortion.

Flat

This term is used in two primary ways. The first describes a balanced sound where the bass, midrange, and treble frequencies aren’t particularly emphasized or recessed. The term is also often used to describe a speaker with a dull sound that lacks detail.

Muddy

Muddiness refers to overemphasized bass frequencies that are not correctly balanced with the midrange and treble. These low frequencies dominate the sound and don’t allow the nuance of other frequencies to shine through.

Punchy

Describes a pronounced upper bass that features a prominent but tight bass.

Recessed

The opposite of emphasized, it describes a range of frequencies that are less prominent.

Sibilance

Sibilance is an artifact of over-emphasized high frequencies that create an unpleasant hissing sound when pronouncing ‘s’ or ‘sh.’

Smooth

A smooth sound is one where the frequency ranges are well configured, creating an easy listening experience void of sibilance, muddiness, or distortion.

Spacious

A spacious sound is wide and encompassing. It’s typically achieved with good stereo imaging and soundstage.

Thumpy

Like punchy, this refers to a strong bass presence but is most often associated with a wider bass range than ‘punchy,’ which is used primarily for the upper bass frequencies.

Tight

Typically used to refer to bass response. A tight bass has a quick roll-off without lingering rumbles.

Warm

Describes a sound that slightly emphasizes the lower midrange and bass, creating a rich sound. It can be considered the inverse of a bright sound.

Wooly

Describes a sound where the bass is thin, and the midrange and high frequencies have more dominance. It is generally considered a negative term.

Speaker Component Terms

Understanding the different components of a speaker can give better insight into the benefits and drawbacks of a speaker from an engineering standpoint.

Bass Radiator

A passive design feature that helps to enhance the low frequencies.

Crossover

An electronic component within the speaker that assigns particular frequencies to the correct driver.

Drivers

Drivers refer to the speaker component that produces sound. While driver designs vary, they most commonly include a cone, voice, and magnet. Drivers are what move the air, creating the sounds that keep us grooving.

Enclosure

The enclosure of a speaker houses the drivers and various electrical components. The enclosure’s design influences the speaker’s sonic characteristics. The enclosure is sometimes called the shell.

Grille

The part of a speaker that protects the drivers from damage. The grille design varies between manufacturers and speaker models and influences its durability and ease of cleaning.

Midrange Driver

Midrange drivers (sometimes called midrange woofers) have less depth and width than a full-range woofer, most effectively reproducing frequencies in the 500 Hz-2kHz range. They are common in 3-way speaker designs where frequencies are split between various driver types.

Port

Also known as a bass reflex port, this design element helps to improve low-end frequencies by providing a direct outlet from the enclosure.

Subwoofer

A type of driver that excels at producing low bass frequencies. They are often used for home theatre setups where a deep, powerful bass is essential for an immersive experience. They are also sometimes included in Bluetooth speakers, though typically in more prominent speakers.

Tweeter

Tweeters are small drivers, a fraction of the size of most woofers. They reproduce high frequencies and are essential for adding nuance. Speakers without dedicated tweeters will often sound dull.

Voice Coil

A wire coil on the inside of the speaker that forms a part of the driver. It is a key component in converting electrical current into sound.

Woofer

A versatile speaker driver that can reproduce a broad range of frequencies but is most effective at bass and midrange reproduction.

Battery Terms

Batteries are a core component of any portable Bluetooth speaker. They influence the volume the speaker can reach, how much playtime you’ll get, and how fast they charge.

Charge Cycle

The lifetime of a battery is often measured by its charge cycle. A charge cycle is the charging and subsequent discharging of a battery. Each time you charge and discharge the battery, it’s considered one charge cycle.

Fast-Charging

A technology that allows for quicker charging, usually by using a higher voltage.

Lithium

Lithium batteries come in two main forms in current technology: lithium-ion and Lithium-Polymer. In the current age, lithium-ion batteries are considered the gold standard for Bluetooth speakers.

mAh

Short for milliampere-hour, mAh refers to the battery’s capacity. Higher mAh is associated with longer battery life.

Speaker Feature Terms

These features are found on Bluetooth speakers and some headphones. They relate to the device’s functionality.

Active Noise Cancelation (ANC)

ANC is a feature most commonly found in headphones or earbuds. It monitors ambient noise and reduces it for the listener, most commonly by producing inverted sound waves. This helps to reduce environmental noise from your listening experience.

Auracast

A new technology that’s available on some devices with Bluetooth 5.3 and newer. It allows for multiple speakers to play the same sound while connecting to a single audio source.

Auxiliary Input

A 3.5mm input jack is most commonly used on Bluetooth speakers to provide an alternative to a wireless connection.

Bass Boost

Some speakers offer this feature, which adjusts the EQ of the low frequencies, resulting in a stronger bass presence.

Bluetooth Codecs

Bluetooth codecs are different from profiles. Codecs define how the audio is delivered to the speaker. The codecs influence compression, transfer speeds, and power consumption. High quality codecs can transfer data more efficiently, allowing for a greater retention of quality and detail.

Bluetooth Version

Refers to the technology of the Bluetooth chip included in the speaker. Bluetooth is constantly being improved, and newer versions offer greater efficiency and reliability. Additionally, it can add support for new features, such as Auracast.

Bluetooth Profiles

Bluetooth profiles relate to how a Bluetooth device can be used. Some profiles revolve around microphone input and call features, while others control the audio communication between the source device and the speaker. A2DP is the most common Bluetooth profile for speakers, allowing us to stream audio from our device to our speaker.

EQ

EQ stands for equalize or equalizer. In Bluetooth speakers, EQ is most commonly a feature found on mobile apps or, less commonly, on the speaker itself. Equalizers allow the user to ‘correct’ or adjust certain ranges of frequencies to either be more emphasized or recessed. Allowing for customization or correction of the default sound.

DSP (Digital Signal Processing)

A DSP is a technology within the speaker that controls and manipulates audio signals to improve sound quality or create effects.

IP & IPX Rating

A rating that specifies a speaker’s weatherproofing. IP** ratings include dust protection, while IPX* ratings are solely related to waterproofing. In an IP rating, the first number refers to dust protection, and the second is water resistance. We have a guide on IPX ratings if you need more information.

Jacks

A term used to describe the input or output ports of a speaker.

Party Chaining

A feature that allows multiple speakers to be paired together to play the same audio as the other speakers in the chain. Depending on the manufacturer, the term has several variations, such as party pairing or group pairing.

Spatial Audio

Spatial audio is a feature that uses EQ or algorithms to create the perceived effect of improved dynamics. Effective spatial audio features utilize effective algorithms to adjust the timing or prominence of certain frequencies.

TWS (True Wireless Stereo) Pairing

TWS is a feature that allows the user to pair two speakers together and split them into a dedicated left and right channel, improving soundstage and increasing volume.

Voice Assistant

A feature that allows users to use Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri on their speaker. The types of voice assistance offered vary between models.

Technical Terms

These are slightly more technical terms that relate primarily to sound.

Bitrate

In Bluetooth audio, the bitrate is the amount of data transferred between the source file and the speaker every second. It’s presented as kbps, and files with a higher bitrate are typically higher quality than low-bitrate samples.

Decibel (dB)

A unit of volume measurement that scales logarithmically.

Dynamics

Refers to the difference between the quietest and loudest part of a recording. Better dynamics result in a more detailed sound.

Frequency Response

The frequency response of a speaker is the range of frequencies that it is able to reproduce. Speakers with a wider frequency response are able to produce more depth on the low end and more detail in the highs. The average person can hear frequencies between 20Hz and 20kHz.

Imaging

Imaging refers to how well the speaker (or headphones) can simulate the position of instruments. Better imaging results in a more lifelike listening experience, with instruments sounding better separated in their location. Speakers that produce mono audio will always have limited imaging potential compared to stereo sound.

Sensitivity

How much volume a speaker can produce when powered with 1 watt, measured at a distance of 1 meter. In conjunction with efficiency and speaker design, sensitivity influences the overall volume potential.

Mono

Single-channel audio that isn’t separated into a left and right channel.

Soundstage

The perception of distance and direction in a recording. A wide soundstage is more sought after and makes it sound like you’re surrounded by the music, while a narrow soundstage lacks depth.

SPL (Sound Pressure Level)

SPL refers to the maximum volume of a speaker measured in decibels, typically at a distance of 1 meter.

Stereo

Stereo sound is the separation of the left and right channels. Speakers with stereo sound almost always have a wider soundstage.

Wattage

A measurement of electrical power. This can refer to the input wattage (the amount of power being drawn from the wall or battery) and the output wattage (the amount of power being produced by the amplifier). More wattage does not necessarily equate to louder volume.

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Author: Bryn De Kocks

Bryn has worked in the field for several years, writing in-depth speaker reviews for various audio publications. His work has historically focused on headphones and Bluetooth speakers, while incorporating his understanding of the Bluetooth speaker market to help educate potential buyers.

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