The Audiophile’s Guide: Sound Signatures Explained

Types of Sound Signatures for headphones and earphones

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The world of audio gear is fraught with variety. There are thousands of products to choose from, ranging from IEMs, to headphones, to audio sources, and more.

So how do you know what you like, though? Of course, the most reliable way would be to audition units for yourself, but even then, it’d be better not having to go around running back and forth at the store to try everything. 

One solid way to find your preference is through A/B testing, which is certainly better than the alternative of doing a blind purchase. Comparisons will allow you to narrow down your preferences and ultimately point you toward buying something you like. 

This can be very difficult, though, if you completely rely on your ears to tell you what “sounds good”. This is where audio know-how comes in handy. 

In this article, we’ll be talking about the different sound signatures.

What is a Sound Signature?

A sound signature is a specific way a device is tuned to either amplify or attenuate frequencies in the sound spectrum. 

Consumer headphones, for example, have a lot of bass, while something like an HD600 sounds more balanced. It’s crazy how this applies not only to headphones or IEMs but also to everything audio-related.

Sound Signatures of earphones
Source: Jumpstory

Microphones have sound signatures. DACs have sound signatures. Speakers have sound signatures. Heck, even cables have sound signatures. 

Before we can go ahead and talk about sound signatures, though, we need to talk about the frequency spectrum. 

Frequency Spectrum

The frequency spectrum consists of three sound bands: the bass, midrange, and treble. 

Yeah, I see you nodding your head at the mention of bass. We all love bass, don’t we? The bass, or low end, of the frequency spectrum ranges from 20 Hz to 300 Hz. Low vocal registers, the kickdrum, bass guitars, and other low-pitched instruments live in this area. 

The midrange, where most of everything in your music is, spans from 300 Hz to about 2 kHz. Most orchestral instruments like brass, winds, strings, and vocals reside here. 

The treble, or high frequencies, range from 2 kHz to 20 kHz. Higher-pitched registers and instruments, as well as their vocal and instrumental harmonics, are found here. 

To an extent, I feel like everyone has used EQ at some point in their lives. You’d have seen the sliders with these exact values on them. I used to mess around with EQ on my phone when I was 12 and honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. 

Knowing the frequency spectrum helps a lot. It helps you understand sound better, and it makes sure you don’t make a fool out of yourself (like me) by boosting up random points in your equalizer settings. 

Of course, this is just a quick gloss over the frequency spectrum and is in no way in-depth. This gives you some background to help you visualize as we talk about the different sound signatures. 

Types of Sound Signatures

Now, do note that sound signatures are highly subjective, as each of us has different aural anatomies, and this directly affects our perception of sound to varying degrees. There are some signatures that sound more V-shaped than they are to some people, while the majority may only perceive a mild V. 

The important thing though is that you understand the fundamental differences yourself. There’s no absolute right or wrong here as what you hear is unique to your ears

So without further ado, there are different types of sound signatures.

best noise cancelling headphones for airplane
Source: Jumpstory

1. What is a V-Shaped Sound Signature?

A V-shaped signature is perhaps the most common type out of all the sound signatures out there. It’s widely used in more consumer products because it caters to what most people would classify as fun. 

A V-shaped signature means that the bass and treble are boosted, consequently making the midrange recessed. How much of a boost there is on both ends varies per tuning. This type of signature is undoubtedly very engaging, as the bass makes for dynamics while the treble carries vocal energy to match. 

The issue with some V-shaped tunings is that the midrange sometimes gets the short end of the stick, either being clouded by the bass or being too recessed for its own good. There could also be some mid-bass bleed onto the mids, which can impart an audible “smear” on the frequency. 

Take note that there are sets that present their tuning with more of a mild V, or what’s called a “U-shaped tuning”, making the lower mids avoid sounding scooped out. This is preferable for those who like their mids more forward. 

If you like fun and high energy, then a V-shaped tuning might be your thing.

2. What a Neutral Sound Signature?

As the name may imply, this type of sound signature presents music “the way the artist intended”. There’s little to no coloration here, and what you feed it is what it’ll output. 

This signature is sought-after for its accuracy and naturalness when playing music. This is why headphones with this kind of signature are widely used in music applications like production or mastering. 

A neutral tuning may sound “boring” to some people, as it may lack the excitement and dynamics that many casual listeners tend to gravitate toward. Audiophiles, on the other hand, may prefer this kind of signature due to its accuracy in music reproduction. 

3. What s a W-Shaped Sound Signature?

A W-shaped type of tuning is one that’s akin to a V-shaped signature. From the name itself, the gap in the letter V is a peak – meaning the once-recessed midrange is now boosted. 

This type of signature is for those who like the dynamic sound of a V-shaped signature but dislike recession in the mids. This type of tuning balances out the bass emphasis, allowing instruments and voices in the upper midrange to sound more present. 

If you prefer a detail-oriented midrange section while not wanting to ditch the fun, a W-shaped sound signature might be for you.

Types of Sound Signatures - earphones
Source: Jumpstory

4. What is an L-Shaped Sound Signature?

This is perhaps the most obscure sound signature. It’s not that it’s not well-known, it’s just not that easy to find. 

A true L-shaped signature places the bass in front of the soundscape, where commonly the midrange occupies. This isn’t to be confused with the kind of bass emphasis a V-shaped signature has. The bass in an L-shape signature doesn’t infringe upon the other frequencies. 

The bass is deep and punchy while still allowing the midrange and treble to sound unsullied and remain clear. For bass heads, this signature is simply the bomb. The physicality and involvement in this type of bass response are quite addicting, making genres like EDM and Techno turn your head into a literal disco.

5. What is a Balanced Sound Signature?

A balanced signature is probably the vaguest signature. What’s balanced to other people might not sound balanced to your ears. 

A balanced signature might have boosted bass frequencies that are counteracted by a pronounced upper midrange. It may also be a reference or neutral tuning. The concept behind what makes a signature balanced is that everything sounds, well… balanced. 

It’s like two sides of a scale that’s well-matched in weight. There’s no discernible frequency where the emphasis is placed, so in a sense, every sound band is level with each other, creating that sense of balance. 

Tonality and Some Important Terms You Need to Know

Aside from the different types of sound signatures, there are other terminologies that are vital to know. These terms may help with assessing the more specific attributes in the tuning, like tonality for example.

If you’ve been on this blog for quite some time now, then you may have encountered some terms that refer to tonal characteristics. Here’s what they mean.

Headphones sound signatures
Source: Jumpstory

What is a Warm Sound Tone?

This refers to some coloration from the low end. A warm tonality is musical, imparting the midrange with lush and natural warmth. This tonality also helps in presenting more weight to the lower registers, making their playback sound full-bodied and weighty. 

What is a Cold Sound Tone?

This type of tonality is the lack or absence of any warm coloration. The midrange comes across as leaner and, in effect, somewhat sterile to other people. Those who like a more clinical sound may prefer this kind of tonality.

What is a Dark Sound Tone?

This tonality refers to a relaxed upper region. Instruments and transients come off more muted and sparkle is held back. Those who are treble-sensitive may prefer this while those who are drawn to more extension will be left wanting more. 

What is a Bright Sound Tone?

This is a treble head’s haven. This type of tonality is analytical and vibrant in the upper region. Vocals and instruments are imbued with a sheen of energy and brightness, presenting sound as lively, snappy, and with a lot of pang and splash. People who like their vocals and instrumentation forward with their genres might prefer this kind of tonality. 

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide has given you some insight into the different types of sound signatures. It becomes woozy when it comes to picking audio gear just basing off of what you hear. 

Luckily, there’s now an array of measurement databases like In-Ear Fidelity and resources like Squiglink to access thousands of measurements, allowing you to analyze the graphs of specific headgear you’re eyeing. That’s if you’re doing a blind buy though. Auditioning units is still the most reliable way if you’re able. 

If you have some questions, fire away in the comments below and I’ll be happy to answer them!

Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)

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